Why Our Church is Still Worshiping Online

Our congregation has been extremely supportive of the ultra-safe stance we have taken regarding this pandemic. I have had a few conversations recently though that has led me to write my response down to that question that all us pastors have heard more times than we can count: “Any idea when we’ll go back to in-person worship?” The snarkist in me always wants to say, “Well, let me consult my magic ball and see.” But that would be unbecoming of a pastor, so I try to refrain. So, here are a few of my thoughts on what people are really asking, “Why are we still worshipping online when others have gone back to in-person worship?”

 An obligation to sacrificial love. As Christians, we have always lifted up the importance of love and how that love calls us to sacrifice at times, meaning that it calls us to give up things for the betterment of others. I’d say that 99% of my preaching is preparing my listeners for that very act of sacrificial love when the opportunity will arise, and it inevitably will arise. It often presents itself in small, seemingly insignificant ways. This pandemic, however, just happens to be a huge in-your-face opportunity to practice what we have been preparing for. Because this is what we have been preparing for, we just never know the form it will take: masks, sheltering in place, isolation, loneliness, economic strife, etc. “Pastor, would God call us to these things?!” If it means life for others…Yes.

 Worshipping in person is not worth the risk. Even if we take our love for neighbor out of the equation, what about our love for each other? A few months into the pandemic, I consulted other pastors both in and outside my denomination, especially those who were planning on returning to in-person worship. One pastor shared that the decision centered around the Eucharist and his parishioner’s need for it. He said, “It’s worth the risk.” My blood ran cold when he said that. In his defense, he belongs to a denomination that doesn’t allow online communion. Mine does (or at least, they don’t have the power to tell us no like his does.) Still, the Eucharist is important to us as well, but when I ask myself if Christ wants us to risk death to receive it, the answer is an easy “No.” Even if we weren’t allowed to do it online.

 We can’t control people. Nor would we want to, but this was a huge factor even when we decided to go to online worship back on March 15th. The CDC’s warning that people over 65 or who have health risks should stay home has not changed. However, even if we were to go back to in-person worship, I’ve had parishioners tell me straight up, “I know I’m high-risk Pastor, but when we go back, I’m coming!” Likewise, when we have tried socially-distanced events like a drive-by celebration parade for someone, no matter how clear we are with the rules, they get so excited to see each other that innocent, but very unsafe, rule-breaking ensues! Unfortunately, the virus cannot distinguish between what is an innocent mistake and what is willful disobedience. Nor does it care.

 We can’t live in fear. Now, I’ve heard this line used by people who think we should just go about our lives as usual and let nature take its course. The good ol’ Darwinistic herd-mentality. But there are other fears that we should be talking about, especially us churchy people. What do you think is one of the most prevalent fears that pastors have? Parishioners leaving the church. And this pandemic plays right into that fear. Will churches who remain online for worship lose parishioners to churches who’ve gone back to in-person worship? Maybe. Probably. Is it worth the loss to save lives? Most definitely. Even if it cost me my job? You bet. As a pastor, I am choosing to fear the loss of a parishioner to death at the hands of this virus more than fearing the loss of a parishioner due to them willingly leaving.

 Complicity. In a discussion with a couple of our youth about how social-distancing was going in school, because they had returned to in-person classes, they both shared the same story. During school hours social-distancing is held fairly well. Before and after school, however, it goes out the window: masks come off, crowds accumulate, and kids head to their favorite hang-out spots. Do these schools think they are not complicit in this behavior? They are the gathering entity! Likewise, when churches hold in-person worship and people break the rules before, during, or after worship, do they say, “Well, that’s on them!” and then wash their hands clean of it, acknowledging no act of complicity? They were the gathering entity! They were the ones that called people out of the safety of their homes and into a risky environment full of temptations! I think there’s a Bible verse or two or three about tempting others or stumbling blocks or something, isn’t there? And there I go getting snarky again. 

Other than articulating this in writing for parishioners who may not fully understand the hardline some churches have taken on pandemic safety measures, my hope is that this might also be helpful to other pastors as they continue to process this with their parishioners in the loving conversations I know they are having with them. I’d also love to hear what you would add to this list! In the meantime, my heart goes with all of you as you practice what has been preached for so long: sacrifice and love, law and gospel, death and life, challenge and hope.  

Peace be with you. 

P.S. My apologies to any church leaders who read this and felt judged. I know that whatever decisions you've made or will make are difficult and filled with love. My heart goes with you all.


Pastor Ron Valadez 

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Auburn CA

1 comment:

  1. Thank Pastor Ron for articulating this so well! We are blessed to have you as our Pastor! Keep up the good work and yes, we will be together again! In the meantime, God Bless and keep you, your family and our Congregation safe and well!