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
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!ReplyDelete