To Meet or Not to Meet image

To Meet or Not to Meet

As lockdown restrictions ease churches are having to make decisions about how and when they begin physical gatherings. This is surprisingly complicated and contentious.

There’s no doubt that the current situation creates plenty of scope for tensions and division. Some are racing to get back to normal, think the world got shut down for the sake of a cold, and cannot understand the caution of others. Those others fear a second spike, reimposed lockdowns and the possibility of succumbing to the virus themselves. In these circumstances it is easier to think badly of others than well of them. (Brett McCracken’s comments on this from earlier in lockdown are still about the most helpful thing I have seen.)

These dynamics are at play within local churches. Some church members think public services should be getting back to normal while others consider it irresponsible to meet in this way. Friends of mine in those regions of the US where meetings are permitted but facemasks required have sorrowfully told me about the divisions this is causing in their congregations, between those who obediently wear masks and those who refuse to.

There is also the potential for division between churches. If a church up the road from you opens its doors when you haven’t what does that communicate? I’m already hearing stories of church members hopping between churches because they prefer the approach to reopening of another congregation to that being followed in their own.

So, what should we do?

The arguments against reopening are strong. As things stand at the moment – in the UK at least – we are permitted to gather, with as many people as a building can contain while maintaining social distancing; yet the restrictions imposed on those gatherings are substantial: no singing, no voices raised above a low level, limited opportunity for socialising and chatting before or after services, expectations around hand washing/sanitising and cleaning, the complexity of children’s ministry, the elderly and those shielding not meant to attend… Is it really worth the bother?

But the arguments for opening are also strong. As one Anglican friend who has restarted his Sunday services put it to me, what does it communicate if people can go to the pub for a pint and to the hairdressers for a trim but the churches remain closed? Yes, we’ve all been reminded during this time of the spirituality of the church: that the church is not a building. But we have also been reminded that we are meant to meet together, as living stones of a spiritual house, and it is weird when we don’t. Don’t our communities need to see that the church is still in action?

As well as the practical issues, the decision of when to reopen will reflect the theology and ecclesiology of a local church. For example, those who think online communion an oxymoron will probably be quicker to regather than those who consider it a legitimate option.

Also highlighted is the difference it makes whether or not a congregation owns a building. For those who meet in rented facilities the decision has been taken out of their hands.

At my church we’ve made the decision to start gathering again. We did a test meeting on Wednesday evening, with around thirty of us there. We had led prayers and a message that was recorded to be shown in our online service this Sunday. It felt a bit odd but also wonderful to be together. And it was a huge relief to me to preach to some living people rather than just to camera for the first time in four months. We’re doing another gathering like this next Wednesday and from there deciding whether to ramp things up with more mid-week gatherings and maybe something on Sundays too. We’re also in the process of surveying the congregation about their preferences on all this.

Predictably, our survey is showing a split in opinion – even within our leadership team, even within marriages. Some want to meet, now, others want to continue online until we can meet with fewer restrictions. All of which simply illustrates that there are good people on both sides of the argument – and how key it is we each recognise the goodness of others, even if they disagree with us.

I read Titus 3 this morning. It gives us a helpful framework for how we approach all this,

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,  to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.

Meeting or not meeting, let’s be faithful to that.


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