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Should churches stop in-person gatherings?

  • Author: The members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Anchorage
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 12
  • Published August 12

FILE - In this April 8, 2010 file photo a cross sits on top of a church in Berlin, Germany. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

With the coronavirus spreading, still rapidly, in our community and across our nation, churches and faith leaders are faced with a critical dilemma. Do we stay open and continue services as usual, or, do we close doors, as recommended (and, in some cases, mandated) by local officials? This is not a question one can answer quickly, by any means. Without a doubt, the gathering of congregants for worship is foundational to the church’s distinct identity. The church is a gathering of people, worshipping their God! To be asked to stop gathering is, in a sense, a crushing of that identity.

The entire nation has been asked by medical experts from the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, other medical fields, the government, and even municipal leaders, to aid in flattening the curve, so that this virus can be destroyed. One of the ways the community has been asked to do this is by practicing physical distancing. This becomes an essential issue for churches. Why? Because Christians like to hug one another, like to shake hands, like to give holy kisses, like to congregate and talk and, depending on the church’s traditions, share communion cups. This is a natural flow for every Christian. Christians seek that close connection with others naturally, as well as supernaturally.

So, what are churches to do? The Christian has a mandate from scripture to obey governing authorities (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–17). This becomes, for many, a good reason to stop in-person worship. These are not the only Biblical principles that help to inform this important question.

Stopping in-person worship is not the same as stopping worship. Worship cannot be stopped by anything! “God will still be exalted among the nations and in the earth because He is God” (paraphrase, Psalm 46:10). Jesus, in John 4:21-24, talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, reminds Christians, everywhere, that the hour will come, when you won’t worship on this mountain nor in Jerusalem, but the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. That hour is now. God wants us to worship Him in spirit and in truth, and this is not confined to a place, or edifice. Let us not attempt to lock God in a building! When the church was scattered because of persecution, in Acts 8, we are told they “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). It’s time we do the same.

The Christians of the apostles’ days knew that the church building was not the only place to worship God, but that it, the church, was in the people. With the advancement of technology, we have unlimited opportunities to reach into people’s lives with the gospel of Jesus Christ! The decision to stop in-person worship flows from the sacrificial love for others, not from a traditional or casual dismissal of worship. Stopping in-person worship helps to show that we all have a responsibility to our neighbor! If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it has taught us that we are all interconnected somehow!

Sabbath and service

Jesus challenged the Pharisees within their understanding of the Sabbath. The disciples picked grain for food on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees wanted to criticize them. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus responded, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28). Jesus used the Sabbath for a day of healing. He helped the worshippers to understand that a foundational dimension of Sabbath was the caring for the needy. Jesus healed on the Sabbath because it was an appropriate act of caring to perform. In Mark 3:1–5, “Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched Him closely, to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.” Our Lord knows how to apply new power, and authority, to the prophetic connection of Sabbath and service. Isaiah heralds what true fasting looks like; justice for the hungry and needy. Micah concerned himself with how real sacrifice expressed itself; in mercy. Amos declared that worship festivals are to be linked with rivers of righteousness.

Sabbath is about what we can do for others, and not about what we can get for ourselves! Jesus’ teaching on Sabbath, that indicates the occasion of healing and service as a part of worship, should offer us guidance on whether churches should stop in-person gathering or not. Christians, it is a humble thing to do good and not harm, to save life and not destroy. This is what stopping in-person gatherings do for everyone in our community. The church becomes a preventative agent, helping to mitigate the spread of a deadly virus. This is the loving thing to do. This is the right thing to do. As Christians, this is the Godly thing to do. Our faith is not faltering because we stop in-person gatherings; rather, it flourishes in our faithful Father’s face.

What do we do now?

As parts of the city shut down a second time, the church has the mandate to rise even higher in prayer. Every Christian’s work is this: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Ephesians 6:18). As we physically distance ourselves, for others not in our household, and we transition to worship online, may we know we still reflect a profound sense of spiritual harmony!

The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance is a group of pastors that seek to create a sense of awareness of spiritual and social conditions in the Anchorage community. Its officers are: Pastor Leon D. May I, President; Reverend Jesse Mitchell, First Vice-President; Pastor Victor Marbury, Second Vice-President; Pastor Undra Parker, Executive Secretary; Pastor Michael Sweet, Treasurer; Pastor Frances Reid, Dean; and Evangelist Doris Sanders, Chaplain.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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