It’s been almost three months since the congregation of my church gathered together in our sanctuary. We are grieving this because for so many of us, church buildings hold immense meaning.
They are place where we celebrated weddings, the baptisms of our children, and the funerals of our loved ones. They are the sacred spaces we are eager to return to, but during this time of COVID-19 it is a deeply faithful thing to stay at home right now. While I realize they are not in agreement with the majority of religious leaders, there have been some highly publicized pastors and politicians calling for us to reopen churches and return to crowded sanctuaries immediately.
Even with the most careful precautions, the data shows us that if we begin to gather together for in-person worship now, we will be needlessly putting people at risk of illness and death. If churches were able to put in place (and somehow enforce) policies that prevented singing, handshakes and hugs, the sharing of offering plates, microphones, hymnals, Bibles, and communion elements, the best information we have right now tells us that the prolonged presence of so many people in one room is dangerous until there is a vaccine or widespread immunity.
Some have compared the mandated closure of churches to big box stores being allowed to open, remarking that such a large number of people are allowed to be shopping — why not worshipping?
First of all, people are not gathering in one area of a big box store together for an hour to socialize and sing. They are moving quickly to purchase needed items and returning to their homes as soon as possible.
Secondly, anytime churches start comparing ourselves to secular organizations we’re going to look foolish. Big box stores do not have a moral obligation to care for their people: their primary motive is profit. Churches on the other hand, have as our primary motive sharing the love of God.
If you are not persuaded by the argument that we are actually showing love for neighbor by staying at home, or by the argument that by worshiping God online we are actually reaching even more people than before, Holy scripture has a few things to say in response.
There are so many passages on this topic but here is just one: In the book of the prophet Amos, when the nation of Israel refused to follow God’s commands in caring for their people, God said in chapter 5, "21 I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. 23 Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Amos reminds us that what matters isn’t the worship service – what matters is living in a way that shows love for God and God’s creation: our fellow human beings.
What I am begging of my fellow Christians is that we pray and listen to the word of the Lord before we listen to the campaign tactics of pandering politicians.
It is easy to tell people what they want to hear and to tell us to return to the church buildings that we are longing to get back to, but it is real leadership to dwell with people in a hard truth. Staying home until it is safe, while continuing to worship God and share the good news of God’s love, will save lives in more ways than one.
Rev. Violet Johnicker is the pastor of Brooke Road United Methodist Church in Rockford. Twitter: @violetj; Email: email@example.com; 10 a.m. Sunday services online or by phone at 312-626-6799, when prompted enter code 810-0983-5011.