Churches are fighting for their lives.
As concerns about COVID-19 have swept the nation, the vast majority of churches and faith assemblies in the United States have closed their doors. While not unprecedented, the current shutdown is unlike anything American churches have experienced in 100 years. In scale and in length, it is the greatest disruption to religious activity in the history of our nation.
Choosing not to assemble strikes at the very heart of what a church is–the Greek word from which “church” is translated is ekklesia, which means “assembly”–but the vast majority of churches have answered the call of their nation and their communities to sacrifice for the good of others.
And it has been a significant sacrifice. The largest burden is personal; for many, church services are the high point of the week, offering an oasis of encouragement and friendship. The difficulties are not just intangible, though: Many churches report that their offerings have diminished. A natural outcome of both reduced attendance and income setbacks to the membership. This is already prompting cutbacks in staffing and salaries, and it threatens the well-being of missionaries that depend upon churches for support as well.
Churches have almost universally answered the call of their nation and their communities to “flatten the curve” and protect lives. Some have adapted well, using technology to produce livestream services and online giving to maintain their offerings. Others, lacking those capabilities, have ceased to operate at all. Many are trying to do their best, but struggling.
It is a sacrifice Christians have made willingly, but it is not one that can be made forever. These adaptations are not a true substitute for assembly, and assembly is a primary purpose of a biblical church. Free exercise of faith is a right recognized by the First Amendment, and that right cannot be dependent upon the ability of a congregation to adapt to online giving and Facebook Live.
This issue will come to a head in May as churches struggle to balance congregant safety, executive orders, and the biblical command to assemble. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more anxious people of faith are to return to their congregations. Lacking a clear timeline for the pandemic, many believe that they can wait no longer.
Some churches, particularly in areas not yet significantly affected by COVID-19, will reopen their doors. Most of these churches will maintain significant distancing regimens, enforcing sanitization and spacing while capping attendance, but they will meet.
Despite their precautions, some of these churches will find themselves in violation of executive orders. I know of several pastors who face this possibility, and none of them take the situation lightly. They are genuinely concerned about COVID-19, and they wish to respect their civil authorities. However, they believe that they must follow the guidance of the apostles in Acts 5:29: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
I would suggest that state governments that would permit worship gatherings with specific distancing restrictions would find churches willing an eager to cooperate with those requirements. Unfortunately, most states avoid tackling the issue at all. Ohio Governor Mike Dewine, for example, has just announced plans to begin re-opening the state, including retail and consumer service businesses, without any apparent relief for churches.
Any conflict between state and church will be ugly, particularly in our polarized age. Churches and other faith assemblies have, almost universally, made a good-faith effort to support the leadership of their states in the effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. It behooves the states to make a similar effort to accommodate those institutions as they seek to worship and function as their conscience compels them.