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Last Friday, President Donald Trump called a hasty news conference to make an announcement about houses of worship in the U.S. Despite the status of the coronavirus pandemic — the U.S. has experienced 100,000 COVID-19 related deaths, and the pandemic is on the increase in certain sections of the country — Trump deemed churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of faith “essential” and instructed state governors to immediately allow them to meet.
“If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” Trump said. “In America, we need more prayer, not less.”
Not too many Americans — and probably no Christians! — would disagree with Trump’s last statement, but public opinion is mixed on the rest of his speech. In over half the states, churches are already allowed to meet in person as long as social distancing guidelines are observed, but most Americans are still wary of attending. Earlier this month, the Center for Public Affairs found that 48 percent of Americans still don’t think religious services should be allowed, and 42 percent think they should be allowed with a few restrictions. Among Americans of faith, the numbers aren’t much different: 45 percent think that religious services should remain virtual for the time being. The Barna Group found that 70 percent of American pastors don’t expect to resume in-person services until at least June. Now June (or even July or August or September) when many universities will be reopening is right around the corner, so we aren’t talking about forever—we are all just talking about whether opening immediately is the right answer.
At its core, the President’s speech reveals he doesn’t know how faith really works. Bottom line, “Church” isn’t about a building or a weekly service.
If that is your understanding of Church, it’s easy to see why a full-scale re-opening would be the top priority. If church services are batteries for spiritual life, then spiritual life can’t go far without them.
To be fair, that’s not entirely wrong.
Going to church is a deeply meaningful experience for people of faith. Preaching and singing can be replicated over Zoom to a degree, but there’s a lot more to being in a community of faith than preaching and singing. There are relationships. Opportunities to serve. Opportunities to be served. The Church is fundamentally a community, and that’s not something that ever quite feels the same over a screen. We miss going to church because we miss loving and being loved by others in that beautiful, close, incarnational way.
That’s the rub. For the short term — some weeks or perhaps months — the most concrete, beautiful, loving thing many of us can do for each other is continue to observe reasonable social distancing guidelines. Healthcare professionals remain deeply concerned about the state of the coronavirus in the U.S., and the chance for re-igniting the contagion remains very real. COVID-19 isn’t done with us yet and until it is, in many parts of the country and world, maintaining a safe distance, avoiding large gatherings and wearing masks in public are important for protecting the safety and wellbeing of our neighbors.
Jesus said loving your neighbor as yourself is the greatest commandment after loving God. That’s why we need to differentiate between going to Church and being the Church.
Going to church means you get to see people you love and enjoy some in-person teaching and singing, but it also might mean that you pass the coronavirus to other people in your church community. The alternative means keeping your distance, continuing to watch your pastor on Zoom and awkwardly singing “Oceans” by yourself. However, if you are alive in faith and hope, in that moment you really are being the Church. You’re taking part in an ancient and beautiful legacy of loving society’s most vulnerable and marginalized by protecting them from the spread of a dangerous virus.
Some people are concerned about the exercise of our freedom of religion, and whether these social distancing guidelines are testing Constitutional guardrails. That’s fair. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is the great line often attributed to Thomas Jefferson (probably apocryphally, but the line is great whoever said it first). A crisis certainly provides any government an opportunity for overreach and Americans should pay close attention to the laws being enacted right now. But insofar as there are any such real concerns, is the best course of resistance defying the advice of medical experts and risking the safety of others around us? Is taking to the streets, endangering people who did not consent to be endangered, really the most proportionate exercise of liberty?
No. As Trump said, “we need more prayer, not less.” So let’s pray. For wisdom for our political and spiritual leaders, that they’ll navigate unprecedented and enormously complex times with wisdom and courage. For our houses of worship, that the people in our local religious communities will have patience for the days and weeks ahead. And for ourselves, that God will show us all the right course of action.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus predicts that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Loving one another is the Church’s calling card and the one way people know the Church is really being the Church. And right now, love will often mean keeping a safe distance.
There’s no doubt that people of faith are looking forward to meeting in-person again— that is going to be a very special day! And when that day comes, let’s make sure that the legacy of the Church in the time of the pandemic isn’t about how we imprudently protected our own liberties, but rather about how well we loved each other in this time. That, more than anything else, will prove just how essential the Church really is to the spiritual health of America.