Even with the recent decision by the state Supreme Court, the governing board of elected lay leaders at our church voted unanimously to continue the suspension of our in-person gatherings, including …
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Even with the recent decision by the state Supreme Court, the governing board of elected lay leaders at our church voted unanimously to continue the suspension of our in-person gatherings, including Sunday morning worship.
As the pastor, I fully support this decision. According to health officials, this past Saturday marked the highest one-day increase of COVID-19 cases in our state.
Let me be clear: My heart goes out to all people of faith who long to return to their houses of worship. But in light of recent controversy about “reopening” churches, it is important to say that no house of worship has ever been closed due to the coronavirus.
Certainly, many religions have shifted to online gatherings. But what exactly is “essential” about worship? What is the essence, what makes worship indispensable and life-giving?
As a Christian, I believe it is the Holy Spirit that instructs our hearts and minds (John 14:26), prompts us to prayer and praise (Romans 8:26), and gives us the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). In any time and place, no matter the trials and tribulations, the Holy Spirit can offer hope (Romans 15:13). This is what I believe is essential. And none of this requires us to gather in a church building.
I believe the Holy Spirit unites people of faith not only when we are physically apart but even across time. Writing about the effects of the Holy Spirit on people, an ancient writer named Paul of Tarsus named nine virtues as the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self-control. Paul added that there is no law against such things (Galatians 5:22–23). While respecting the shelter-in-place orders during the coronavirus pandemic, people of faith have used their energy, intelligence and imagination to bear the Fruit of the Spirit in new and creative ways.
That said, let me repeat that my heart goes out to people of faith who miss their community. I recognize that there is no online form of worship that is the same as the in-person experience.
But in response to the recent state Supreme Court decision, my overriding concern is not with individual rights but communal responsibilities.
I consider individual rights, including the First Amendment, to be of great importance. And yet, as a Christian, I recognize that my ultimate source of freedom is in Christ (Galatians 5:1) and his commandment to love others. Jesus told us what was essential: “Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This love (agape) is expressed as sacrificial action.
I believe we, as people of faith and citizens of humanity, have a greater responsibility to those most vulnerable and high risk in our community and those brave women and men who care for the sick. Therefore, we must choose to forgo the right to gather in person for worship because of our responsibility to the higher law of love.
What I hope is that, by our willing sacrifices, the larger public would realize what is essential about faith communities. What is the essence of life-giving worship is not the building where people gather, but the love that those people commit to share with the world.