After weeks of COVID-19 restrictions that have shut down businesses and kept most Americans at home, states are slowly opening again. However, early thoughts of church facilities reopening with, say, a grand Easter celebration are long gone.
Stay-at-home orders are being lifted. Businesses are being allowed to operate at reduced capacity. People are returning to public parks. State policymakers are weighing public health risks against the economic impact of shutdown, and they are coming to different conclusions about when to reopen schools, businesses, restaurants, gyms, and more. The Rand Corporation recently released a state policy evaluation tool that projects likely health and economic outcomes according to when states open up, and at what rates of intervention.
While states haven’t been imposing restrictions particular to houses of worship, they have thus far been limiting social gatherings, many states restricting groups to no more than 10 people. As they begin allowing gatherings of up to 50 people, and eventually larger gatherings with specific protective restrictions in place, church leaders will be making decisions about how church life resumes.
Per Rand’s policy evaluation tool, states that are quick to loosen restrictions will likely see a resurgence in COVID-19 cases that may not be recognizable for weeks. Guided by their understanding of their mission in the world, the decisions churches across the country will be making will likely look different than what state legislators are mandating. While it would be particularly unwise to rush back to “church as usual” before states give the official go-ahead to open safely, many churches will choose to behave differently, and more cautiously, than the world around them.
But here’s how churches, and the way we operate as the people of God, are uniquely prepared for this tricky season:
We Are Equipped to Navigate Uncertainty
The foundational act of liberation and identity-formation in the Old Testament was God’s delivery of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. On the heels of this powerful exodus, however, God’s people endured 40 years of wandering in the wilderness in search of the land they’d been promised. And in that desert season, they discovered they could depend on the manna and water that God provided.
Today Americans, and those around the globe, are enduring our own “wilderness” or “desert” season. And as people of faith, we can draw on our conviction and confidence that we are not alone because we trust in a provider who is good. During these difficult days, we can encourage one another, and also share with others our persistent hope for the future.
We Are Guided by Love of Neighbor
Over the last month or two, the media has featured protesters in various states challenging the kinds of statewide legislated restrictions that limit personal rights and liberties. While these individual people may have valid political justification, the Christian faith simply does not support the elevation of the individual above the well-being of the community.
When Jesus was asked by an expert in the law what was the greatest commandment, Jesus offered an indivisible twofold response, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). As churches consider when to reopen our doors, we are to be guided by a love for our neighbors, particularly those who are most physically vulnerable.
We Are Celebrating the Meaning in Our Current Circumstances
Finally, although all of us are eager to return to the kind of living that approximates what we knew to be “normal,” people of faith are equipped to find meaning in our current circumstances. Our identity — as a people first formed in the struggles of the wilderness and later identified by the death and resurrection of Jesus — has been shaped when our circumstances were not as we would have chosen.
Today followers of Jesus can be those who are able to celebrate the small acts of beauty, kindness, and purpose in a world that feels particularly chaotic. Today, we can love a neighbor by calling one older adult who is isolated and lonely. Today, we can support a friend by talking with one who has just been laid off. Today, we can participate in God’s provision by volunteering at a local food bank or other missional opportunity where the hungry are being fed. Today, we can support a local business by ordering delicious takeout. As people who’ve discovered meaning in the person of Jesus, we can live that out even — and perhaps particularly — in difficult circumstances.
At Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute, we are equipping churches to live out their vision, mission, and purpose in these tricky times. We hope and expect that churches will look different in the weeks and months ahead. And while there will be no grand reopening for our churches anytime soon, we will come through COVID-19. And when we do gather again fully in community, there will be a time of celebration.
Author's Note: The authors will be hosting a free webinar on this topic on Friday, May 15 at noon CT as part of an ongoing weekly series in partnership with the National Association of Evangelicals. You can find more information here.