If you’ve read The Daily Telegraph or The Times in recent weeks, it’s likely you’ve come across clamouring calls for churches to reopen.
This growing wave of opinion is missing one vital component: churches do not wish to reopen just yet.
Don’t get me wrong, churches of every stripe are desperate to be able to meet again, to be able to congregate in a room and worship God, to grow as a body and be a visible witness to their community of the hope that Jesus brings. But not now.
Having spoken with church leaders from a wide variety of denominations and streams during lockdown, churches have responded swiftly and resolutely to protect both their congregation and community by not meeting together. Ahead of the lockdown in the middle of March, many churches had started to ask questions about how they meet and what this looks like if coming into physical contact with others is dangerous.
While I cannot guarantee that compliance with the government’s policies is universal, I’ve not heard anything more than a rumour that someone has heard about a church in the UK that’s still meeting.
Here, the pivot to online services has been swift. Yes, it has forced some churches into a vertical learning curve, and has seen some make noticeable adjustments to their ministry in order to serve those who aren’t shored up digitally – but churches have adapted. We’ve heard of church leaders putting CDs of sermons through the doors of elderly church members, or posting sermon scripts; there are also phone services where people can call and listen to the church service.
The media narrative of churches wanting to reopen is mismatched with reality
Churches are more important to our society than cinemas, bars and restaurants, so it can be galling to see them bracketed together in government discussions, and each nation of the UK is approaching this slightly differently. However, in terms of risk of transmission of the virus, they are much more similar and therefore are likely to be treated similarly.
There are growing questions among church leaders about what exiting the coronavirus lockdown looks like, and a realisation that this won’t be a quick return to church as it was before March.
The role of the Church is to proclaim Christ and to witness to his kingdom coming, and we do not do this by increasing the risk of harm to those we love and those we want to come to know Jesus. We pray for God’s protection over our lives and the lives of those around us, but that doesn’t stop us from taken sensible measures to protect our and their physical health.
The media narrative of churches wanting to reopen is mismatched with reality. It draws more on a cultural Christianity and a desire for normality than the wishes of church leaders. It builds on an attachment to buildings that evangelicals rarely cleave to, and sacramental practice less relevant than in other traditions and denominations.
The Church is alive, and we are keen to meet together once again, but there is little eagerness for it to happen too soon. So, what can we do while we wait?
Demonstrate that the church is alive
Within church circles the trumpeting of the success of online church has been hard to miss, from churches seeing surges in online audiences, to the innovation in technology and creativity of contributors. Mostly recently there was speculation ‘the Church broke the internet’ when Zoom crashed on Sunday morning. However, if what most of the world sees is a closed door then we do have a problem.
Buildings do not in themselves make a church, but without a visible meeting place it is harder for people to find their way in. Simply seeing a church open on a street corner and people going in on a Sunday is a reminder that it exists. What is the equivalent to this in a world where we are not gathering together?
Small steps back
There are some small steps that churches may be able to implement over the coming months ahead of full church services meeting physically.
Opening buildings for private prayer is a possibility that is likely to be explored more as the risk of infection decreases. This isn’t just applicable for those church buildings from denominations historically more predisposed to the practice, it can be an invitation to the community to grieve that life is not as normal, but that we can still meet God and know him.
One of the main reasons why churches are hesitant to return to services, regardless of what is sometimes portrayed in the media, is an awareness of the form that church services might have to take in the next few months. A church building that holds 100 might be able to socially distance 20. A congregation of 60 might have to meet three times with deep cleaning required between each. The elderly and vulnerable may well be excluded from these services, creating a two-tier church. The reliance on volunteers who are over 70 may make services impractical to run.
There are likely to be logistical challenges to a church meeting again, and hurdles that threaten the essential nature of church. Many may, as a result, choose not to meet even if the rules change to allow it. Hillsong have already suggested they may not re-start services until summer 2021.
Talk about empty church buildings being able to cope with small congregations belies the size and health of evangelical churches in the UK. Many are not rattling around in buildings but struggling for space as they outgrow their venues. Church may actually be able to take a more authentic form in the medium term by staying online.
Being a good witness
All actions have risks, but churches will not want to take risks that do not need to be taken. We want to stand together, we want to sing together, we want to see people respond to Jesus and be transformed by the power of his word. But there is also a duty to protect the congregation in a leader’s charge and the community we are seeking to reach.
We are to be witnesses to the hope of Jesus and his resurrection. Through our continued worship now, for our conduct as we prepare to meet again, and through our joy as we celebrate together once more. As we engage in public life our actions must match our words. Our hope is in Jesus and not in our ability to meet in a building. Our passion is to make Jesus known and we are not hindered in doing that.
Danny Webster is head of public policy for the Evangelical Alliance
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