By Paul Baxley
Recently, several governors in the southeastern United States announced plans to “reopen” their states for business. There has been vigorous debate about whether or not these decisions to reopen conform to the standards announced earlier by the Centers for Disease Control and the federal government.
These announcements have been decried as reckless and foolish by some and hailed as courageous and heroic by others. If my years as a pastor teach me much of anything, they teach me that in the congregations I served there would be congregants who had both of those extreme reactions and every imaginable response in between among the gathered disciples in my care.
Across the nation, this debate has raised questions for faith leaders. How should congregations find their way as our larger culture begins reopening for business? What should we be considering? Is there an opportunity for a unique Baptist and Christian witness in this moment?
We must absolutely affirm that the Church of Jesus Christ does not need to participate in a reopening strategy because we have never been closed. If the Easter miracle doesn’t teach us anything else, it tells us that we cannot be shut down.
During these past five weeks, I do not know of a single Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation that has closed its doors. Instead, I know that an overwhelming number of our pastors and lay leaders have worked courageously, dreamed remarkably, led hopefully and modeled the kind of agility that characterized the early church in Acts. Our congregations have continued to worship, study, pray and serve in powerfully innovative ways.
In our Fellowship community, our Field Personnel, Chaplains, Church Starters, theological school faculty, and Together for Hope Leadership have offered innovative and compelling ministry even in the face of great challenge and change.
One of my deep regrets about this season is that so much attention has been paid to congregations that have chosen to hold large in-person gatherings, even with the knowledge of role of these gatherings in the transmission of COVID-19. But most congregations and missionaries in every denomination have made a different decision. Those stories have not been told, and I believe they are far more inspiring.
Most of us have chosen to bear witness to the power of Jesus in ways consistent with the healing ministry of Jesus, continuing to live our witness in new ways that also prioritize and protect public health. We are participating in the resurrection of Jesus through offering vivid evidence that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us, compelling us to serve him in new ways. We are facing challenging times with resurrecting faith.
We do not need to be part of a reopening. We have never been closed. But we do look forward to the day when we can gather in-person again, because at its core, our faith is exceedingly relational. As we look toward that day, what should we be considering? How might we approach this challenge?
First, we should pay incredibly close attention to the guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and other public health experts. According to the current federal guidance, in the first phase of “reopening,” people are encouraged to continue physical distancing and avoid gatherings of more than 10 persons. Even in the second phase, gatherings of persons of more than 50 people are to be avoided and those most at risk are to stay at home.
Because I believe the church should participate in Jesus’ ministry of healing, rather than in the spread of illness, I would want to make sure that any plans for returning to in-person gatherings at least followed these guidelines. Following this guidance would mean that it is still many weeks before congregations in most parts of the United States should gather in person again.
But it is not too early to begin planning for what our in-person gatherings will be like when they are possible. Beyond the obvious changes required at least in the near term—not passing offering plates, not serving communion in usual ways, not shaking hands—what else would we have to do to make sure our gatherings are safe?
How can we practice appropriate physical distancing? Will there be times when we offer multiple, smaller in-person worship opportunities? Will we continue to emphasize live or recorded broadcasts of our services so that those who cannot yet come out or choose not to do so can still engage the life of the congregation? How can we fulfill our mission commitments even as it is still not possible to fulfill them in typical ways?
Just as other businesses will be phasing their reopenings, will there be phasing to our return to in-person gatherings? When will we resume activities for children and youth? There are so many decisions in play here, and in the best of our Baptist polity, these need to be made in ways that involve the best collaboration between committed ministers, respected lay leaders, and health professionals in each community.
Though these decisions are challenging and complex, we can be held in the confidence that we are not alone; that the Holy Spirit is giving us all we need to face these unusual days. Rather than asking ourselves whether or not it is time to reopen, as a people who have never been closed, we can dare to ask ourselves: in the face of these decisions, how do we most faithfully serve the Risen Christ?
How do we protect those most vulnerable, including the poor, the widows and the orphans—those people for whom Jesus and the prophets have an undeniable love and commitment)? How can we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God? And how can our ministry, even now, offer a witness to the resurrecting power of Jesus to show us ways to be more faithful than ever in ways we have never attempted before? As we pray those questions, we will hear answers that guide us toward redemptive faithfulness.