It may be awhile before church sanctuaries are full. Not from a lack of people wanting to attend, but to stay within recommendations for social distancing. GETTY/Special
Over the last month-and-a-half two questions have dominated the local church. First is “How do we continue ministering and sharing the gospel during this time?” The other is “When will we get to meet in person again?”
It feels strange for me to have not stepped into my church building since Wednesday, March 11. That night was like so many others. The smells of dinner, courtesy of our kitchen crew, remained in the air as my pastor started his weekly Bible study in the “big room” – usually a sanctuary but on Wednesdays a dining room to be quickly converted into a large classroom. Upstairs, you could hear the student praise band worshipping and children playing before getting to their weekly lesson.
Since then, even though I still miss getting together with my church family, I’ve gotten a clearer picture at what church is, and isn’t.
During this time Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has gone to extra lengths to keep the timetable up to the churches themselves. At no time were houses of worship “closed down” or prevented from doing so as long as they stayed within the recommendations of staying six feet apart. In a conference call with Georgia Baptist pastors a few weeks ago the governor even gave the example of a church with more than ten people being capable of gathering – again, as long as the recommended social distancing was observed.
But – and this is important – the governor and his office have consistently stressed wisdom for churches in making these decisions. Leading up to Easter Sunday Kemp advised church leaders to strongly consider going online-only, though there was no order prohibiting gathering in person or drive-in services, which some churches chose to do.
The context regarding ministry decisions in this time of the coronavirus varies from whether they are located in Fulton County (2,208 cases and 82 deaths as of noon today) to Montgomery County (2 cases, no deaths). That said, we also have to remember how the decision of a single individual affects others. After all, this entire crisis began with one person being infected on the other side of the world. They shared that infection with someone else, and so on.
The governor’s announcement yesterday focused on the rate at which businesses will reopen. I won’t wade into that discussion here. But of course that, plus a conference call with the Governor’s Office today, addressed what this means for churches.
In scrolling through various social media today, I’m seeing pastors taking a very cautious approach to meeting in their church buildings as before. It will be at least a few more weeks, it appears, before the possibility is seriously considered. Those decisions are being made after talking to their deacons, elders, and other church leaders, bringing in several voices. And when that day does come, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board has provided an exhaustive list of steps churches can take to prepare.
The last month has been challenging, for sure. But it’s also opened up new avenues of ministry. The first question, I feel, has been answered loudly. Churches have adjusted well. For many, technology isn’t as scary as it was before. I’ve heard many church leaders say a bigger online and virtual footprint will remain for their congregation even after meeting in-person resumes.
While the answer to the second question hasn’t materialized just yet, perhaps it actually has in a form we didn’t expect. Church, it has become more apparent, is something also done outside of a building.