Episode 11: COVID and the Church: Does It Matter If We Gather?

Description:

TSR talks about whether we should gather for church in the time of COVID. Come join The Socially Remote!

Summary:

In this episode, TSR discusses the effect COVID has had on the Church’s gatherings and looks at what Scripture has to say about the importance of in-person worship and fellowship.


The Podcast:

Introduction to COVID and the Church

We started by reading some listener feedback from the past two episodes. We had a lot of positive feedback for Episode 9: Foundations of Critical Theory and Episode 10: Critical Theory and the Christian. And we read some of that feedback on the show. Then Matt commmented on the amount of candy Steven brings in every week, and Steven indicated that he hactually had some fortune cookies for everyone (in addition to the plethora of candy). The guys opened their fortune cookies and read them on air.

Matt: Put all your unhappiness aside. Life is beautiful. Be happy.

David: To forgive others one more time is to create one more blessing for yourself

Steven: You desire recognition and you will find it


Sneak Peek of COVID and the Church

This episode we want to cover the effect COVID has had on the “big-C” Church and how the “little-c” church has responded. There is definitely a broad range of responses. Summit Church is meeting in house groups. North Point in Atlanta is not meeting at all. And Grace Community church is defying court orders in order to meet. We’ll cover this topic in 3 ways.

  1. Some statistics about COVID and church attendance.
  2. Some discussion about what the Bible has to say about meeting together.
  3. Our thoughts on the topic of COVID and teh church and whether it matters if we gather.

For the Counselors

David

This whole thing brings up a lot emotions. It’s really effecting our thinking. We can’t seem to watch television anymore without thinking about how the characters aren’t social distancing. Everyone’s life seems to have been significantly altered by this pandemic. To the point where every interaction and every conversation seems to have something to do with COVID and precautions and what things are like. It creates judgment and anger when other people don’t act in ways he thinks they should. It just effects everything, from the way we interact with our kids to our spouses to our colleagues.

Steven

I’m conflicted. My emotions change daily if not hourly. I’m conflicted by the safety side of the disease versus what we’re doing to our nation and world over this. Then I watched a war movie and I thought, these folks were ready to give up their lives for their country, but we’re ready to give up our country over the fear of losing our lives. The numbers say one thing but our lived experience is saying another.

Matt

It’s really challenging to get a grasp on what is going on. When it started, we wanted to “flatten the curve.” But now that terminology is gone and we’re only talking about masks. As Christians, we want to know what is going on, so we can try to come up with best practices for interacting with each other and with the church.

Additionally, Matt has studied the law on this topic for his job. And the CDC guidance changes constantly, which makes crafting a response difficult. He acknowledges that it is a novel virus, but the constant shifting target makes interaction difficult.


Deep Dive

Matt’s Stats on COVID and the Church

Matt compiled a lot stats about the virus (taken in late July 2020). They can be found here at Pew Research, Barna, and Temptleton-Gallup.

Pew: https://www.pewforum.org/2020/08/07/attending-and-watching-religious-services-in-the-age-of-the-coronavirus/

Barna: https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/

Templeton-Gallup: https://www.franklintempleton.com/investor/article?contentPath=html/ftthinks/en-us-retail/cio-views/on-my-mind-they-blinded-us-from-science.html

Highlights from Stats on COVID and the Church

A few highlights are the following:

  • Among “practicing Christians” (someone who attends church at least once per month) – one-third have stopped attending church completely during COVID.
  • Fifty-five percent of practicing Christians expect for churches to be open but to implement some sort of safety measures (social distancing, masks, etc.).
    • But 31% of those people indicated that their church is not open.
    • Two-thirds say they are at least somewhat confident that they could attend a religious service safely.
  • Eighty-five percent of US adults said that they will not change their religious attendance habits based on COVID.
  • Seventy-nine percent of US adults said that houses of worship should be subject to the same regulations as other businesses.
  • Seventeen percent of practicing Christians who have stopped attending church feel bored all the time (versus 6% of practicing Christians who are still attending church).
  • Eleven percent of practicing Christians who have stopped attending church feel insecure for at least some of each day (versus 7% of practicing Christians who are still attending church).
  • Twenty-six percent of Baby Boomers stopped attending church altogether due to closures, etc. Thirty-five percent of Generation X stopped attending church altogether due to closures, etc. Fifty percent of Millennials stopped attending church altogether due to closures, etc.
Discussion on Matt’s Stats for COVID and the Church

David validated that our church experienced some of these attendance stats first-hand. There was a spike in attendance online at first, and then it dropped off.

