By now we’ve all heard about the actions of religious leaders who are actively ignoring expert medical advice to avoid group gatherings of any size. Even as mega-pastors publicly reveal they’re testing positive for COVID-19, some church leaders are still choosing to gather their congregations in-person. Life Tabernacle Church in Central Louisiana recently encouraged almost 2,000 people to meet for their Sunday services. Tom Walters, Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, recently held services and told congregants that if they were carrying the Coronavirus, “We declare you’re healed in Jesus’ name.” Robert Jeffress, Senior Pastor of First Baptist church in Dallas and well-known supporter of the President, recently held services urging people not to give in to “pandemic panic.”
As pastors, we do not say this lightly: These churches are not only disregarding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, guidelines, endangering the public, and thwarting containment of the coronavirus; they are throwing out the Christian Gospel.
Jesus commanded followers to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Gathering in intentional defiance of public safety recommendations does not love God and is a clear refusal to love our neighbors — all of whom are susceptible to Covid-19. Even if we wash our hands and feel healthy, gathering together still puts everyone in danger: ourselves, our families, and especially our elderly and other vulnerable populations.
Fortunately, President Trump has backtracked on his pronouncement to “pack the churches by Easter”. Yet some Christian institutions might still be tempted. After all, this time of year is especially difficult for non-profits who rely exclusively on donor giving and Easter Sunday has among the highest attendance of the year. But church gatherings place our whole nation in even more danger and miss the entire point of the Gospel in which God has charged every one of us to care for our neighbors, particularly those who are vulnerable. All of us are needed to halt the spread of this deadly, historic pandemic.
During times like these, people of faith need each other more than ever. In fact, it’s almost an oxymoron for Christians to be separated because when Christians are at our best, we embody God’s radical hospitality and bring diverse groups of people together to create the Beloved Community. Yet, to keep each other safe, we must choose to create a different kind of intentional community. We must remain physically separated and practice social distancing precisely because we see each other as children of God with inherent worth and dignity.
Around the world, Christians are observing the season of Lent. During Lent, we remember when Jesus social distanced himself from everyone. In the wilderness, he was tempted to live for comfort, money, and power, but chose the path of faithfulness to God. We can see these temptations playing out in our context today, and we have a leader who sees these temptations as personal aspirations. President Trump wants people to feel false comfort, ignore his inattentiveness to COVID-19 warnings from his experts, continue to line big corporations and his bank accounts, and most of all, he wants to stay in power come November. While the President does not recognize these as evil tempters threatening the very soul of our nation, Christians must name the tempters that we see, hold our leaders accountable, and choose the path of obedience to God, as Jesus did.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reminds his followers that wherever two or three are gathered in his name he is there among them. Surely, these words apply to the digital world. If we remember that Christ is present with us even during this time of physical separation, we can develop deeper relationships with one another even across cyberspace. So while the coronavirus has forced faith communities to embrace the digital world, whether we wanted to or not, it is an opportunity for the Church to do what it does when it’s at its best: foster authentic relationships amongst a diverse group of people. With a bit of effort and a lot of intentionality, congregations can continue to gather online. No, it’s not the same as in-person worship, but congregations can still create true community and deepen faith. In fact, this time of isolation could well be an opportunity for churches to welcome new people who are searching for more connection and deeper relationships.
We must care for our most vulnerable neighbors, just as Jesus did. When Jesus denied temptation in the wilderness, he showed us by example how to live. When Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he meant it. If the purpose of worship is to glorify God and embody God’s Reign on earth, physically gathering during this time does neither. Meeting each Sunday and talking about Jesus does no good if we don’t actually listen to the words he spoke. There are times when staying away from each other is the faithful thing to do. This is one of those times and to not do so is violating the intent of our faith.
We must listen to medical experts who are telling us how to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 pandemic. We must demand that our leaders do the same and we must resist temptations to disregard these warnings in our own lives. This pandemic might just prove whether we really deserve to meet for worship once this crisis has passed.