When you look back over the tremendous amount of change our churches have gone through since the early days of Covid-19, it almost takes your breath away.  Congregations who couldn’t have given you a definition of adaptive change suddenly find themselves knee-deep in it.  Pastors who resisted having screens installed in the sanctuary now find themselves on a computer screen every Sunday.  We’ve all been running as fast as we can to try to get ahead of the curve of change, but – like the graphs for the infection rate in many of our communities – that curve of change races exponentially on ahead of us.

And now, just as we’ve figured out how to do some version of on-line worship and classes and meetings and have gotten just a teensy bit comfortable with the technology this transition has required, we are rapidly reaching another flex point.  Should we return to in-person worship?  Should we experiment with outdoor or drive-in worship? And how quickly?

This new challenge has already created a lot of conversation, involving pastors, staff, church boards and members alike. Everyone is thinking about these issues. The conversation is an important one and one that doesn’t always happen easily or without disagreement.

Some of you are in communities where other churches have already re-opened and are offering on-site worship, often in the face of health officials’ plea for them not to do so.  One of the cautionary lessons we’re learning from their experiment is that while it hasn’t happened in every case, we’ve all read stories about how some of those churches have become Covid hot spots shortly afterward.  Is that a risk we want to take?

Arthur Hertzberg, an influential American rabbi, tells the story of meeting a French priest shortly after World War II.  The priest told Hertzberg that during the Nazi occupation, a Jewish man knocked on the door of his church in the dead of night with a Torah scroll.  “He asked me to hide the scroll, which I did,” the priest said proudly.  

Hertzberg’s response was a witness to the deep sanctity of human life in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, “Next time,” he said, “hide the Jewish man and let the scroll go.”

We would do well to heed Hertzberg’s words in this moment.  Let’s make sure that our conversations about restarting in-person worship focus on the safety and health of our fellow church members rather than on other issues that are – appropriately – raised as we make our decisions.

Speaking from this perspective of making the saving of life and health our ultimate commitment, let me offer a few points for you to consider as your congregation moves forward.

  • As you think about what in-person worship looks like post-reopening, make sure you factor in all the recommendations of the CDC and your county health officer: social distancing, no singing or unison responses by the congregation, making sure no one who has a fever or feels ill enter the building, etc.  Don’t fudge on these regulations to expedite your return to worshipping in the same room. 
  • Don’t begin in-person worship until that experience can be at least as good as what you are already offering in your on-line worship.  If you follow all the health guidelines, worship isn’t going to feel like worship used to feel.  It’s going to feel strange for everyone involved.  Will it even feel like worship? 
  • Don’t be the canary in the coal mine for your community.  Learn from the experience of churches that have already reopened.  Know that your decision to hold off on returning to the building may later be seen as a really wise one, especially if there is a spike in your area after other churches open.
  • When you do open, you’re probably going to need to continue your on-line service as well. There are going to be members with high-risk health issues who are not going to feel it’s safe for them to return immediately, and many not for a long time.  I recently read a study that reported 1/3 of members say they would return quickly, 1/3 would not return until a vaccine is available, and 1/3 said they might not ever return.  Two sub points:
    • This is going to raise the stress level on your pastor and worship leaders again, on top of the high stress they are already feeling as they put together your on-line services.  Take care of them.
    • This also runs the risk of making people who don’t return immediately feel like second-class members.  Reach out to them in concrete ways that show them they are not.  Take care of them.
  • Finally, let your church leaders know what you think about all these issues.  Your pastor and the members of your church board need your wisdom as they discern the way forward on behalf of the whole congregation.  Once they make a decision, be supportive of them as they faithfully carry out their leadership role.  Know that whatever decision they make (even if it’s not the one you had hoped for), the health and safety of everyone is utmost in their minds and hearts.

It won’t always be this hard, but – right now – it is.  God doesn’t ask us to get it all exactly right as think our way through this new flex point.  God will surely see our efforts at adaptation as evidence of our faithfulness and a sign our discipleship. Pacing ourselves, caring for one another, and resting in the assurance that God is with is no matter what form our worship takes will get us through all the challenges this virus can throw our way.

Jim Kitchens
A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-West.