For the past few months, churches have had to adapt to the reality of COVID19. For some, this has meant online or live streamed services. For others, it has led to an emphasis on family worship at home. We’ve adjusted how we take offerings, how our youth group gets together, and so much more. As our communities begin to think about the gradual reopening of other businesses, parks and services, it is important that church leaders also carefully consider what your congregation will do as these restrictions are lifted.
To assist you in this discernment process, we’d like to suggest some values to consider:
- Our God is Sovereign – As Christians we should be a voice of peace and wisdom, not anxiety and reactionism. Our only comfort in life and death is our belonging to Christ.
- As Christians in the Reformed tradition, we believe there are multiple sources of revelation (see Belgic Confession article 2 and Our World Belongs To God article 50) – God speaks to us through his Word and calls us to gather together as believers. God also speaks to us through his world and calls us to scientific study of creation. As we consider next steps for our congregations, it is vital that every church pay close attention to the wisdom and guidance being offered by their local or state/province health department.
- Church is more than a building (see Our World Belongs to God articles 35 &39) – We can be tempted to talk about the next stage of life as a time when churches “reopen.” The truth is, that churches never closed. While the doors to physical buildings may have been shut, the church continued to carry out her ministry and mission through caring for our neighborhoods, praying for the world, supporting our missionaries, caring for each other and worshipping in new ways.
- Care for the vulnerable – Throughout scripture, God calls on his people to care for the poor and needy among them. This has been a hallmark of what church is all about. As we think about next steps for congregations, we need to remember how our decisions might impact the most vulnerable around us.
- Care for communities – Churches are called to care not only for the needs of their members but also for the concerns of our surrounding communities. In making decisions about church gatherings, consider the impact on your neighbors and your witness in the community.
- The Great Commission – God’s intention to reconcile all things in Christ, the call for the church to participate in God’s shalom restoring project inaugurated in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is still “on” and our attention / love / care should be directed both at our members but also for the sake of the world. Would decisions to gather for public worship be viewed as risky, insensitive, or inappropriate by others in our communities? If so, would this hinder our long-term ability to build relationships and share the Gospel?
- Care for those who grieve and struggle with mental health -We need to care for the whole person, physical, mental, and spiritual. Regardless of the decisions you make there will be those who will grieve. If you choose not to meet there will be those who will be affected by the ongoing social isolation. If you choose to meet there will be those who feel excluded. Whatever we choose to do as a church let us also try to mitigate the unintended but real consequences.
- How we handle disagreement is part of our witness to the world (Ephesians 4:1-3) – The impulse of our culture is to demonize, dismiss or disdain “the other side” in pursuit of our side’s obvious rightness. What if we saw this time of contested decision-making as a time to practice “bearing with one another in love.” Consider if the virtues we most want to exhibit in this time of contested decision-making are grace, humility and patience more than exacting rightness. This time of challenging discernment may become an opportunity to witness to our world that Christians remain one in Christ, even if we disagree profoundly.
In addition to these overall values, we recommend that your church council consider these general guiding principles. What comes next for your congregation:
- Will likely be gradual and take time – we expect restrictions to be gradually lifted around physical distancing, but these changes will occur at different rates in different places and may stretch out for several months yet. As you think about what comes next for your congregation, pay close attention to local health authorities and expect to plan far in advance. For example, what will your fall programs for youth look like if you can’t gather? What will a worship service look like, if attendance is limited to 50 people and you can’t sing?
- May sometimes move backward – we don’t know the trajectory of COVID19 or when a vaccine may be found. Experts suggest that there may be times when we see repeat spikes of infection and have to return to physical distancing. Plan ahead for how you will manage these setbacks. How will you make decisions about when to re-introduce restrictions regarding in-person meetings or worship.
- May not feel the same as before COVID19 – after several months of being physically distant from each other, we are all craving being together again. The truth is, however, that even when we are allowed to gather again, it likely won’t be the same as it was before COVID19. Gatherings may be limited to 10 or 50 people. Singing may be prohibited. We may not be able to hug each other, shake hands, or share a time of coffee fellowship. Nurseries and children’s programming may not be able to run. Think about how you will help your congregation deal with the grief and trauma of this new reality they will be a part of for the next several months.
- Does not need to include physical worship gatherings – Just because a public health authority says it is OK to worship, doesn’t mean that every congregation should do so. While it may seem like the right thing to do, and may meet the emotional needs of your members to be able to be together, it could also have negative impacts in your broader community. Consider the implications if a local outbreak occurs and is tracked back to one of your programs or services. At the same time, there may be other ways that you can use your building and/or continue to carry out the mission and ministry that God has called you to. Perhaps you could re-open your doors for a food pantry or community program that meets a vital need to those around you.
- Does not need to eliminate the new ways of worship you have discovered – There will continue to be people who are afraid to attend physical gatherings, who may be unable to attend because of health concerns, or who may be infected and under quarantine. While we can consider a return to physical gatherings, let’s not cut back on the new ways of being the church that we’ve learned over the past few months. Online, family, and small group worship, faith formation, and missional practices can continue to be a vital part of what it means to be church. Let’s also think about other ways that our congregations can care for the vulnerable, both within our churches and in our communities. This includes essential and frontline workers.
- Should not ignore your liabilities – Don’t forget to check with your congregation’s insurance provider to make sure that the decisions you make and the programs you chose to carry out are covered and you are not opening yourself up to legal challenges.
[June 2, 2020]