taking the words of Jesus seriously

It is with a heavy heart that thousands of churches across the country have suspended in-person worship services and Bible studies. This is not an easy decision for pastors to make. In times of crisis, our houses of worship are often the best places to find hope, comfort, and renewal.

Nevertheless, suspending in-person worship is absolutely the right decision. As followers of a savior who healed the sick, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to protect the vulnerable by slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Sadly, not enough pastors are taking the novel coronavirus seriously. I’ve been hearing from many religious leaders who say the crisis just isn’t bad enough where they live yet to warrant suspending services—but that simply isn’t true.

It does not matter how many confirmed cases of coronavirus exist in your town. Public health experts tell us that the sooner we all take drastic measures, the better a chance we have of “flattening the curve,” slowing the spread of this virus, and keeping our hospitals from getting overwhelmed.

That is why several thousand Christians have signed a petition from Faithful America, the Christian social-justice advocacy organization I work for, calling on all our pastors and priests to suspend services and other events.

The facts are the facts, so why haven’t all churches closed yet? Some pastors have been listening to the misinformation initially spread by figures like Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, who falsely compared the novel coronavirus to the flu on Fox News.

Other pastors may in fact understand the risk posed by the disease, but fear that their parishioners will rebel against any decisions to cancel services before the law absolutely requires it.

READ: Lessons From the Fog (And This Pandemic) 

As priests and pastors, our ultimate loyalty is to God. This means that it often falls on us as moral leaders to make unpopular decisions. If a governor or mayor has not yet locked down a city, it is still the pastor’s responsibility to care for their parishioners, and to do what is right for the larger community.

Still other pastors tell me their primary concern is not the virus itself, but the truly devastating impacts of social isolation for the elderly and depressed. There are certainly painful trade-offs when we suspend in-person worship – but those temporary tradeoffs are worth it to save millions of lives, plus everyday we are given new, creative ideas about how to practice community even while social distancing.

Take heart that when Jesus said he will be among any two or three who gather in his name, he did not say they have to gather in person. Just as we pray with Christians from across the centuries, we can pray with one another today from across town and across the nation.

There are abundant resources available online to help pastors learn how to run digital services. For a starting place, I recommend the Sojourners article, “Community Without Communing: Resources for Virtual Church.” The Christian Reformed Church in North America has also provided “9 Key Tips for Planning an Online Worship Service.”

If you have a high number of congregants without computers, you might consider something like FreeConferenceCall.com for a simple audio-only prayer service.

It’s okay if you don’t get the technology perfect; parishioners will appreciate any attempts at all. We won’t always get it right, but just as Jesus forgives over and over again, we can keep trying, over and over again.

It’s also okay to skip the online worship and put your time into phone-based pastoral care or online Bible studies. Churches are well positioned to organize food deliveries for the shut-in, provide video-based fellowship hours, spread the word about advocacy efforts that push the government and corporate employers to do more for the vulnerable, and create phone trees to give the isolated a daily dose of love.

To provide worship when your energy is elsewhere, simply refer parishioners to existing digital services, such as those from the Episcopal National Cathedral or the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.

Ultimately, the church is not a building. The church is God’s people, wherever we are. If we have faith that God will show us the way, then we can take these next few weeks to pray, innovate, and find new ways to offer God’s scattered children the comfort, care, and community they need.

About The Author

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Nathan Empsall is an Episcopal priest, veteran progressive digital organizer, and campaigns director for Faithful America, "the largest online community of Christians putting faith into action for social justice." Nathan organizes rapid-response campaigns to help Faithful America's 150,000+ members reclaim the gospel's message of love from the Religious Right. Nathan is also a part-time parish priest, a member of the Episcopal Church's Task Force on Care of Creation and Environmental Racism, and the founding editor of Episcopal Climate News. Originally from Conroe, Texas, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, he is now a husband and father in New Haven, Connecticut.

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