Matt lamented the statistic concerning churches being treated the same as businesses. From a legal perspective there are tremendously more amounts of protections in place for churches than for other groups, businesses, or organizations. This is split in the stats, though. Sixty-two percent of evangelicals believe this and 95% of atheists believe it.

We discussed whether this was also the case in the event of public health and safety concerns. Matt walked us through the rights of states to broadly institute restrictions for health and safety. But he indicated there would be additional scrutiny which states would face should they decide to limit gatherings due to the constitutional protection for the practice of religion (and the right to demonstrate peacefully). David and Steven briefly discussed the double standard that seems to be applied. First there is a difference in the rhetoric of the media between protests and riots versus the rhetoric of gathering at a house-of-worship. Second, there seems to be confusion as to what is “essential.” When comparing the church to other businesses that have been labeled “essential” (liquor stores, casinos, abortion clinics, etc.), it seems a bit two-faced.

What the Bible Says about COVID and the Church

Greek Words

Does the Bible actually have anything to say about us meeting together physically? The go-to verse is usually Hebrews 10:24-25:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:24-25

The word translated “meet together” is episunagoge. Within this word, you can see the term where we get synagogue.  Literally this would be “under” (epi), “with” (sun), “to bring” (ago). So, more coherently – to bring together. But could that be to bring together over Zoom or some other digital means? There is really no way for us to know that. However, the New Testament has several different words for meeting together. Generally, they are translated as “gather,” “gathering,” “assemble,” assembly,” “assembling,” “congregate,” or “congregation.” In nearly all these instances, the word is used to describe a physical meeting together. But, there is no way for us to conclusively say that the Bible commands the physical meeting together over the digital (again, mainly because there was no conception of the digital in Bible times).

Command v. Implication

Despite not being able to conclusively say that we must meet together physically, the Bible implies that we meet together physically. The argument could be made that Paul ministered long-distance through his letters, but in all his letters he talks about how he longs to be with those to whom he is writing. Our experience with digital mediums should certainly be evidence that it is not the ideal. But too often we compare our worst digital experiences with our best in-person experiences. But even when we compare our best digital meetings to some of our worst physical meetings, we are able to see the inadequacies of the digital meeting space.

Our experience with digital mediums should certainly be evidence that it is not the ideal. But too often we compare our worst digital experiences with our best in-person experiences. But even when we compare our best digital meetings to some of our worst physical meetings, we are able to see the inadequacies of the digital meeting space.

Relational

Further but related, the digital can supplement the physical relationship but is never a replacement for it. We are designed and programmed to be relational. The Bible uses relational metaphors for our relationships with one another and with God. None of us would want a digital marriage or a digital child or a digital sibling. And we are the bride of Christ, the sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters in Christ. Meeting physically, in-person is always the best option for the body of Christ. However, there may be some legitimate reasons to not meet. And that is a personal decision and a heart issue.

The Bar

A digital relationship with the church will too often be consumer driven. Up until COVID, the lowest-level of participation that a church could expect were individuals who consumed the service through a digital platform, but that is now everyone’s reality. There are very little opportunities for me to serve and use my gifts to enrich the body (which is a command). Instead I rely solely on the pastor to produce content which I can consume.


Parting Shots

Matt

More Stats
  • 0-44 years of age who have died of COVID – a little over 4,000
  • 0-44 years of age who live in the US – 165,000,000
  • The fatality rate is almost zero
  • 18-24 years of age – 25% of individuals in this age bracket have contemplated suicide in the last 30 days.
So What?

Christians should be making informed decisions about church participation in light of these numbers by understanding the risk to a certain demographic versus the cost to a certain demographic.

Church is important and people need to make decisions based on their own views and risk-tolerance, but it should not be made in a vacuum. It should be made based on what the data is showing us on the virus. Because we are designed by God to be relational (in person).

We also need to examine what we do in the rest of our life. If we’re willing to take risks for leisure, we should be willing to take risks for the body of Christ.

