COMMENTARY: The question of congregating

by Jul 1, 2020OPINIONS





Who do you love passionately? What is it like when you are told you cannot see them, touch them, or show any physical affection to them? Agonizing, right?

Millions of Americans have been through a three-month education in separation from loved ones and many are having to continue in isolation because of illness or age. So, I know that I am talking to experts in the field of isolation. 

Yet, the national, regional, and local media are filling with letters to the editor and opinion/news articles chastising church congregations for even thinking about coming together for worship. The criticisms range from charges of insensitivity to insanity for wanting to be able to gather to worship. Many of the critics are self-proclaimed believers themselves. And, very few could argue with the logic during this crisis, at least with the medical opinions that have been put forward. 

Philosophically, calling church a non-essential function of society spoke volumes about the state of religion in America today. I have often wondered where we are as a society when it comes to faith. In word, we say that it is an essential part of our lives, a foundational piece of our being. God means something to each of us, even though it may be something different and to varying degrees. 

Most gods require loyalty and adherence to a code. Whether it is a prerequisite of salvation or a cultural identifier once a person enters a body of believers, a worshipper is “marked” by the way they worship. If this were not so, then faith could be considered a club. Pay your fees and meet attendance requirements and, in return, receive salvation. 

I once heard a preacher refer to church congregating as “coming to the gas station”. He said that without regular church attendance, a person will run out of spiritual gas. He was stating that congregating, at least in that denomination, was essential to the spiritual life of the individuals in it. 

Indeed, there is something spiritually motivating about in-person events. We have seen the recent sadness, even depression, expressed because graduation events have been relegated to either video conferencing or drive-by diploma ceremonies. Some would say a minor blip in the life experience, but it has dramatic emotional consequences. 

Tears and heartache have been experienced over the past several months due to the isolation necessary at hospitals and rest homes, attempting to protect “the most vulnerable among us”. Heartbreaking instances where people are passing away with many of their family members unable to be physically present to comfort them. Even those with critical illness have been limited in the number of loved ones who may come to comfort them during the COVID-19 crisis. 

So, we understand the emotional distress that comes with isolation and segregation. Even in that light, I have heard some of the most insensitive criticisms of people wanting to exercise their faith that I have heard in modern history. Granted, we are in a period when love is expressed in violence and hateful speech. But the cold, clinical disparities cast on the faith community is an especially telling shift in our cultural norms. 

In many religions, if not all religions, congregating is an integral part of their worship.  Individuals in a church body do not look at each other as individual members of a club, but as members of a close-knit family. Members of the Christian faith, for example, refer to themselves in the singular, “the Body or Bride of Christ”. 

Certainly, there are those who treat religion as a hobby or club. It is an add-on or supplement to their everyday lives. They buy the book, get the tee shirt, and that is the extent of their relationship with God and the church. They have a faith and they can prove it because they carry the card. God and faith are something to be trotted out when they want to show it off or to be pulled off the shelf and used in case of emergency. There are those who do not give their faith a thought through the week unless an accident, sickness or other crisis comes their way. Only then do they seek close relationship with the object of their faith. 

But, there are those who take seriously a deep personal relationship with their Creator and his family. That relationship was deemed so important by the founders of America that it was codified in the Bill of Rights. They look upon acts of faith, including congregating, as a sacred act before God. It is essential to them. It is a unification of family in an act of faith that no Zoom meeting or Facebook video can replace. Speaking specifically about the Christian faith, it is not only a Constitutional right, but also a Biblical mandate to congregate. 

So, pastors, rabbis, priests, and other church leaders have had a burdensome task. I have heard much criticism of people of faith, condemning them as either insensitive or ignorant. I do not believe they are either. I believe they have been weighing the consequences of meeting and not meeting since the crisis began. 

One pastor made the statement, “They didn’t teach me how to lead a congregation through a pandemic in seminary school.” 

Church leaders and congregation members are very concerned about the COVID-19 crisis. They do not want to infect their loved ones or their congregations, with a potentially deadly disease, nor do they want to be a flash point for community spread. All of this is new to us as community members, government leaders, and religious leadership. And all are doing the best we can under new circumstances and feeling our ways around untried and untested responses. 

Those church leaders must also weigh the spiritual health of their congregations and communities in the current crisis against a Biblical mandate to assemble. While video social media broadcasts are giving congregations lifelines, they lack the intimacy and personal contact of in-person meetings. Seeing and relating to people 6 feet away and/or masked is completely different from seeing them on a monitor. Think of a long-term social media “friend” that you have never met personally and compare that relationship to someone who is in your community and visits your home daily. The level of intimacy is very likely quite different. 

Expert opinions are that as many as 50 percent of regular church attendees will not return to regular attendance once the restrictions are lifted. This gives you a picture of what church decisionmakers are facing during the crisis. 

Most local churches that I am aware of are attempting to meet within the guidelines established by the state, even though a federal court ruling admonished the state for potentially violating constitutional protections. The leaders of these congregations and the congregants are not ignorant. In fact, they have been tasked with planning on a level that governments do not even contemplate. On top of that, they must deal with the ridicule of people with their own agendas for interfering with the functions of faith. We must exhibit the love we speak before we will convince others that our actions are from love. 

No one knows the right answer when it comes to responding to the COVID pandemic. At the time of this writing, overall, America is seeing infection spikes in a potential “second wave” of disease. This is an occasion where recommendations are becoming law without the input of the people. And we are making moral judgements about people because of their acceptance, or lack thereof, of recommendations. Lawmakers are even acknowledging their uncertainty by implementing regulation without enforcement or consequences to the violator. It seems a little arrogant and prideful of us as a community to condemn anyone based on a hunch, even an educated hunch, especially in a time when the propaganda of the day says we are “all in this together”. 

Each one of us must decide for ourselves where we place our faith in relationship to our day-to-day lives. And we must each weigh the costs of either congregating, isolating, or segregating. We are in a time of global uncertainty. We must limit gathering without limiting unity. We must cover our faces so that people may see our hearts. We must wash our hands so that we may reach out to neighbors in health. The church community understands it needs to be mindful of the seriousness of COVID-19 and may be trusted to attend to the physical and spiritual health of each other and the community at large. They understand the cost of action or inaction, congregating or isolating. Like most of us, they will make mistakes. And like us, they will learn from them and do it better with the new knowledge they acquire. Instead of speaking or acting out of fear and anger, lets work together to educate and motivate each other to love and protect each other, even if it is inconvenient and uncomfortable. We will all be better for it.