I do not know what “phase” your state or country might be in. All I know is that you’re probably in one. Here in Charlotte, North Carolina, we’re in “phase two.” Like almost every other church in our area, we’re not holding weekend services nor any other in-person events that can’t be effectively socially-distanced. We’re entirely online. And, I might add, will be for the foreseeable future.
Why? There are three dynamics in play:
1. Not About Faith or Fear, but Love
From the very beginning, the cooperation of most churches with requests from health officials has been about gladly and joyfully loving our neighbor. We are called by God to treat others as we would want to be treated, and to serve and love those around us. Unnecessarily spreading the virus, or putting people at greater risk for contracting it, is simply not a demonstration of the love of Jesus.
Sadly, the reopening of churches has quickly become partisan, which is disappointing and very unhelpful. Regardless of when a church reopens, the decision should not be made because of leanings to the left or right. I’m also getting a little weary about people linking cooperation with health officials to either the exhibition of fear or the lack of faith; or even worse, that it reflects throwing in the towel on the freedom of religious expression. Again, this has always been, and will always be, about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Right now, closing the doors to weekend services best fleshes that out before a watching world.
2. Not Much to Work With
A second dynamic is that even if we were bound and determined to reopen, there’s not much to “open” with. For us, here are the asked-for guidelines:
- social distancing of at least six feet, beginning in the parking lot (This would reduce capacity of most sanctuaries/auditoriums to at least 50%, more likely to a mere 25% of previous capacity.)
- forgo all physical contact—no hugs, handshakes, fist bumps or even elbow bumps
- wear face coverings
- no children’s ministry (kids must stay with their parents)
- no singing nor being sung to
- no collective recitations or spoken words (e.g., reciting liturgy or praying together)
- no passing of anything, from the elements of the Lord’s Supper to the taking up of an offering
One more thing; while churches are exempt from many size restrictions, they are still encouraged not to engage in mass gatherings. In North Carolina, that is currently defined as 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. That isn’t a lot to work with, much less to gather for. It also still leaves the vast majority of your community of faith necessarily online.
3. We Never Closed
What do you mean by “reopen”? Since when did we close? Meck is as robust and active as ever—in some ways, even more so. Weekend services were but a part of the dynamic of our community of faith. Yes, it’s one we miss dearly, but we never closed the church. And God help us if what it means to “be” or “do” church is ever reduced to simply weekend services. As my friend Rick Warren put it recently:
“Our buildings have been closed, but the church is not a building! We are a living, breathing body. The church is a family, not a fortress! We are a people, not a place! We’re an army of servants, not an event of attenders. You’ve been taught many times that a crowd is not a church, and that church is so much more than a weekend service! The church operates 168 hours a week!”
At Meck, we continue to meet online with full worship experiences and messages. This also advances our mission to reach those far from God with the one message that can alter the trajectory of their life, even into eternity. In fact, Meck currently serves thousands upon thousands more every weekend online than we ever did when we gathered physically.
We continue to fund orphanages, give to food banks, support the working poor, encourage nursing homes, meet the needs of the homeless community, support the rescuing of the human trafficked, and so much more through ongoing financial faithfulness.
We continue to grow in our faith through online classes and groups.
We continue to invest in families through MecKidz, our ministry to children birth-fifth grade, as well as our ministries for middle school and high school students.
We continue to serve others in serving teams as guidelines allow at food banks and with our homeless community.
We continue to be salt and light in our world, leading the way in the midst of the cultural eruption following the killing of George Floyd (and so many others like him) and the awakening toward the sins of racism and social injustice it is affording.
We continue to stand with families grieving over the death of loved ones; the funerals may be small, but they are no less real.
Closed? Not even close.
I know. You still want to reopen and gather together. So do I. Yet as one of the larger we will be among the last to open our doors to weekend mass-gathering events. Smaller churches will reopen before us, and we celebrate that. We’re not in competition with other churches; if anything, we want to help them reopen before we do and flourish from reaching even more from among the unchurched.
But for now, and for us, we must remember that one of the fruits of the Spirit is patience (see Galatians 5:22). And we are going to be patient until the time is truly right and best to reopen our physical doors to weekend gatherings.
James Emery White
Daniel P. Chin, “When Your Church Reopens, Here’s How to Meet Safely,” Christianity Today, May 6, 2020, read online.
Adelle M. Banks, “Ready to Go Back to Church? 10 Things to Consider Before Heading to Worship,” Religion News Service, June 12, 2020, read online.
Rick Warren, “How Churches are Communicating and How They Are Gathering Again: Example from Rick Warren & Saddleback,” The Exchange with Ed Stetzer, June 8, 2020, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.