The good news is that after 2000 years of church history, the church has gone through pandemics before. Rodney Stark has written much about this. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, he says:

When an epidemic destroys a substantial portion of a population, it leaves large numbers of people without the interpersonal attachments that had previously bound them to the conventional moral order. As mortality mounted during each of these epidemics, large numbers of people, especially pagans, would have lost the bonds that once might have restrained them from becoming Christians. Meanwhile the superior rates of survival of Christian social networks would have provided pagans with a much greater probability of replacing their lost attachments with new ones to Christians. In this way, a very substantial number of pagans would have been shifted from mainly pagan to mainly Christian social networks. In any era such a shifting of social networks would have resulted in Christian conversions.”

Rodney Starke, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries

Steven

  • I agree with all the stats, but they have done nothing to curb the spirit of fear and the spirit of anxiety that exists in our culture today. But we know that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Further, we are to give our anxieties to God (1 Peter 5:7), and we are to be “anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). So we should reject the spirit of fear and anxiety that is permeating our culture. Yet we also need to be sensitive to the weaker brother (Romans 14). Whether we agree with the safety precautions is inconsequential to whether I do those things in service to my brother and sister in Christ.
  • We need to get better at relationships – both digital and in-person. There are things we can do to
  • Don’t forget about the precedent in the Old Testament about what to do with infectious diseases. Some of those might be good to look at when considering our response to COVID.
  • Trust in the Lord. Is this an area of trust or an area of anxiety for me?
  • Face-to-face meetings engage all five senses; whereas digital meetings typically engage one, maybe two (at best four) of the senses.
  • Finally, make it a matter of prayer and careful consideration. There are other factors at play. For instance, there is a church currently wrestling whether they should “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29) in the face of government mandates to remain closed. And they have put out a great, well-though-out statement and also pursued their cause through the legal system.

David

  • Each family has to make decisions about their own boundaries. Then, each family should do everything they can to be the church within those boundaries. Our attitude should not be “what’s the least we can do and remain faithful?” But rather “how much can we do within these boundaries.” Pray and act.
  • This is a God-ordained situation we are in right now. God knew it was coming and He has a plan for His church, and we need to be trying to seek His face and determine what those plans are. And then do them! We don’t get a break from faithfulness.

Conclusion

What a great episode! So, in summary. Walk in love (Ephesians 5:2). Love God; love your neighbors (Mark 12:30). Ask, “How can I best do that in this time?” Maybe it does mean taking more care of protecting your family physically. Maybe it means serving your brothers and sisters in church. Make it a matter of prayer and ask the Lord how He wants to work through your actions.

This is a struggle for all of us. So, if you know someone struggling with this issue, please forward this podcast to them.

And, please (please) share this on the socials.

Don’t forget to rate and review us on whatever platform you listen. If you have questions, reach out to us at our email address

Until next time, we are The Socially Remote!


Links and Stuff

The Podcast

Thanks for reading about this episode, and don’t forget to listen on:

Check out our website, TheSociallyRemote.com, for all the current happenings.

About The Socially Remote

Does it ever seem like the longer you adult, the less social you become? The responsibilities of being a spouse, a parent, and an employee often leave us with little time for meaningful interaction outside our home and office. As a result, many of us aren’t even remotely social. We try to fill the void with outlets like Facebook and Twitter, but we soon discover social media isn’t as social as it sounds. And the effort we put into soliciting likes and comments doesn’t produce stronger relationships with other people like we’d hoped.

This podcast is an attempt by a pastor, a lawyer, and a generalist to combat the growing culture of social isolation by making time for meaningful conversations about life, theology, and the church. We want to create space in our lives to engage in regular discussion and debate with those around us, and we hope this podcast will encourage you to do the same.

So join Matt, David, and Steven as we take a deep dive on the issues that matter to us and try to put real conversation back in its rightful place.

We are The Socially Remote.

Learn More and Reach Out

If you want to know more about the hosts, check out their bios and links to outside work, here.

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For the Lawyers

Legal Disclaimer: The views expressed on this podcast belong solely to the individuals expressing them and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and opinions of their respective employers.

Deep Dive segment introduction from “Dive” by Steven Curtis Chapman on the Speechless album. Used with permission courtesy of the Stable Collective.

About the Author
Steven Halbert is a husband, father, son, and brother. He has held various roles in children and family service organizations and currently works as a product manager for an industrial manufacturer. He enjoys teaching adult Sunday school, which is where the idea for his book - The Relational God - materialized. He has an associate degree in Bible and a master's degree in English; and he blogs about business, relationships, and the church at stevenhalbert.com

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