A major point of conversation right now is “reopening” businesses across our state and country following a severe lockdown due to COVID. This isn’t news. It’s everyday conversation.
When the shutdown first happened, we talked about our response being one approaching this time in three phases (following the advice of Andy Crouch): “Blizzard, Winter, and Little Ice Age.” As we’re coming out of the blizzard, it’s quite apparent that we’re still in the middle of winter. Inadequate testing and a virus that produces delayed outbreaks mean that “reopening” might not be permanent. It also means that “reopening” is unlikely to be complete. We’re expecting continued restrictions on gathering sizes to be likely throughout the rest of 2020, perhaps well into 2021.
It seems to me that we have two ways of thinking about this: it’s an obstacle, or it’s an opportunity.
We’re choosing an opportunity. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a measure of anxiety I (Skylar) personally deal with weekly; some days are difficult. But it does mean that we are choosing to trust God and move forward through this together by looking at possibilities, not just problems.
I want to share my thinking on this subject in three categories: (1) Biblical Tensions, (2) Scientific Evidence, (3) Practical Implications.
1. Biblical Tensions
Some situations are so clear in the Scripture that we don’t even need to discuss them:
- Should I love my neighbor? Yes.
- Should I steal from my neighbor? No.
- Should I murder my neighbor? Also no.
Unfortunately, how we reopen the church isn’t quite as clear as the Ten Commandents. Instead of a clear-cut solution, we have clear biblical principles that seem to oppose one another in this unique situation. Consider the following very clear verses:
- Mark 12:31 — …”You shall love your neighbor as yourself…”
- John 14:27 — …”Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
- Romans 13:1-2 — “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
- 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.”
There are multiple additional verses we could bring to this list, but with just these four verses, the following is clear. We are to (a) love our neighbors, (b) not fear, (c) obey the government, and (d) not quit gathering.
In most periods of American history, there wasn’t conflict between these components. Now, however, we’re beginning to ask at what point staying away from each other is still wise and biblical. We’re facing a world now where isolation is exposing a deep need for encouragement. Here are just a few of the questions I’m hearing asked:
- Is it still loving to keep our friends isolated?
- Are we in danger of crossing a barrier from wise shutdown to fear-based isolation?
- Is there ever a time when obedience to Christ compels us toward peaceful civil disobedience?
- Or is the risk of the pandemic such that disobeying government guidelines is unloving?
- Is a digital Zoom call or live-streamed worship really an effective long-term replacement for a congregational gathering?
These are the questions with which we’re wrestling. There are no clearcut, easy answers. In times like this, all we can do is the best we can do.
2. Scientific Evidence
As I write this, our current death toll in America has passed 90,000. Epidemiologists were predicting more than 100,000 deaths by June of 2020 in America alone, and, barring a move of God, I expect we’ll see that reality come to pass. Here are the current numbers:
Friends, this is a crisis unlike any we’ve lived through. Whatever your opinion is of the virus, or of how deaths are counted, or of the economic implications of the lockdown, or of any handful of related issues, surely we can agree about this: this is a real and dangerous threat to how we’ve lived for years.
I am not taking this lightly.
While I myself am not likely a high-risk individual for the virus, I have friends and family who are. Because of this we are going to use wisdom and caution before making any decisions, and we’re going to remain adaptable and flexible as we go.
As of today the following three realities are pertinent to our decision-making. While I expect these to change somewhat, with more than 4 million confirmed cases globally, each day brings more clarity to these factors.
- Most of our actual understanding of the virus is still in flux at the popular level. Perhaps this feels like a cop-out to say this, but it’s true. You and I are rarely given clear, accurate, and consistent information. The CDC and the White House seem to be on different pages. Each news network seems to be covering a different pandemic. Scary things have started happening with children, and we don’t know what. The Atlantic did a fascinating article about why there is so much confusion, but my basic approach is that we have to assume we don’t know everything.
- Church Gatherings in buildings have been the cause of multiple outbreaks. While we don’t know everything about the virus, we know this: church buildings create outbreaks. It makes sense, too. Churches have notoriously bad ventilation (think of the smell of your grandmother’s church), and people sit in one place for a long time, and then they shake hands and share a common loaf and wine. Just one COVID-infected person becomes weaponized in that room.
- Transmission in outdoor locations with adequate distance between people is virtually non-existent. If an old church building is perhaps the worst place to be during a COVID outbreak, outside is clearly one of the best. Airflow and diffusion outdoors mean that even someone who sneezes or coughs — which can be devastating in a church building or meat-packing plant — is still highly unlikely to infect another person outside with proper distancing. Dr. Erin Bromage from U Mass Dartmouth has written a fantastic article breaking down the science of what’s most dangerous and why.
3. Practical Implications
My reasoning is pretty simple on this.
- First, if there isn’t a safe way to gather together during this season, it’s more loving to stay scattered.
- Second, if there is a safe way to gather, gathering in person is significantly more valuable than Zoom gatherings online.
- Third, whether we gather or scatter, we need to focus on equipping the scattered church as our priority over returning to a gathered church.
1. In-Person at the Park
Starting June 14th, barring a radical departure from the expected response from governing officials, we’ll plan to move to outdoor meetings at the Northeast corner of Huston Lake Park. It’s the corner of W. Ohio & South Vallejo streets (approximately 2200 W Ohio Ave., Denver, CO 80223)
The logistics of this are simple:
- Bring a lawn chair, a mask, your Bible and a journal to take notes
- Bring your own coffee, water, etc. — but not too much, because there are no restrooms
- Stay awkwardly distanced like you’ve gotten so good at doing (6-10 feet apart)
We’ll have a message from the Bible and a time of worship. And it will be great to hear and see other people, too.
2. Online Visitors & at Home Service
We realize that not everyone will be able to or comfortable enough to join us in person. If you’re at high risk of the virus or anxious about gathering even outdoors with distance, you don’t need to come. Instead, we’ll provide an online option as well. This will likely be more of a webinar format than a live Zoom call, but know that if you’re at risk we still care about you and want you to be able to journey with us.
If you can’t join at the park, I’d highly encourage you to connect digitally with some friends for real-life conversations around an open Bible. Email email@example.com if you need a connection to a group.
Questions that we don’t yet have good answers to:
- What about restrooms? TBD. This is not ideal, but we may not have access to public restrooms depending on Denver Parks and Rec restroom plans.
- What if it rains? I guess we’ll get wet. That’s as far as we’ve made it. Plan to bring an umbrella or a rain jacket if it may rain. Any changes will be communicated by our email list and website.
- Will there be extra lawn chairs or masks? Yes, but plan to bring your own if possible.
- What about kids? Both Jesus and the whole Bible value (examples include Matthew 19:13-14 and Psalm 127:3-5), and we’re going to live that out. If you have kids, bring them! They can sit with you, or play on the grass, or run through the gathering. It’s not a problem. It’s a blessing.
I know this is a pivot and it will feel different, but I also know that the beauty of being a church our size is that we’re agile. I’m looking forward to jumping into a fun summer together despite the challenges, and I hope you can join us.