The COVID-19 pandemic has brought church services to a grinding halt in our nation. In a dozen years, I do not recollect missing a Sunday service except for a very few times – the birth of my child, a flu. But this has changed since March 15th, 2020. That was the last Sunday service where I gathered along with the saints up until the time of this writing. And I have no idea how much longer we will have to wait before we can gather again. If you are anything like me, you are longing for the church to gather again.
Every church has had different strategies to cope with the inability to meet, challenging circumstances of church members – illness, grief, loss of income, unemployment. None of us were prepared for this specifically. Yet, God’s grace and the biblical principles that have shaped us, have been our guide during this pandemic. We are eager to see this season behind us – God willing.
While there is nothing more joyful on this side of eternity for me in this season, than to gather with the saints as soon as I can… I hate to be the bearer of bad news – it is not that simple.
The difficulty of returning to ‘as it was in the beginning’
I am not an expert to be making these predictions. But I think it is not utterly illogical to make these predictions.
1. Life will not be the same post COVID-19
Scratch that! I am not sure that there will be a post COVID-19 world. In all possibility without eradicating COVID-19 like the polio, we might mostly have to live in a world where COVID-19 is part of our life like the influenza. A November 2018 WHO fact sheet reports that about 2,50,000 to 6,90,000 people die annually from the flu. Who knew, right? We will just have to get used to living with this virus and move on. But it is not that simple. The Corona virus is more of a problem than the flu. It is more contagious, more painful and will be more costly to treat. So, it will be unwise to just simply move on without adequate precaution.
2. It will be some time before the world does not take COVID-19 seriously
It took a while for the world to take COVID-19 seriously, it will take a while for the world to learn to live with it. Until then we will have to face what I might call a ‘pandemic influenced polity dance’. Let me explain that term. The government, I expect, will go back and forth on policies like a dancer. At the moment, our country is divided into Red, Orange and Green zones by the district, within districts by the taluks, and within cities by the ward. No district or zone will remain permanently in any color code. We can expect the codes to change without any warning.
In none of the zones is mass and religious gatherings permitted. But soon they will be allowed. However, with a slight change in situation arising from say… travel – domestic or international, the situation can change. They will once again cancel mass and religious gatherings. We must expect this back and forth movement as part of the path to recovery.
3. Most of our gathering places are not large enough to meet social distancing requirements
Ok. That was not prediction, that is a fact. Here is the prediction: The government will allow for mass and religious gatherings so long as certain precautions are taken – masks, hand sanitizers, and social distancing guidelines. How many of our gathering places – rented or owned – can actually fit all the attendees with sufficient distancing maintained? I assume a few can, but the rest of the churches will not be able to do so.
4. Many church leaders will decide that it is okay to flout rules of social distancing requirements
We might be tempted to think that since no one is ill, we can simply all gather again – who will notice? Your neighbors will. That one person who does not like that you gather in his locality might call the police. An unexpected case of COVID-19 in your church will reveal that you broke social distancing requirements during contact tracing exercise that will happen with the patient. There are several other potential ways to harm your long-term witness because the leadership did not think through the difficulties of restarting services carefully. And please for the love of God, do not call the aftermath persecution. If you are not going to carefully consider how to restart services and implement a good plan, you might potentially face prosecution.
Suggestions for re-opening church services
Enough of the predictions. I hope I am wrong in what I predict could happen. But here is what we can do to avoid damaging our long-term witness. Because someone wisely has said “Do not try to predict but to adapt to the unexpected”
1. Recognize that this is a unique situation.
Earlier, most churches did recognize that there were shut-ins who were unable to come to the gatherings due to illness, an accident or just old age. Today, it would not be unwise to categorize the whole church as ‘shut-ins’ or ‘locked-out’ or some other smart categorization. We must recognize the unique situation and accept it.
2. Identify the weak and the susceptible.
Children below 10, Senior citizens, the pregnant, people with co-morbidity – diabetes, respiratory conditions etc. are the weak and susceptible people. They and their household members must not immediately join the gatherings – it might be harmful for them to be exposed before the experts give the green light for them to go out.
3. Reduce programs and service length
To start with, do not begin everything again. Go slow, build steadily. Start with only the main gathering (no Sunday schools, children’s programs, other gatherings, potluck etc.). Keep the gathering shorter than usual. It is not forever. It is a precaution.
I pray that God gives you wisdom in your unique contexts on restarting services safely and wisely. My intention is not for churches to be considered as “safe organizations”. My intention is that churches do not harm their long-term effectiveness and witness by being hasty and/or unwise.