The Covid-19 crisis continues to bring challenges to the leadership of the rural church as we try to navigate through these unchartered waters. Throughout this crisis, politicians have used and abused the issues to advance their own agenda. Draconian polities seem to be arbitrary and driven by political expediency rather than clearly articulated policies governed by sound research. The medical field has only brought further confusion as different experts have recommended different responses and treatments for the disease. Misinformation has become prolific throughout the internet so that people can find all types of “research” to valid the conclusions they have already drawn. All this has brought have further polarized within the nation and the church in America.
Recently, on a Sunday morning just before the message, I received two messages expressing polar opposite viewpoints regarding the policies the church should have as we moved towards a soft reopening. One stated they would not come because our policies were not rigorous enough, while the other decided to stay home because our policies were too restrictive. But in this we are not alone. This is a challenge rural churches struggle to navigate. With 70% of churches in the US now having some level of in-person services, the challenges we face will only increase. Do we require people to wear masks? Should singing be allowed, even if people wear masks? Should people be encouraged to return to church, or should the option be left to their personal discretion?
All this leads to ongoing confusion and a variety of opinions (many strongly held) regarding the appropriate response the church should take. This was highlighted recently in the news by the response of Grace Community Church to the mandates of the State. They took a hard stand in favor of in-person gatherings, with the implication that to not meet is a violation of scripture and a failure to trust God. In contrast to their response, North Point Community Church has formally announced that they will not have any in-person services until at least 2021. For them, it is unloving and a poor testimony to go against the government guidelines. When there is no consensus from national religious leaders then how can we expect to have a consensus in our local church? From the outset our church has stated that we believe that we should err on the side of caution regarding the pandemic. However, as weeks have turned into months and the spiritual side effects are being felt, we struggle to find a balance between the physical wellbeing of people and the spiritual health of the congregation. The only conclusion we have come to is that there are no firm conclusions.
To help us then navigate through the minefield of personal opinions we have sought to develop a principle-driven strategy. The bottom line is that each church must strive to navigate through all the various opinions in a way that is best for them in their local situation. However, it is critical for each church to carefully develop a clear strategy for doing so, a strategy that is not based upon personal opinions, but carefully thought out principles that are grounded in scripture. Here are the principles that we have sought to guide us as we strive to develop a strategy that is best for our congregation in our local setting. These principles may not be the principles you determine but it is hoped that they will serve as a starting point of discussion as your church leadership works to develop a clear strategy.
1. Maintain a balanced approach. While we must treat the Covid-19 threat seriously, we must strive to keep a balance between the physical threat of Covid-19 and the spiritual and emotional toll it has upon people. We would be foolish to completely disregard the threat of Covid-19, but we would be equally foolish to disregard the spiritual and emotional impact it is having. On the one hand we should not live in fear of Covid-19, rather we should trust in God’s sovereign protection. On the other hand, we should not be foolish and unwise in completely ignoring the threat. One of the lessons of the Book of Ecclesiastes is that the wise person avoids extremes (Eccl. 7:16-18). Certainly, this is an appropriate principle in this case as well. Differences of opinion lead to further polarization of viewpoints. Our task is to avoid the extremes and seek a balanced approach.
2. Continually adapt to the fluid situation (1 Cor. 9:19-23). The threat of Covid-19 is fluid and constantly changing therefore we need to be ready and willing to modify and change our protective methods and procedures as the situation changes. This will involve decreasing constraints at times as well and going back to more restrictive procedures as circumstances change. It will be fluid and we need to be willing to adapt accordingly in the future. We cannot expect that our present response will remain the same for the next six to eight months. All we can do is base our procedures on the present situation. We need to continually monitor the rate of change in our community and respond accordingly. If there is a sudden increase in our community, then we will need to react appropriately. For a county by county assessment of the Covid-19 threat level see: https://globalepidemics.org/key-metrics-for-covid-suppression/ .
3. The goal should be mitigation, not elimination of both the physical and spiritual threat we are currently facing. In some ways the physical and spiritual impact are mutually exclusive. The more restrictive we become in mitigating the physical threat of Covid-19, the greater the potential for a negative impact it can have on the spiritual wellbeing of the church and vice versa. We cannot completely eliminate the threat of Covid-19 to our physical health, nor can we completely eliminate the threat of social distancing to the spiritual health of our congregation. We must be governed by wisdom rather than fear (Ps. 91:5-9), but we must also be cautious in the face of danger (Proverbs 14:16). Our goal is to try to mitigate the threats of both by finding a balance between the two.
4. Recognize the importance and need for the spiritual health of people. (Hebrews 10:25). As the pressure and anxiety of Covid-19 continues to wear upon people we need to recognize that it is even more critical that we focus upon the spiritual wellbeing of others. For some, the tragedy is that the state officials have placed the church in the category of “non-essential”. This is not only a tragic mistake, but contrary to scripture. With all that is going on, the fellowship and communion of the church is even more critical. While we may have to adjust our in-person services, we must be even more intentional in ministering creatively to the spiritual needs of the congregation.
5. Unity must continue to be our top priority (Romans 14:1-2 and 15:1-7). While there are a variety of strongly held viewpoints regarding the threat and proper response to Covid-19, we cannot allow our personal opinions to override the biblical mandate to maintain the unity of the church. We cannot allow Satan to use the various and contradictory opinions to divide us. Each us must be willing to adapt and surrender our own personal freedoms and viewpoints for the unity of the church.
6. We need to be humble in our opinion and recognize the complexity of the issues and our inability to determine the right or wrong answer with regard to the proper response to Covid-19. The biggest challenge we face is both the lack of consensus among experts regarding the proper response to Covid-19 and the lack of consensus among national church leaders and pastors regarding the proper spiritual response. This further adds not only to the confusion but also division within churches. This is why we need to be prayerful in our focus, humble in our opinions, and willing to submit to the overall consensus of the church board for what is the best response for our church in our specific setting. (see James 1:5-6).
7. Each person must determine what is best for their own specific situation (Romans 14:1-5). Not only is every church setting different, but each individual within the church has different issues that affect their comfort level in returning to in-person services. We must be careful not to condemn or reject those whose comfort level is different from our own.
Certainly, the are no clear answers to navigate through all of the challenges the church faces because of Covid-19. However, it does provide the church an opportunity to learn to be guided by biblical principles when making decisions rather than personal feelings and opinions. This is a lesson that will not only help bring clarity to the confusion of Covid-19, but to all areas of life as well. That will be a lesson well learned.
Glenn Daman is pastor of a rural church and author of five books on rural and small church ministry.