The government is asking people to avoid gathering together and thus increasing the risk of spreading infection. The Lord commands his people to gather together for worship and mutual edification. But He also commands us to do all we can to preserve our own lives and the lives of our neighbours. How do we balance and prioritize these competing responsibilities?
In exceptional circumstances it can be hard to know what is best. Good, wise and godly believers come to different conclusions. The vast majority of churches have cancelled their services and are switching to online meetings, which is a good compromise. Far from ideal – but anything we do is going to be far from ideal if we can’t meet together.
We need to assume the highest and best of motives in one another and submit to those to whom the Lord has given the heavy responsibility of decision-making in our churches. What we must not do is assume that this Pastor or that church is closing down because they are afraid, or lacking in faith, or just looking for an opportunity to have a holiday from church. We must assume that our brothers have thought and wrestled in prayer to solve the problem, that they have considered every possibility and reluctantly come to the conclusion that this is the best, or the least bad, option available.
None of these things may be true, of course – it may well be that some jumped at the chance to shut the doors and get a break. But unless we can read people’s hearts and minds we can’t possibly know that. So don’t assume the worst of others; don’t impugn their motives. Instead think the best and attribute the highest and godliest motives you can. This is not naivety – the law of love is to be our operating principle in the Church of Jesus Christ, and ‘love believes all things and hopes all things’ (1Cor 13.7).
Now, I am all in favour of using technology to help us in this time of emergency. God has given it to us and it can be tremendously helpful as a way of keeping in touch, even face to face, with those we can’t meet with in person. I think it provides an easy and very suitable way to maintain Sabbath School classes, prayer meetings and small group Bible studies. But I have another suggestion that we are going to try in our congregation for our worship services, one which we can hopefully continue to use throughout this crisis and which I thought I'd share in case it could work in your context: drive-in church. People drive into the car park and stay in their cars with the windows down a few inches, while I stand in the porch of our building with a microphone hooked up to loudspeakers scattered strategically throughout the car park so that hopefully everyone can hear. We are hoping to live-stream the service as well, for the benefit of any who can’t join us.
I know it sounds horribly gimmicky, and under normal circumstances, when you can meet together inside a building without any restrictions, it certainly would be. But these are anything but normal circumstances. We are asked to practise social distancing and avoid gathering in close quarters. What if every family unit or individual could arrive in their own sealed pod, remain in that sealed pod for the duration of the service and then leave in that sealed pod?! No possibility of infecting one another: even the most scrupulous germophobe could hardly object – a trip to the supermarket would be far more hazardous!
This idea has a number of significant advantages:
1. It brings us physically together, so we can all see each other, even if we have limited contact (though that would be the case even if we were inside the church building). I think this brings many benefits at a time when so much else in our lives will happen through the medium of a screen or in the confines of our own homes. Surely it would be a good thing to be able to look forward on the Lord’s Day to driving together to the same place and seeing each other’s faces, even if we can’t get out and greet one another as we’d like.
2. It enables us to sing together - in a less than ideal way certainly, but with a much greater sense of corporate identity than if we’re just singing in our own home (especially for those who live and sing alone).
3. It provides a very public witness. Our neighbours and passers-by can see (and hear) that we are still meeting to worship God - they may even decide to join us by opening their windows or driving across, or sitting outside their houses on a sunny day. But no-one could surely accuse us of being cavalier about social distancing!
4. It is a good compromise that may satisfy (more or less) those who want to keep meeting and those who think we shouldn’t.
5. It means that even those at risk or self-isolating could attend, as long as they stay inside their cars.
Maybe your church car park isn’t big enough to facilitate this. Or maybe you live in such a built-up area that you would only be a nuisance to your neighbours. But surely most congregations could find a space somewhere where something like this could be made to work?
Maybe it won’t work – but we’ll try it and see, and perhaps we can make adjustments to improve it. Maybe we'll have to move to a bigger location to accommodate all the visitors who aren't able to worship somewhere physically. But apart from anything else we are showing the world that we are determined to worship the Lord together on the Lord’s Day - that we love it and will do anything to try to find a way to keep doing it, but that we are also in earnest about complying with public health guidelines to protect our neighbours’ lives.