The COVID-19 pandemic has brought church services to a grinding halt in our nation. In a dozen years, I do not recollect missing a Sunday service except for a very few times – the birth of my child, or a really bad illness. But this has changed since March 15th, 2020. That was the last Sunday service I gathered along with the saints up until the time of this writing. If you are anything like me, you are longing for the church to gather again (Ps. 42:1-4). I am no expert on pandemics, but here is what I think we can expect in the coming days:
- Life will not be the Same Post COVID-19.
In fact, I am not sure that there will be a post COVID-19 world. In all likelihood, unless COVID-19 is eradicated like polio, we might mostly have to live in a world where COVID-19 is part of our life like influenza. We may just have to get used to living with this virus and move on. I think it is safe to assume that life will be different, and this will impact our church gatherings too.
- Churches will Face Unpredictable Days
It took time for the world to take COVID-19 seriously, and it will take a while for the world to learn to live with it. At the moment, our country is divided into Red, Orange and Green zones by the district. I anticipate that no district or zone will remain permanently in any colour code. We should expect this back and forth movement to impact our ability to gather as churches as part of the path to recovery.
- Most Churches will Struggle to Meet Social Distancing Norms
This is not a prediction, this is a fact. Here is the prediction: The government will allow for mass and religious gatherings as long as certain precautions are taken – such as masks, hand sanitizers, and some social distancing guidelines. How many of our gathering places – rented or owned – can actually fit all the attendees with sufficient distancing maintained? I assume a few can, but the rest of the churches will not be able to. Churches all across our country will need to think about how to deal with gathering and meeting social distancing requirements.
- Unfortunately, Some Churches will Neglect Social Distancing Norms
I hope I am wrong, but I anticipate that this will happen. We might be tempted to think that since no one is ill, we can simply all gather again – who will notice? Our neighbours will. That one person who does not like that we gather in his or her locality might call the police. An unexpected case of COVID-19 in our church will reveal that we broke social distancing requirements. This could do irreparable harm to our long-term witness and even endanger our sheep.
I hope that my predictions don’t come to pass, but I fear they may. And while there is nothing more joyful on this side of eternity for me in this season, than to gather with the saints as soon as I can (Ps. 122:1), I think resuming church services after the lockdown needs to be thought through carefully. Here is a shortlist of suggestions to think through:
Recognize this is a Unique Situation
Earlier, most churches recognized that certain members were unable to come to the gatherings due to illness, an accident or just old age. Today, it would not be unwise to categorize the whole church as ‘shut-ins’ or ‘locked-out’ or some other smart categorization. We must recognize the uniqueness of the situation and accept it. And we must teach our people to trust God’s sovereignty and goodness during this difficult time.
Identify and Care for the Weak and Susceptible
A COVID-19 infection is more likely to be life-threatening for children below 10, senior citizens, pregnant women, and people with comorbidity – like diabetes and respiratory conditions. It would be wise for them and their household members not to immediately join the gatherings. As church leaders, we should make sure that our susceptible members are not neglected, but are encouraged by the church through phone calls, prayer and other practical ways.
Reduce Programmes and Service Length
To start with, do not begin everything again. Go slow, build steadily. Start with only the main gathering (no Sunday schools, children’s programs, other gatherings, potluck, etc.). Keep the gathering shorter than usual. But even with the shortened service, make sure to pray the Word, read the Word, sing the Word, and preach the Word.
Follow Government and Healthcare Guidelines
As mentioned above, when religious gatherings are permitted, they will come with some guidelines. We will do well to follow the guidelines – both for the health of our churches, and so that our churches are seen to submit to the government’s authority. This would be a good opportunity to teach our churches that we submit to the government because the government has been appointed by God for our well-being (Rom. 13:1-5).
A final note. Even as we think about making adjustments in the coming days, let us not get comfortable with smaller and shorter gatherings. Let us long for the time when all our church members can gather together as one body. And when God allows us to gather again, let us not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as we see the Day drawing near (Heb. 10:25). Until then, I pray that God gives us wisdom in our unique contexts for resuming church services safely and wisely.
Edison DSouza serves as Associate Pastor at Cross Cultured Church, Mysore. He is married to Lauren and they have two daughters.