Why churches should keep their buildings closed until a vaccine is widely available
As states have started to lift COVID-19 restrictions, "reopening" has become the new cultural and political battleground. Possibly no reopening debate has been as contentious as the reopening of houses of worship. It seems that everyone from the president to the pope has an opinion.
As a church-going Dane County liberal, my inclination is to listen to the public health authorities who caution against returns to mass gatherings like church. And like many Dane County liberals, my unfortunate bias is to cynically dismiss the arguments of those who would rush to reopen church buildings. In my rush to judgment, I imagine that many of the "reopen church now" crowd are less concerned with a return to in-person worship and more concerned with concealing flawed logic behind religious freedom platitudes.
But for a moment, let me attempt to set aside my biases and give the "reopen everything" crowd the benefit of the doubt. Let me imagine that the reopen church crowd is driven by a sincere yearning to return to the close-knit community of their home congregation, to find spiritual sustenance in seeking God while sitting next to their neighbor. Resolving to see this crowd not as the "other" but as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, let me attempt to thoughtfully and politely explain why it is in all of our best interest not to open church buildings until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.
But before I make my case, allow me to state that I know church closings are sincerely difficult for many. I myself genuinely miss seeing my church community each week, in-person. I miss the calm that I experience each time we "pass the peace," the sounds of a peppy postlude played on an organ, the fellowship of coffee and donuts after church. I lament the loss of the sacred space in the sanctuary, where I unplug from digital distractions and the demands of my to-do list for one sweet hour of prayer every Sunday from 10-11 AM. I long to get back to chatting with my church friends, shaking the pastor's hand on the way out the door, and experiencing the small acts of peace and fellowship that I took for granted before the pandemic. And most personally, I grieve when I realize that two baptism dates for my daughter have come and gone, with another soon to pass. That joyful occasion is permanently on hold as I endure some of the disappointment that so many of us have shared in these past eleven weeks. When I suggest that church buildings must remain closed until we have a vaccine, I do so not out of some smug elitist sentiment, but with heartache and sadness.
Churches should keep their buildings closed until the wide availability of a vaccine for several reasons related to science and sound theology of ministry. Since the science is well-documented elsewhere, I won't belabor the points about the risks of mass indoor gatherings during a respiratory pandemic capable of spreading through aerosols. Instead, I'll make three brief points about what church buildings would need to do in order to reopen safely, and how such actions are contrary to the nature of ministry.
If churches were to open their buildings, safety protocols would dictate a phased approach. Churches would perhaps admit twenty-five percent of their typical capacity, then fifty, and so forth. Setting aside the logistical difficulty, such a burden forces church communities to immediately determine who is "in" and who is "out." Pastors and priests would no longer be concerned just with the proclamation of God's word and the administration of the sacraments. They would be concerned with keeping in-person attendance under a specified threshold, ensuring that those in attendance are "healthy enough." They would be tasked with blocking the vulnerable and the elderly at the church door. The pastoral call would be transfigured into something of an ecclesiological bouncer. The moment a church leader says the words "you can't come in, you're not on the list," is the moment that COVID-19 undoes decades of social justice and inclusivity work.
Throughout and beyond this phased approach, church buildings would require social distancing protocols, including physical distancing and masking. Implicitly, safety demands a church building characterized by uniformity. But who would ensure compliance with such protocols? Would the same church leader who takes ticket stubs at the sanctuary door also be tasked with keeping masks on faces and measuring six feet between non-cohabitants? Suddenly, this starts to look like a church that wants you to look like "us" and act like "us," and especially to dress like "us." As churches, we've been down this route too many times. It doesn't take us anywhere we want to go.
And then there's the question of what happens to our expressions of online worship. As 75% worship online while 25% gather in the building, perhaps a church continues to view virtual community as authentic and spiritually edifying. But does this change when the ratio shifts to 50-50? What happens when church leaders admit 75% but 25% remain online? I remain convinced that church in a digital age must be a hybrid experience, both fully online and fully offline. If we pivot too quickly, we risk relegating those worshipping from their living rooms to mere spectators at best, to outsiders at worst.
When we rush to reopen our church buildings, we risk more than the physical safety of our communities. We risk erasing years of efforts to create a church that is more communal, diverse, authentic, and gracious. Regrettably, there appear only to be less-than-ideal options for the time ahead. We can proceed with a phased reopening, knowing the physical and spiritual consequences.
Or we can prayerfully await a vaccine, which may well be widely available in early 2021. As we wait, we can continue to worship together on YouTube, Zoom, and Facebook. We can continue to study what it means to be church in a virtual community, knowing that the future of Christian practice is a future that is equal parts virtual and in-person. Most importantly, we can continue to protect the most vulnerable amongst us, finding innovative ways to support their spiritual, mental, and physical health.
This is not an easy time for any of us, the church included. Let's not make this any harder by putting our faith communities in untenable positions. Let's await a vaccine or widely viable treatment, because we know that in reality, the church was never closed. The grace of God never stopped flowing. Let's keep our doors closed a little while longer while the Spirit dances on, as we pray for the day we'll throw the doors open to all.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture," coming December 2020 from Fortress Press.