The good news is that churches will soon be allowed to open. The bad news is that each worship service may be limited to 30 people. For churches in Germany, this is the new normal. When I look at the guidelines being considered for restaurants in my state (Pennsylvania), I think it is reasonable to expect our post-lock-down gatherings to be small. Even if a legal exception is granted to religious institutions, our moral obligation is to provide a place of healing. Twenty years ago, we reluctantly did the important work of making our sanctuaries safe from sexual predators. I remember being defensive. Why should I have to get this training? Why should we have to place windows in classroom doors and require background checks from our volunteers? When we are told that our habits are unhealthy or unsafe, how should we respond? We should listen. Both to what the health experts telling us and to what our people are saying about their heightened state of anxiety. Social distancing is likely to outlast COVID-19 and the current crisis will extend for months beyond the development of a vaccine which is still a year away at best.
There is some more heartening good news. The house-church (emerging church) movement has already beta-tested what post-COVID Christianity may look like. This counter-mega church trend involves small gatherings of Christians in homes. In some locations, these individual house-churches (or cells) were gathered once a month for a larger worship as a large group. Christian discipleship was cultivated in small intimate settings, and then, celebrated at the rarer worship events that had a rally-like feel. The early church had a similar approach to fellowship. Much like our experience with the coronavirus, the persecution of the first three centuries forced the church to use what was available. They met in catacombs; we meet on ZOOM. The tech-deprived Sunday School class that once crowded into the church parlor, is now utilizing a phone tree to make regular contact with its members and dropping supplies on the doorsteps of their shut-ins. Didn’t Jesus say, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name…” Adapting our rituals to what is reasonable and safe, often improves our experience.
In the 1700s, Methodism wasn’t invested in large buildings, nor did we have a one to one ratio of clergy to these locations. We had circuit riders that rode between small distant farmhouse gatherings of the faithful. In the cities, Wesley broke the Methodist societies into class meetings of a dozen or so. The class leader would ask each attendee, “How did your soul fare this week?” Today, we rarely ask about each other’s souls. Tomorrow, having been shaken out of our apathy by the pandemic, we might. But, the genius of Wesley that fascinates me is the way he made small group participation a requirement for church membership.
One of the questions that should be on our minds is how do we share the Lord’s Supper with a world that continues to be cautious about the spread of infectious diseases? In the past, in extremis, some have taken a magical approach to the elements. An unlicensed preacher might be told to hold the phone over a tray of crackers and grape juice while the ordained elder on the other end blessed it into holiness. I cringe. But, isn’t communion dependent upon community, not hocus pocus? So, if in a ZOOM call, a small group that has shared their souls and their prayers with each other, now shares the items in their own homes that represent the body and blood of Christ, are they not united in the Lord’s Supper?
Making sanctuaries safe after the lock-down will require creativity and experimentation. One key adaptation may be to make small groups and regularly scheduled online gatherings the norm for weekly fellowship and disciple formation. Collecting the offering, receiving communion, planning mission and outreach, etc., would occur in the small group. These groups would also be responsible for reserving the social distanced seating for their people at the monthly gatherings in the sanctuary. Speaking of creativity, our online worship will need to be improved, so that it continues as the new normal for most of our people most weeks. It would be good for evangelism if we stopped treating home worship as an emergency fix we were forced into for the coronavirus.
See these links for what others are saying:
Jan Edmiston (North Carolina)
Liturgy for Online Communion (Louisiana Conference)