I am having a difficult time understanding the Christian community as it responds to the Coronavirus pandemic we are currently struggling with.
I know of several congregations near me who are worshiping in-person with little or no regard for guidelines from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) or the Pennsylvania Department of Health. This includes five congregations within my denomination, the Church of the Brethren (CoB), located within five miles of my house. I do not get it.
Of these five Brethren congregations, I know that four of them are conducting services with very minimal safeguards in place. I do not have information on the fifth congregation. None of the four I know of require face masks in worship, and from what I have seen by watching their online videos very few worshipers, if any, choose to wear a mask. They all engage in congregational singing. And while social distancing is encouraged it does not appear to be practiced very carefully.
One pastor I know announces at the beginning of his service that people should feel free to remove their masks. At least one congregation has placed a limit on how many people are permitted to worship together in their various services. Beyond this, however, it is not clear as to what these churches require. Knowing this, I have to wonder how much attention is given to safety precautions such as sanitizing the restrooms, pews, doors and handrails; making sure an adequate supply of hand sanitizer is readily available and visible; restrictions on physical contact; and a host of other things.
Many pastors and church leaders have argued that officially, the State of Pennsylvania has declared that house of worship are “essential” and are not subject to the COVID-19 restrictions that are in place for businesses and work places. To a degree this is true. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has respected the faith communities and has refrained from sounding like they were demanding compliance. Nevertheless, the PA Department of Health has made their expectations quite clear, even for the faith community. And those expectations are a bit more restrictive than some pastors are willing to admit. The most significant points are listed here.
· Face masks must be worn even in houses of worship
· Social distancing is also required, meaning at least six feet distance is to be maintained between persons not living together in the same household.
Likewise, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a detailed document entitled Considerations For Communities of Faith. This begins with the admonition to know and follow the State guidelines. The CDC admits that it is not able to require faith communities to comply with their restrictions, but it does appeal to the observance of respect for others and the sense of community responsibility. A few of their guidelines worth noting are offered here.
· Encourage the use of face masks for all attendees except those under the age of two.
· Clean and disinfect frequently touched places and shared objects between all events. This includes disinfecting between multiple services on the same day.
· Ensure ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation as much as possible.
I would now ask that you allow me to address those congregations that are a part of the Church of the Brethren, since that is my affiliation. I suspect most other denominations have similar guidance for their membership partners. Even non-denominational congregations would do well to research what neighboring churches are following. But again, here is a portion of what my denomination is asking of their congregations.
· Limit or remove furniture in common areas to discourage gathering.
· Prop main doors to restrooms open when possible (to avoid touching handles) if there are individual stalls.
· Close outdoor playgrounds and furnishings.
· In parking lot: Encourage members to park in every other parking space. Consider using a parking attendant.
· In the worship area: Block off every other row using tape or rope.
· Exiting the worship service: Ushers should dismiss each row, preferably from back to front. Members should go directly out of the building and not gather inside the building.
· Singing: Suspend choirs and congregational singing. (singing intensifies the discharge of droplets, thus increasing the potential spread of the virus).
· Face Masks should be required. Provide masks for those who do not bring their own. Lovingly turn away those unwilling to wear a mask.
· Avoid handheld printed material such as hymnals, bulletins, and hand-outs.
· Keep a record of who attends. This will allow contacting them in the case that an attendee develops COVID-19.
· Do not offer onsite children’s ministries since social distancing will be difficult. Keeping children socially distanced is harder to do than with adults. Therefore, it is best to delay re-opening children’s ministries.
There are more items listed under each of the sources shown above, including much overlapping. At the end of this article I will list the websites where more detailed information can be found.
it behooves us to practice extra caution during this pandemic. As people of faith we are to obey the
governing authorities, as long as the authorities do not demand an act that is
specifically in violation of God’s command.
Romans 13:1-2 instructs us: “Everyone
must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority
except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been
established by God.
Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves”.
We are also to display compassion and care for our fellow believers and our non-believing neighbors and friends. Galatians 6:1 says, “Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Along this line of reasoning, I am impressed with Paul’s instructions to the Christians at Corinth, where some members felt they were justified to do as they pleased regardless of the feelings of others. In a loving and gentle way, Paul reminded them of their responsibility to others. This is addressed in an effective manner in I Corinthians 10, beginning with verse 23. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. 24 Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.” Paul goes on to urge tolerance and respect for people with differing opinions, and to sacrifice one’s own freedom in the interest of another’s concerns.
There are many other passages of scripture that could be quoted to support the understanding that we should put the thoughts, wishes, and well-being of others before our own desires or freedom.
Therefore, I am puzzled to understand why Christians should pay such little regard to the health and safety of others by ignoring these important guidelines. It simply makes no sense to me. Our response to the coronavirus pandemic should not be a political statement, though I fear that is what it has become. God calls us to act with compassion, care, and concern for others. Even if you feel you are immune to COVID-19, or perhaps you do not believe the data, there is no excuse for such reckless behavior that others believe to be dangerous. “Bear one another’s burdens!”
Some, including many pastors, act as if their place of worship is somehow a COVID-19-Free Zone. Their approach suggests that State and Federal restrictions may be tolerated outside of worship, but the church building somehow is impenetrable by the pandemic. I already addressed this attitude in an earlier post entitled “The Cross Is Not A Hex Sign” ( see the Peace-Ability blog dated June 21, 2020).
I urge all my brothers and sisters in Christ to give careful thought to these things. Put the politics aside. Know what is required and suggested by the governing authorities and commit yourself and your congregation to the health and well being of all. Realize that everyone who comes to worship with you has had numerous contacts before they walked through your doors and will continue to have many contacts after they leave. Why not be considerate and take extra precaution? I believe it is the Christ-like thing to do.
For further information please visit these sites.
1. Pennsylvania Department of Health:
Center For Disease Control: Considerations for
Communities of Faith: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/faith-based.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fphp%2Ffaith-based.html
3. Church of the Brethren Pandemic Response: https://covid19.brethren.org/
G. D. Gehr
October 11, 2020