As you may have seen, on Friday, May 22nd, President Trump declared that churches and other houses of worship are essential and encouraged them to reopen for worship gatherings. At the same time, Minnesota Governor Walz has limited church gatherings to 10 or under. At this point, Central will continue our pattern of online worship and not hold in-person worship services in the near future. The Board will continue to monitor guidelines and assess Central’s ability to hold services safely, but we feel that for now it is best to continue with services online. I want to outline my thoughts on this decision and the rational for not yet regathering for worship services.
1. Civil Rights?
As a pastor who is committed to the church’s proclamation of the Gospel, and who believes it is essential that the church not bow the knee to Caesar, I don’t believe that the governor’s guidance of limiting houses of worship to under 10 is a violation of civil rights, nor is it an attempt to silence churches. I don’t believe that we are in a situation in which we are being asked to compromise the Gospel. To make this an issue of civil rights is, in my view, a mistake. To make this an issue of government coercion that is seeking to silence the church would also be a mistake. As such, I want to be clear that I am not viewing this decision through the lens of civil rights or compromise.
2. Why are stores allowed to be open but not churches?
Many are asking: Why can stores be open but not churches? On the surface, this can feel like a contradiction, a favoring of retail over worship. However, I don’t believe this is the case. When we go to shop, we are moving around the store and are able more easily to maintain social distance. We go in, get what we need, and leave. However, the church gathering is inherently different. When we gather, we do so in a smaller, more confined space, for a longer period of time, factors that, according to infectious disease experts, heighten the risk of spreading the virus. We have limited facilities for restroom usage. We would be unable to accommodate children’s Sunday school given the guidance on social distancing. We have a many factors that retail stores and other public facilities don’t, factors that make us more vulnerable to be a place where the risk of spreading coronavirus is higher than in many other situations. We have seen numerous accounts of churches being conduits of a “superspreader” event, in which one person infects many. Before we will regather for worship services, we want to be confident that we’ve done all we can to minimize such a possibility occurring at Central.
3. Local conditions
As of now, the cases of coronavirus continue to grow in Minnesota, with the peak predicted to occur later this summer. As such, we are not in an area that is on the other side of the outbreak. The conditions that would enable us to regather in worship services, which may exist in other parts of the country, don’t yet exist in Minnesota. Keeping our eye on these patterns is an important aspect of our decision-making regarding when to regather.
4. Church demographics
The larger number of people who are part of our Central family who are in the vulnerable category means that we have the responsibility to be sure we are prepared for regathering. While people can make their own decisions about whether to come or not, ultimately the leadership is responsible for what happens in our facility. While we have plans in place for cleaning and distancing, we don’t yet feel it is the right time to regather.
So, how long until we regather?
We don’t have a clear answer to this question at this point. The church leadership will continue to monitor the CDC guidelines for worship gatherings as well as local factors, will listen to a variety of health and civic leaders, and will communicate with you our thinking regarding regathering for in-person worship services as our plans develop. We have various contingency plans in place for allowing smaller gatherings to take place in the building and have allowed the staff to have access to their offices as needed, even while being encouraged to continue to work from home. As with everything these days, we hold our plans loosely.
A Word on Church Unity
Inevitably, different churches will make different decisions about when to regather for worship services, based on many different factors inherent in those churches, including location, demographics, building layout, prevalence of cases in the area, etc. I don’t believe that this is a one-size-fits-all decision, and I don’t believe that the Gospel is at stake in this decision. As such, I don’t believe that churches that make one decision are in violation of the Gospel and churches that make another decision are not.
Unfortunately, the unity of the church in the United States is already in a very precarious situation. The coronavirus has opened up larger fault lines in the United States, and has revealed, once again, that the Church in America has been captured by the dynamics of our broader culture that lead to disunity; the church is as politicized as any other aspect of American life, having wedded itself to the ideals and visions of political parties. Though social media will predictably continue to be a platform of accusation and condemnation coming from both sides of this decision, such an attitude is not to be ours as followers of Christ. Instead, we are to do all that we can to maintain the spirit of unity and the bond of peace, and to love one another with the love and grace that is ours in Christ.
As a pastor, my primary concern is for spiritual health of the Body of Christ, and so I will not stand in judgment regarding the decisions that other churches make, nor will I castigate others who have a different viewpoint than I do. I don’t believe that the Gospel is at stake in this decision, nor do I believe that this is something that should divide the Church. Our witness to Christ is so precious, and yet so frail, that we must do all that we can, as followers of Jesus, to maintain our witness to Christ by loving one another and overflowing with grace.
I am aware that some within our Central family will agree with this decision while others will not. I would ask for your grace and understanding as the Board and staff continue to lead in these unprecedented times.