How important is going to church for you? What would you do to be able to go to worship? Would you kill someone for it?
Christian worship is a big deal. At our last in-person gathering on March 11 which happened to be a Bible Study, we learned about why going to church matters. In a series created by Lutheran pastor David Lose, he reminds us that after seven days, we start to forget that we were loved by God. We need to be in church to remember what God has done and how much God loves us. So, going to church in-person matters.
So, yeah gathering together for worship matters. It isn’t secondary or nonessential. We can’t phone it in.
But can something that we think matters, something that is deemed important become an idol? Can we put the forms of our faith, that help us connect to God ahead of compassion? When is attending church something that becomes selfish, reckless and not even something that is Christ-like? In these days of COVID-19, when is going to church a sin?
Three days before our worship service on March 15, I made the decision to cancel Sunday worship. I didn’t want to do it. We are a very small congregation and at the time, we could still gather because of our small size. Then I thought of the three octogenarians in our midst. There is a member, a gentleman in his late 60s, that takes medicine that suppresses his immune system. When we don’t know who might have the virus, it didn’t make sense to have worship when it might put those people and countless others in danger.
Pastors in Florida and Louisiana have flouted laws and common sense by having large worship gatherings. Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne went as far to say that going to church was macho. He was focused in “raising up revivalists, not pansies.”
R.R. Reno, the editor at First Things, demanded that church, especially Catholic Churches, must stay open. Reno says the coronavirus is “serious business.” He then says that the spiritual care of flock is more important than their physical health:
The coronavirus pandemic is serious. Perhaps political leaders are correct to take stern measures to slow the spread of the virus. (Although I am increasingly convinced that we may look back and judge the shutdown of the global economy an ill-advised course of action, no matter how dangerous the virus is for those vulnerable to complications.) Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care.
He then says that closing churches during a pandemic is about bowing down to the powers of death:
It is imperative that Christian leaders not succumb to the contagious panic, which is a weapon of the Enemy to enslave us to our fears. Many steps short of suspension and cancellation can be taken to ensure that prayer, worship, and the administration of the sacraments are done in responsible ways.
Reno wants to believe that if churches practice safety, then the people can worship freely. Reno might want to talk to members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Washington State. They were wondering if they should have their choir practice. They went ahead with a lot of precautions. The end result? A number of members came down with the coronavirus and two died:
On March 6, Adam Burdick, the choir’s conductor, informed the 121 members in an email that amid the “stress and strain of concerns about the virus,” practice would proceed as scheduled at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. “I’m planning on being there this Tuesday March 10, and hoping many of you will be, too,” he wrote. Sixty singers showed up. A greeter offered hand sanitizer at the door, and members refrained from the usual hugs and handshakes. “It seemed like a normal rehearsal, except that choirs are huggy places,” Burdick recalled. “We were making music and trying to keep a certain distance between each other.” After 2½ hours, the singers parted ways at 9 p.m. Nearly three weeks later, 45 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or ill with the symptoms, at least three have been hospitalized, and two are dead.
They thought they were being careful and still the virus wreaked havoc on the chorale. If that could happen with 60 people who show up for a rehearsal, what are the chances someone or someones sitting in a church sanctuary could spread the illness to hundreds if not thousands?
Worship matters to the Christian faith. But like anything, when you put something ahead of anything else then it becomes an idol. Pastors can talk about religious freedom, but I don’t think God is calling me to gamble with people’s lives.
The thing is, the two pastors and Mr. Reno are interested in looking holy. Worship is supposed to draw us closer to God and prepare us for mission in the world outside the church. But in the midst of a deadly pandemic with people who could die if they catch the virus is not about drawing closer to God. Instead, it’s about looking “good” or holy.
David French mentions the temptation of Jesus in his writing which is found in Matthew 4. I never understood the temptation where the devil takes him to a high place and tells Jesus to throw himself down and that God would command the angels to protect him. Jesus declines saying that it was wrong to test God.
I never understood what it meant to test God, but I French makes it rather plain: it’s when someone is trying to tell others how religious or holy. It’s a performative faith.
Jesus never tried to do things to seek attention. Jesus healed people and people were amazed, but the miracles were never to draw attention to Jesus, but point to God. Having a worship service during a pandemic is not about being faithful to God, it’s about showing off. It’s less about serving God than it is making God our butler who obeys our commands.
It may look unfaithful to suspend worship for a time being. But the reality is that we aren’t meeting in-person (we are meeting virtually) because we care for the other. Jesus lived for others and that is what we are called to do. Caring for your neighbor by preventing illness is what God calls us to do. Going to worship now is not about caring for the neighbor.
I long for the Sunday when my congregation can meet in person and celebrate communion. But for now, we worship in different ways because God calls us to care for the weak among us. Worshipping God and not caring for the other is not true worship.