I have been a pastor since 1984. In all these years, I have never seen anything like the disruption the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the church.
Some churches have closed in-person services, while others have resisted governmental efforts to close theirs. Some have met in person with strict safety protocols while offering their services online as well. And restrictions on indoor religious services continue to be litigated.
Now we are seeing the worst surge since the pandemic began as officials predict that the “darkest days of the pandemic” are ahead. One article warns, “It is hard to overstate the severity of the national trajectory.” Dr. Anthony Fauci urged Americans yesterday to stay home and forego travel during the Christmas holidays during “this unprecedented challenging time.”
All this as COVID-19 vaccines start to become available. This juxtaposition between virus and vaccine is causing many pastors and churches to wonder whether to offer in-person worship or virtual-only services until trends improve and/or vaccines are available to everyone. This is a question I have been asked repeatedly as well.
Let’s explore this issue in light of recent events and biblical wisdom. We have discussed some of what follows over the months of the pandemic, but I hope today’s article will help your church as you make decisions in these challenging days.
Three biblical factors to consider
Paul prayed for Christians in Thessalonica, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
This is not Greek tripart anthropology in which spirit, soul, and body are separate entities. In biblical anthropology, it is not that we have a spirit, soul, and body, but that we are spirit, soul, and body as different dimensions of our holistic person. As famed New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce notes, “This is another way of expressing the desire for their complete sanctification.”
However, just as “father,” “son,” and “husband” describe different aspects of my experience, Paul’s terms signify different aspects of our lives. Let’s apply them to the question before us today.
First, spirit (“pneuma” in the Greek) points to our spiritual lives and God’s call to worship him.
The psalmist declared, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” (Psalm 95:6). We are exhorted, “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do” (Hebrews 10:25 NLT). There was a physical and corporate dimension to such worship in the New Testament era, so that Paul could encourage his readers to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12).
On the other hand, churches did not own buildings for several centuries. We know that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48; cf. 2 Chronicles 2:6). And corporate worship is impossible or severely persecuted today in parts of the Muslim world and in countries such as North Korea.
Second, soul (“psyche” in the Greek) points to our relational lives.
Here we find another balance. On one hand, God made us as relational beings. He said of Adam and of us, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Doctors note that “touch starvation” during the pandemic “increases stress, depression, and anxiety, triggering a cascade of negative physiological effects.”
On the other hand, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). I recently quoted three evangelical ethicists who wrote, “It is not possible to properly love a person and to act unnecessarily to jeopardize their health.” Worship services can be especially hazardous to the elderly and other at-risk persons. We also know that singing and preaching spread the virus much more than most other activities.
Third, body (“soma” in the Greek) points to our physical lives.
Several well-known physical factors are relevant as we determine whether to offer in-person worship services during this surge in the pandemic:
- Will attenders wear masks into, during, and after services?
- Can/will they maintain proper social distancing while on the church campus and in services?
- Will they practice proper hand hygiene?
- Is the worship facility ventilated safely?
- Will activities that especially “shed” the virus (such as public singing) be practiced?
- Will at-risk individuals be present?
- Can/will the facilities be properly cleaned before and after services?
Our bodies are God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). We are to steward them and all other resources well to the glory of God.
“These promises include your name”
As you and your church family face the worst part of the worst pandemic in living memory, know this: your Savior is with you and for you.
In Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley, Lutheran minister Harold L. Senkbeil writes: “When calamity strikes, you can count on God—not because you feel close to him, but because he remains close to you.” He encourages us, “In life’s tight spots, focus not on your faith, but on God’s faithfulness. Look not at your promises to him, but his loving promises to you in his Son. Rest assured, those promises include your name.”
In fact, he invites us to see our afflictions as our “personal link to Jesus.” Since our Savior is holding us in his hand (John 10:28) and interceding for us right now (Romans 8:34), he feels the pain we feel. Our challenges link us to him in an intimate and transforming way.
Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die, so that I may
Rise glorious at the judgment day.
Will you make his liberating prayer yours today?
NOTE: I wrote a blog yesterday for A Pastor’s View offering encouragement to pastors in these discouraging times. I also recorded two videos with Pastor Mark Turman focusing on practical aspects of the pandemic for churches. I invite you to read or view them today.