In the part of the world where I live we haven’t had an outbreak of COVID. To that extent, in the most serious sense we’ve been unaffected by the pandemic that has brought hardship and sorrow to so many around the globe. And of course this is a reason for thanksgiving. Though it ought to be a humble gratitude. It’s not as though the place where I live is more deserving than any other.
Yet, even though my region has managed to remain COVID free to this point, we haven’t been entirely unaffected. Like most people everywhere else, I think we are suffering from a collective feeling of weariness. The last (nearly) year of lockdowns, restrictions, and a news cycle that continually reminds us of the brokenness of our world has taken a toll on us. If not physically, then mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
You feel it, don’t you? Every time you slap on a mask to go for groceries. Each time you go into a government building. Whenever you turn on CBC, CTV, CNN, or Fox. And in those moments around friends, family members, or neighbours who have very different views and are enthusiastic about sharing them.
Not only that, but you don’t have to watch the news too closely to be aware that churches, especially in North America, have had very different responses to COVID and ways of dealing with the government restrictions put in place to stave off its spread.
As a pastor, it’s been frustrating to see other church leaders make following or ignoring restrictions on gathering a matter of religious freedom, instead of seeing it as a way of loving our neighbors.
Don’t get me started on people who trot out Hebrews 10:24–25 as justification for shoving hundreds or even thousands of people in a church building without social distancing. Here’s the passage in question:
And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.Hebrews 10:24-25
Nothing here indicates that we are commanded by God to meet by the dozens, hundreds, much less thousands in buildings of our design in order to obey Scripture. Indeed, most NT churches met in homes in something very much like contemporary small groups. There are ways to be faithful to Scripture, to encourage one another as believers, that also allow us to live as good citizens. So when pastors and their churches violate government restrictions, I tend to think they are often on thin biblical ground.
But I digress. All I want to say is that this mixed witness of the church and the way COVID has affected ministry and congregational life has led to a weariness among followers of Jesus too.
And of course church people come to socially distanced worship services with masks on already feeling the larger societal weight of all that’s going on.
It makes me wonder. Should churches really be that anxious to get back to normal, to ramp up activities and programs?
Because if our communities are suffering from a weariness and loneliness and brokenness because of COVID, is the best way of being the church to offer events and programs, more things to add to people’s already crammed schedules? Let’s face it, we need less not more in our lives.
So might we as churches instead offer a place of rest, the space to grieve our losses, a refuge from the busyness of spirit that plagues us? Maybe even to provide a break from our screens and devices rather than another reason to have them with us?
Our lives are already full of distractions, digital and otherwise. Do we need church to be busy too? Is the kingdom an alternative to our culture’s way of life or do we mimic it for the sake of appearing relevant?
I really wonder how much we’ve learned about being churches during this time of COVID. Do we see it as simply an unwelcome interruption to our plans or what we think of as God’s plans?
Or could it be that God has wanted us to learn some stuff from these specific circumstances? That maybe church isn’t about our ideas of success? That numbers are not the best measure of faithfulness in ministry? That perhaps having more time for quiet, prayer, and contemplation might just remind us what it means to live in God’s presence as his people?
Maybe there are moments when God removes things from our lives and our churches to get us to reflect and think critically about how we’ve done things and how we ought to do things. What might we gain because of what we’ve lost?
Do I sound a little frustrated? Well, consider that we haven’t been able to have church potlucks in nearly a year! Ours is a Baptist church after all!
Seriously, though, it continues to mean putting some of our ideas on hold until restrictions are lifted. It means limited fellowship opportunities. It means living with an uncertainty about the simplest of things, like whether our church can have Vacation Bible School this summer.
The truth is, we don’t know for sure how long these restrictions will be in place. Even with the vaccines on their way, we could be looking at having to follow current guidelines until the fall of this year.
If that turns out to be the case, how will we handle it?
What we can say is that, thankfully, the ultimate wellbeing of the church doesn’t depend on us. Whatever happens (or doesn’t), God can and will uphold his people.
In any case, I’m not writing as someone who has answers, but someone who has a lot of questions. So forgive the rant. These things make me weary too.