In the COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing a public health crisis the likes of which we haven’t experienced in over half-a-century. Churches are being urged to take preventative measures up to closing their doors in order to do their part to “slow the curve.” (If you don’t understand that expression, some of what follows will not make sense if you don’t watch this short explanation of exponential growth curves.) This is the result of unprecedented public health measures that are being urged and enforced around the world.
Because of the unprecedented scope of the response, everyone is to some extent making it up as we go along. But that does not imply that expertise is not available to guide us. The problem is that there are many self-proclaimed experts out there telling us what to do.
Accordingly, let me state upfront that I am not an expert. I am the lead pastor of a local congregation near the downtown of a North American city with over one million inhabitants. I have done what research I could, consulted with a PhD in Public Health student in my congregation, and advised my church board accordingly. The advice I give here, solicited by an editor at The Compass Magazine, comes from those experiences, and you can take it or leave it.
Note that the ranks of the self-proclaimed experts include medical doctors (MDs) opining about the COVID-19 threat or lack thereof as if they were doctors of public health. Unless an MD has a specialty in public health or a related field, they should not be considered an authority on how churches should prepare/respond to the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (a.k.a., coronavirus).
It doesn’t matter if it’s a politician like Dr. Carson, a media doctor like Dr. Drew, Dr. Oz, and Dr. Nedley; or your buddy/family member who is an MD. MDs are by and large very smart people, and smart people tend to overestimate their competence in domains outside of their training/expertise. (This caveat also applies to theologians, pastors—including yours truly—financial gurus, etc.)
If you want to get reliable advice on what to do to prepare your church for the risk of exposure to coronavirus, look no farther than your territorial public health officer. They have studied and practiced pandemic response scenarios, and they are applying that skill to the best available information about the spread of coronavirus in your area.
If for some reason you judge that your territorial public health officials are not trustworthy and you want to leverage your network to get a second opinion, look for someone with specific training or experience, MD or not, in public health, epidemiology, infectious disease, etc. If someone with that competence is not available, find someone who can research the conclusions such experts have drawn and report back to you.
Why to Close Church
First, the biblical answer: You should close church because public health measures are commanded by God. To be sure, the contemporary practice of “social distancing” is not exactly the same as the kind of quarantines and condemnations of properties prescribed in Leviticus 13–14. But the application “progressive moral wisdom” places a divine obligation on Christians to abide by population-level disease control measures even before we are directly ordered to do so by our governing authorities (Rom 13:1–5).
Requests and orders from governing authorities around the world for churches to close have triggered our apocalyptic sensibilities. We anticipate further such crises in the end-times, and it is true that this crisis response has shades of end-time persecution surrounding it. But it is crucial to understand that except in the most severe cases, governments have not limited the gathering of Christians altogether. Rather, it is only large gatherings of Christians that are likely to provide a venue for coronavirus transmission. How large depends on the size of the gathering relative to the rate of infection in the overall population. There is a formula for calculating this, but it depends on having accurate numbers, which are not available in many territories due to a shortage of testing kits.
It is best to simply meet or exceed the limits set by public health authorities, because there is no conflict between what they have recommended/imposed and the law of God (Acts 5:29). The “assembling together” (Heb 10:25) can still happen in small groups, via online and teleconferencing platforms, and/or in the “assemblies of the home church” (Ellen G. White, “Pray for the Later Rain,” Review and Herald, 2 March 1897, par. 6). In a way, this crisis presents an opportunity to recover the lost practices of small-scale meetings that sustained the early church and the early Adventist movement, to reconceive of church as the partnership of believers together with Christ rather than identifying it with a building.
When to Close Church
You may conclude from the above advice that I think it is best for you to push to close church as soon as possible. I don’t think that is necessarily the case. The reason is that when steps like closing church are taken it starts a clock ticking, and that clock is called fear. Fear is a very powerful but very short-lived motivator.
The way most people experience the COVID-19 crisis is as a sense of normalcy followed by a sense of distress triggered by an accumulation of events like schools and churches closing. That distress motivates us to take measures we never would have considered taking before, which is a good thing. But, after a succession of weeks, the fear will wear off as we adjust to the new normal. We will get frustrated with the hardships of isolations, lose our vigilance, and that will give coronavirus openings to spread.
Therefore, it is important, in my view, to time the closing of church to when it is actually called for. To accomplish this, church boards need a framework within which to assess the information and requests coming from public health officials in order to make wise, reality-based decisions and not get caught up in a perception-driven panic nor indulge in nonchalant presumption.
This is the COVID-19 response framework that I’ve recommended to my church board (Source: “The three phases of Covid-19 – and how we can make it manageable”).
- Phase 1, Containment: COVID-19 cases arrive from outside the territory.
- Phase 1 church response: Travelers, sick people, critical infrastructure workers, and COVID-19-vulnerable populations should not attend. Practice social distancing, enhanced hygiene, etc.
- Phase 2, Community Transmission: Coronavirus is transmitted within the general population.
- Phase 2 church response: Suspend general physical gatherings. Meet only in small groups, if at all. Continue phase 1 measures
- Phase 3, Control/Herd Immunity: Coronavirus is brought under control via isolation of infected individuals, vaccine, or herd immunity.
- Phase 3 church response: Resume services with vaccinated/immune and non-quarantined individuals. Continue hygiene practices and encourage sick people to continue to stay home to limit the transmission of remaining coronavirus, cold, flu, etc.
At all phases, I would want my church to meet or exceed recommended/mandated guidelines from our public health officials.
How to Close Church
The idea of closing church means different things to different people. For churches that continue to meet but practice coronavirus transmission prevention protocols—frequent washing/sanitizing of hands, no touching (hugs or handshakes), one to two arm’s length of distance between families and individuals, no passing the offering plate, no printed bulletins, no food consumption (including communion)—church may not feel like church anymore. Implementing these protocols, along with restrictions on travelers, the sick, and seniors, can cut attendance in half. It all amounts to a ‘soft’ closure.
By contrast, suspending regular church services is the ‘hard’ closure. But in many places that does not mean that smaller groups cannot come to church to produce a worship experience that can be viewed online. Small groups of church members could also gather in homes to study and pray. In places where there is a general quarantine, it would necessitate a ‘total’ closure where physical gatherings of church members, outside of those already living together, would be unwise.
In any event, the key to managing church closure is communication. Emails, text messages, robocalls, direct calls, even home visits, are necessary to implement a coordinated response. Transmission prevention protocols are difficult to follow and require more than one briefing to be adopted on a congregation-wide scale. The difficulty may be insurmountable for many congregations, which will have to implement a ‘hard’ instead of a ‘soft’ closure.
Many members identify church membership with gathering together in the building to such an extent that they will come even when they should not. Some will be panicking, and others will be cavalier in response to the crisis. These will require an especially intensive communication effort.
Church leaders should understand at what point low production-value undermines the spiritual benefit of the delivery of online services presented by and for their community. Avoid the unrehearsed. If the distraction is likely to become too great, church members should be encouraged to seek out online worship experiences from centers of worship and Adventist preaching excellence instead.
The church is first and foremost a body of believers that demonstrate the lordship of Jesus to the world by their love of one another (John 13:35). And not only that, but they follow in the example of Christ in their self-sacrificial love for the world (John 3:16) This is a time to individually take up that call to love on a scale such as the church has not experienced in a generation. After counting the cost (Luke 14:28), by God’s grace we will look to the benefit of others in such a way that we can come through this crisis with a fresh sense of our purpose as God’s people.