No matter how you cut it, 2020 has been a uniquely challenging year for all of us. We are a bit more than halfway through this year, and as much as we might hope for an uneventful conclusion, the specs don’t look good, given the fact that November brings an election. With all this in mind, it is important for Christians to demonstrate an otherworldly kind of patience and grace toward one another. Every criticism of one another should be tinged with an understanding posture. Our expectations should be realistic; it’s not reasonable to expect every Christian and every church to “nail it” in terms of dealing with this wacky year. We have blind spots.
With that caveat in place, I want to plead with my fellow Christians to lean into the next half of this year with renewed intensity, instead of simply reacting. Part of what that looks like is coming back to church. And more than that, it means prioritizing our local gatherings. Here, then, is an open letter to the pastor who is still iffy on resuming gatherings once again (my next post will be an open letter to church members who are still iffy on coming back).
As a brother-shepherd and co-laborer in the gospel, I sympathize with you. This has been a strange year. There’s no clear playbook on how to respond to the circumstances that have overwhelmed us in recent months. The ubiquity of information (and misinformation), the phenomenon of social media, and the technological sophistication of our age have all combined with a pandemic. The pandemic, like everything else in our culture, has officially been politicized and (consequently) weaponized, and this all has occurred in tandem with a societal boiling point surrounding racial tensions. Add to that, the rest of the world—for good or for ill—seems to look to the United States for how to deal with all of these circumstances, and so whatever happens here has a trickle-down effect into many other cultures in many other parts of the world.
And there you are. A mere man, pastoring a flock of Christ’s people in the midst of it all. Of course, every age deals with its own unique challenges, and “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9) in terms of the basic root-issues underneath their time-bound manifestations. Nevertheless, our own unique time-bound manifestations do appear to be a doozy. We know what Luther would do in the midst of a pandemic, but what would he do in the midst of a pandemic in a social media age, where disagreements about the pandemic seem to square up along political lines with alarming intensity?
All this to say, I feel for you. I am there with you. I know well the “no-win” situation you find yourself in. This is no season for the pastoral faint of heart. The thin-skinned among us feel deeply the frustration coming from all quarters. Sitting in your inbox right now may be any number of critical emails—one from the deeply concerned member who is outraged by your silence on social media and from the pulpit regarding race, another from a member who is outraged by your “making everything about race,” another from a member who is outraged by your announcement to resume services, and yet another from a member who is outraged by your announcement that the church will comply with your county’s safety regulations. (Praise be to God who roots out our man-fearing idols and forces us to put them to death!)
Some members want to stay home because they object to gathering and risk of COVID exposure. Other members want to stay home because they think that asking people to practice social distancing or wear masks is stupid and unnecessary. Still others want to stay home because they have simply grown comfortable with sleeping in on Sundays and watching your service live-streamed.
On top of all this, you’re probably watching your members try to work all these things out online and what comes of it is a virtual bloodbath—you’re seeing members tear down and demine and insult one another with vitriol and malice. Not only are you heartbroken by this, you also shudder at the thought of asking these people to enter back into a room with one another. And even if you did, there’s just no way the ethos of your gatherings will be “normal.” If, for example, your county mandates masks and social distancing, and if you decide to comply, then those masks and that distance will suck all the visceral intimacy out of the room. If, on the other hand, you don’t comply, or if your county doesn’t require all those safety measures, you’re still going to have the awkward situation of mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers. The former will be tempted to scoff at the latter, the latter will be tempted to despise the former.
Meanwhile, there your livestream capability is, enticing you to avoid all the messiness. “Go on,” it says, “go ahead and livestream your entire service in an empty room. Have your members ‘do church’ at home. Avoid the tensions. Avoid the mess. Avoid the awkwardness.”
My dear brother-pastor, please resist that man-fearing siren song. Please resume your services. At the risk of overstepping my bounds, let me urge you to not merely resume your services in person, but go out of your way to urge and plead with your people to come back. Please don’t let them believe that it’s possible to “do church” at home by themselves. It’s not. Go ahead and make them uncomfortable. I recognize that you will have to work through difficult questions regarding how you resume your gatherings, and they may feel awkward, but that’s ok.
The “new normal” of my own church is awkward. We wear masks, and try to practice social distancing. Before COVID-19 our congregation offered Sunday School Classes for our children during the main service, which means we were not a family-integrated church. Now, for the time being at least, we are—and there is a natural learning curve that comes with this. Not all of our families are used to having their children sit quietly for a long period of time, so our services have a lot more distractions and noises. We still practice communion, but communion COVID edition does not have the same kind of ambiance as it normally would—masked and gloved ushers spray your hands with sanitizer before dropping a chunk of bread in your hand and passing you a little cup of grape juice, ever so carefully, so as to not touch you. Communion COVID EDITION features the clunky motions of trying to lower your mask with a piece of bread in your hand, eating and drinking, and quickly placing your mask back on. It feels weird.
But pastor, the presence of weirdness does not imply the absence of meaningfulness. Your services may not feel meaningful. But regardless of what they feel like, they are. The ambiance of your pre-COVID days never made congregational singing or public prayer or public reading of Scripture or real-time sermons preached to members bodily present or communion into meaningful acts. Nothing you do turns those things into means of grace. They just are. Now, more than ever, we understand the fittingness of calling these elements ordinary means of grace. And your members need them. You need them. Don’t let them think that it’s possible to have them virtually—it’s not. (This is why we have decided to only stream our sermons. When we are all sheltered at home, we gave our members a liturgy, and repeated ad nauseum that the liturgy was to help facilitate family worship, and that the sermon was an additional supplement for their discipleship, but that none of it was “church at home.”)
I’ll say it again. Go ahead and make your members feel uncomfortable. Ask them to die to themselves and come back to worship alongside members they just chewed out on social media—go ahead and press them to have to interact with one another. Go ahead and pop the bubbles of members who think they are “having church” at home. Go ahead and urge parents to bring their rambunctious children to church, where they will hear half the sermon because they are tending to their kids every five to ten minutes. They need it, pastor. They need it, even if they don’t believe they do. Don’t deprive them. Don’t give them the impression that it is acceptable to disobey Hebrews 10:25. For your own soul, and for the souls of your flock, please, come back to church.