I was recently asked by the editor of a theological / ecclesiological journal to answer a couple of questions related to the ways our church responded to the COVID pandemic. He is in the process of dedicating the upcoming issue of his journal to reflections regarding COVID and he’s gathering input from a variety of church leaders. His questions to me dealt specifically with the problems encountered and the lessons learned during the lockdowns of the Spring of 2020 and the re-opening of churches in the early Summer 2020. I was the Senior Minister at Central Church of Christ during that time, so my answers to him were about what we were doing in Amarillo.
I’m going to post my answer to his questions in this space today and tomorrow and then expound on them a bit more near the end of the week. Once his article and journal are published, I’ll link you to it from this blog and we can further discuss this important topic.
What were the greatest challenges for your congregation to navigate during COVID lockdowns?
We experienced what a lot of church leaders encountered in the polarization of our congregation over the wearing of masks and other mitigation techniques. We, like most elders and ministers, found ourselves in a lose-lose situation: some of our members refused to come to church unless we mandated masks and others vowed not to come if we did. We told our church we were making our decisions based on the science and the medical recommendations but, in reality, we were making our calls based on our own gut feelings and the current mood of the church and our community. The longer the pandemic conditions continued, the more our shepherds relied on the culture instead of the science, and the church became a place that mirrored the inconsistencies and fostered the same mistrust as people were suffering in society.
A challenge I wrestled with personally – this is still a challenge for us to navigate faithfully as church leaders – is the dilemma between telling people to stay home for the sake of their health and asking them to worship with their church family in person for the sake of their souls. We made it really convenient for Christians to “attend church” from the privacy of their own homes, so much so that church became the last place some people would go. We worked hard to purchase additional cameras, add more lights and microphones, and pre-record communion thoughts and announcements so the livestreamed version of church rivaled most any other option. We did it so well, a lot of our folks felt no need to leave their homes. I had one older gentleman, a former elder, tell me he and his wife would probably never come back into the building. “We can turn up the volume to exactly the right level,” he told me. “We can rewind the video when we miss something, we can start it from the beginning if we accidentally sleep in; it’s too easy and nice to just do church from the house!”
I began seeing people out at restaurants and grocery stores who had told me they weren’t coming to church because of COVID. My wife and I attended a Saturday night July 4th dinner and fireworks show with about twenty people from our church. We were all eating at the same tables, sharing the same food, talking loudly and laughing with each other in tight quarters. But at least half of those people told me they would be doing church from home the next morning because of COVID.
Had we turned church into something you could do just as well watching a screen from home as participating in a pew in a sanctuary? It must go further back, to our teachings and our experiences together at church. Why do our people not view the Sunday assembly as uniquely transformative for their lives? Why do they not crave the physical presence of God’s people together in God’s presence around his table? Why do they not miss the inspiration and the transformation, the sheer glory of worshiping God and responding to his movement among his people? Have they not heard anything I’ve said in here for the past ten years?
It’s one of three things. Either the culture of individuality, personal preference, and convenience in our society is too strong and overpowers anything I say about the sacramental importance of the worship assembly. Or I haven’t communicated it very well. Or our people have not experienced much transformation in church.
Probably all three.