Early in the pandemic, we compared COVID-19 to a dance that the church needed to learn. The dance terminology was adopted from Tomas Pueyo, who published an article entitled, “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance.” In this article, Pueyo explained that the months-long period between the Hammer (strict measures taken to address the virus) and a vaccine will require a broad variety of approaches and a constant flexibility (the Dance), due to spikes and dips of coronavirus cases.
The Hammer was released for a season, temporarily lightened, and then towards the end of 2020 in some places it fell again. So, we thought at the beginning of 2021 we would update everyone on how the COVID-19 Dance going.
The Effect the COVID-19 Dance Has Had on the Church
This dance has worn people out—mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, and [even] spiritually.
The pandemic has also affected churches and her leaders. I've seen it in my own life.
It has disrupted the predominant practices of the North American church—physical gatherings on the weekend. It seems that while most churches participated in the early lockdowns and stay-at-home orders (back in the spring), most churches are back to some form of in-person gatherings. But church experts, like Thom Rainer, believe it will be a while before pre-COVID attendance bounces back—if it bounces back at all. At the same time many continue to engage with church online.
In addition to the disruption, it has caused division. Churches (or more specifically believers) have been divided over:
- To obey or disobey the stay-at-home orders?
- To wear masks or not wear masks?
- To sing or not to sing?
Furthermore, the pandemic has brought about much discouragement and depression, among her leaders. Pastors and church leaders have had to navigate the disruption in church gatherings, ministries, and, in many cases, church finances. They’ve had to navigate the competing voices and opinions of their people. Pastors have had to wade through the murky waters of politicized perspectives and at times see members co-opted by conspiracies. Many pastors have witnessed the shrinking size of their congregation. For many churches, this long-term effect of the pandemic will be deep and lasting.
Thoughts about the COVID-19 Dance in the Midst of a Dark Winter
While we wait on the vaccine, which seems to be making good progress, many places in our country are seeing a significant spike in coronavirus cases. Where we live, the governor of Illinois tweeted a couple of weeks ago that hospitalizations surpassed the spring peak. Other government officials have talked about a coming “dark winter,” signaling a surge in COVID-19 cases.
With the rise in cases, many states are initiating previous restrictions in a renewed effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. In this accordion-like season with a rise in cases and more restrictive mitigations, once again, going into effect, what should churches do?
In light of what we have learned and observed over the last ten months, here are three thoughts about the COVID-19 dance.
1.It’s hard to stop what you’ve started.
With the rise of restrictions in many parts of the U.S., churches continue to face pressure (from both people and local governments) to suspend their in-person gatherings—or to reduce them. Yet, they continue to face the pressure from those who have been attending to keep offering in-person gatherings. Arguments continue to be made on both sides. People will label large church gatherings as “super spreader” events.
This pressure may just be what leaders like Andy Stanley foresaw when they called their worship gatherings for the remainder of 2020. They knew what we all know: it is hard to stop once you’ve started.
2.Be overly cautious.
We’re not against churches meeting for in-person worship gatherings in the pandemic. We wrote elsewhere about how corporate worship gatherings are essential. However, part of the COVID-19 dance involves churches being overly cautious and taking the necessary precautions to help mitigate the spread of the virus.
By now we all familiar with the following guidelines that are proactive measures people can take to fight the spread of COVID-19:
- Wash your hands
- Watch your distance
- Wear your masks
Many churches are implementing these three guidelines for their in-person gatherings. Many churches also go the extra mile in taking other precautions to help mitigate the spread. Churches are requiring people to register for a service. They are keeping their occupancy rate small (some only filling their rooms to 25% capacity). They are cleaning between service gatherings. Some, if possible, are meeting outside.
Other churches have attempted to go back to normal. We think this is a mistake. We would agree with those who say the virus has been over-politicized. There are those that will point to the death rate and show how it has decreased over time. And, they would be correct—although total deaths have begun to increase as cases spike nationally. However, hospitals are filling beyond capacity again, while now over 340,000 have died as a result of this virus. And this still leaves many people worried, concerned, and afraid. This is the reality.
We want our communities, cities, and country to know that we care, and we are in this together for the common good. We want to be guided by compassion and not by personal preference or comfort. We don't want professional sports or political leaders to display more compassion than the church. We can both be actively engaged in fighting the spread of the virus while also contending for the essentials of our faith.
3.Remember we are in the era of hybrid ministry and mission.
COVID-19 has forced businesses and organizations to adapt to the changing environment. Early in the pandemic we noted how the move to online (to digital) wasn’t the crisis. While it wasn’t the crisis, digital has become the new Mars Hill. Online provides the opportunity to engage those outside the church (as well as those distancing themselves from in-person gatherings).
Many church leaders see digital, especially online church, as feeding the American consumer and providing them with a more convenient and comfy worship experience. This is an understandable concern. But we also need to remember the church has utilized technology, from the printing press, to published sermons, to television, to football arenas, to multi-site campuses for the cause of Christ. And we need to recognize that for many who are elderly, immuno-compromised, or live with those who are, online services are a viable option during this season.
We also understand how many churches are overwhelmed with digital strategies because they have been more groomed under an analog ministry and mission model. Nevertheless, a missionary mindset would direct us to go where the people are. In a land of digital natives, we need to employ digital means.
Don’t Become Weary in Doing Good
Most of the projections from months ago that this winter would be worse seem to be coming true. Though the vaccine is beginning to be distributed, we are at least months to a year from seeing the end of the pandemic. In other words, we aren't home yet.
The Apostle Paul, late in his letter to the churches in Galatia, writes, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal 6:9).
Pastor, church leader, be encouraged… You are doing well!
While you may be tired of the environment of ministry and mission, don’t become weary in doing ministry and mission. Keep dancing in the midst of this pandemic. Why? Because “in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
God’s fruitfulness lies on the other side of our faithfulness.