In our attempts to flatten the curve, a phrase with which we’re all now overly familiar, and slow the spread of this virus that has the world in its grip we continue to see a rash of headlines once unimaginable in America. Many of these headlines that would have baffled us just months ago focus on the path forward for the church during this stressful time.
For weeks now many states have enforced orders regarding large gatherings, orders that effectively ban the traditional services of churches across the nation. This understandably makes many people deeply uncomfortable, even people who understand the nature of the virus and the danger inherent in large gatherings. There is an ongoing discussion about when it is acceptable for the government to step in and essentially suspend the right of Americans to peacefully assemble, to freely exercise their religion. These are freedoms deeply ingrained in the American psyche, and there are many Americans, myself included, who feel a deep sense of restlessness and loss as the weeks drag on and we remain physically separated from our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The response of churches and pastors to the ban on large gatherings has varied widely. Many churches were already streaming their Sunday services live prior to the pandemic, and they continue to meet virtually and worship in this way now. Drive-in services during which congregants park and remain in their vehicle have sprung up in various places. My church now has a YouTube channel on which Sunday sermons are posted along with videos of weekly announcements.
Though we may seem to be living in some bizarre dystopian version of America, this isn’t the first time American churches have temporarily halted in-person worship services. A brief Google search retrieves many interesting tidbits regarding the closure of churches during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic such as this piece detailing the closure of churches, schools, and theaters in Minneapolis in 1918.
While this may feel like a brave new world to us, as The Resurgent’s David Thornton points out, pandemics are new to us, but they are not new. It is imperative that church leaders look beyond the noise of this moment and consider the lessons of history as they navigate their flocks during these turbulent times. It is incumbent on pastors and other church leaders to seize this moment and lead as Christ would have them lead, but unfortunately not all are rising to the occasion.
Central, Louisiana pastor Tony Spell continues to land himself in the news, first for continuing to hold in-person Sunday services, defying Governor John Bel Edwards’s order forbidding large gatherings, and, more recently, he has been charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly backing a bus in the direction of a protester. Pastor Spell admits he was driving the bus and claims his intent was to get out and confront the man. The protester has been protesting in front of Spell’s church, Life Tabernacle Church, since Easter Sunday.
Without having firsthand knowledge of the incident that resulted in Pastor Spell being charged with assault with a deadly weapon, my suspicion is both Pastor Spell and the protester could have handled themselves in a more prudent way these last few weeks. I understand the feelings of alarm and defiance that no doubt led Spell and a handful of other pastors across the nation to continue holding in-person church services. When a government official demands or even suggests it’s not best for the church to meet, that should give Christians pause. We should not blindly, unquestioningly sit home because the government has issued an edict, but we must also step back and unshackle the reality of our current situation from our understandable inclination to be suspicious of government directives regarding church services.
It’s sometimes tempting but always unwise to bristle at authority simply for the sake of bristling. It’s certainly best that men who seek to emulate Christ not end up in the news for an altercation with a protester. Ample evidence points to the fact that it is unwise at this time to gather in large groups. Even without government directives to cease in-person worship services those who seek to protect the health of their flock should advise them to stay at home as much as possible while finding creative ways to facilitate worship and see to the needs, both physical and spiritual, of those to whom they minister.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “Courage is grace under pressure.” These troubling times in which we find ourselves are ripe for Christians if we look for opportunities to respond to pressure, even pressure from the government to temporarily cease in-person gatherings, with grace and wisdom. History usually affords some perspective on what we initially believe to be unprecedented troubles. Church services resumed once the threat of Spanish Influenza was diminished. Church services will resume across America soon, and what a joy it will be to once again lift our voices to God in unison. May we not tarnish our reputation and our ability to reach the lost as we wait prayerfully and patiently to be physically reunited with our brothers and sisters.