America’s Churches Can’t Stay Closed Much Longer

Who could have imagined a time when America’s churches would close?

Whether natural disasters, wars, tragedies and depressions, Americans have always turned first to their churches in times of national crisis.

But two weeks ago the Coronavirus changed everything. In the face of a pandemic that defied medical intervention and government policy, churches of every size, denomination and setting suspended worship, closed their buildings and told their people to stay home. Like almost every other public organization, group or business, congregations went into the self-isolation that health experts pointed to as the best response to the growing threat.

It was a hard decision for us pastors to make because we want to keep our churches’ doors open no matter what. I remember as a young pastor in Charleston responding to Hurricane Hugo in the same way as did most of my colleagues and holding worship services the Sunday after the storm. Fallen trees, a leaky roof, rain running down the walls, the steeple crumpled on the front lawn—none of that kept us from church. It was Sunday and God’s people were determined to gather for worship.

Corporate worship is a heart cry for divine help and proclamation of a faith that won’t give into fear

Corporate worship in desperate times is fundamental for believers—it’s a heart cry for divine help and proclamation of a faith that won’t give in to fear.

The present moment, though, changed that spiritual calculus. The need for social distancing as the main weapon in slowing the spread of the virus was so compelling that most of us in ministry set aside our convictions—at least for a time—and closed our churches.

The reasons weren’t hard to understand. First, the unique danger of the Coronavirus required the drastic step for the good of our communities and as a witness of love to our neighbors. It would have been reckless to stay open.

Churches didn’t so much close as they temporarily relocated to peoples’ homes

The second reason is really a perspective. If church is more about people than the building where people gather, then closing the building doesn’t change the things that matter most. Along this line of thinking, the nation’s churches didn’t so much close as they temporarily relocated into the homes of their people.

Still, closing the physical buildings where congregations meet is no small matter because public worship plays such a prominent role in biblical Christianity. Hebrews 10:25, for instance, says, “Stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another.” Those words aren’t intended as a proof-text for preachers trying to guilt absent members back into the pews but to call us to a core practice of Jesus followers.

Faith is lived out in a life-giving network of spiritual relationships

The fact is that our faith isn’t lived out as a solitary journey but within a deep and life-giving network of spiritual relationships that begins with Jesus and extends to our own family, including many others in between. Social media, telephone calls, email and online ministry are wonderful blessings, especially now, but none of them can take the place of worshiping the God you love while standing next to people you love in the church you love.

The state we’re in right now may be necessary but it isn’t natural. It’s holding a ball underwater. Or holding back the tide. Sooner rather than later, believers will find a way to come together for worship. They always do.

Believers find a way to gather for worship

The early Christians fled Roman persecution to the catacombs beneath the city so that they could worship together.

Believers in China today secretly gather in private homes in order to worship.

Jesus followers in Iran are hounded by police but find ways to worship in out of the way locations.

At some point, twenty-first century American believers will find a way, too.

In 1527 as plague swept through Germany, Martin Luther encouraged Christians and churches in ways that speak to our own time. If you’re ill, Luther said, don’t come to church. Make use of the best medical treatments and counsel available. Pay attention to situations that raise your chances of infection. Be willing to care for your neighbors who may be ill.

On the other hand, he said, Christians should not fail to “attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s Word how to live and how to die.”

The public health issues at this moment are real. So is the spiritual well-being of God’s people.

The clock is ticking. And while Christians are as concerned about the health issues confronting our nation and world as is everyone else, we also hear the beat of a different drummer, one calling us to the worship of our God.

That beat can’t be ignored much longer.

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