Unlike a lot of Kentucky congregations, we at Bethesda Church have decided not to return to church right now, even as the ban on in-person services is lifted.
We’ll continue worshiping on Facebook Live and Zoom until at least June and perhaps longer, just as we’ve been doing since public gatherings were prohibited two months ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I decided we wouldn’t return after consulting with our elders, deacons, music leader, treasurer and financial director. I was surprised to learn their opinions were nearly unanimous: hardly anybody thought it was time to go back.
They didn’t feel that, given the layout of our sanctuary and our many parishioners both young and old who fall into at-risk categories, we could guarantee everyone’s safety. Or anyone’s safety.
The same day we all talked via a group text-message thread, our music director pointed me to a blog by a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who’s examining research that coronavirus experts are publishing almost daily, as well as reliable news reports.
His blog is the clearest look at the pandemic I’ve seen. From my reading of it, a church service may rank among the more dangerous places you can be, right up there with meat-processing plants and sit-down restaurants.
Social distancing appears not to provide much protection in church sanctuaries, because you’re in a confined, indoor space for a long period of time, perhaps with a central heating or air conditioning unit blowing coronavirus droplets far beyond the six-feet distancing space.
And deep-breathing while singing hymns can drive those respiratory droplets farther into your lungs.
In a letter to all of Bethesda’s members, I explained that we Christians are “called to balance bold faith with common sense and attention to facts. And that’s more of an art than a science. We as leaders are trying to discern the proper balance.”
Other congregations must make their own decisions, of course. In an unprecedented situation such as this, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.
This much is sure, being a Christian—or a member of any religious tradition—doesn’t automatically inoculate you from a novel coronavirus.
That said, I think Christianity does grant us at least three other, distinct benefits in terrible times such as these. Those benefits may or may not be unique to Christianity, I can’t say.
First, our faith gives us positive alternatives for responding to adversity.
An old saw says adversity either makes us better or it makes us bitter.
As Christians, we’re relentlessly encouraged to take the former path. We’re not to point fingers in blame. We’re not to divide into ideological factions. We’re not to exploit our own selfish good to the detriment of the weak or old. We’re not to hoard.
Instead, we’re to seek peace and unity. We’re to encourage and if necessary feed our poorer neighbors. We’re to be patient, grateful and joyful even in the face of danger, even when it’s hard to be those things.
Second, faith offers us the possibility of divine deliverance in the here and now. I’ve long said that nobody, religious or not, is guaranteed a miracle. Not ever. That’s why we need to listen to medical experts and embrace sound judgment.
Nonetheless, a miracle remains a possibility. God generally works according to the laws of nature he created. Until he doesn’t.
Occasionally he supersedes his own laws by spectacularly healing a person who otherwise should have died. He provides a job to a hopeless, unemployed single parent trapped in an economic collapse. God has his own plan. Got has his own economy.
We always carry a glimmer of hope: God is with us, he loves us and he’s greater than our doleful circumstances. I’ve witnessed miracles any number of times. And there’s always room for one more.
Third, faith tells us that whatever happens in our current world, this world isn’t the end. Whether or not we receive a miracle, whether we prosper or go bust, it shortly won’t matter. Come what may here, we’re on the road to everlasting glory.
There’s a life beyond this one. There’s a brilliant light waiting to warm, comfort and purify us, a light in which we’ll dwell forever. Today’s troubles are merely temporary.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at [email protected]