Tension is brewing over the place and rights of churches in many states amid the COVID-19 shutdown. Executive orders, lawsuits, restraining orders, and other actions have marked the relationship between churches and states like Kansas and Kentucky.
I’d like to think there may be a better way forward as states reopen their economies. What if governors welcome churches to do what they do best in the reopening? Sunday has historically been called the “market-day of souls” (more on that in a moment). What if our leaders reopen the markets of our state by reopening the market-day of the soul first? Call for a day of thanksgiving and supplication for mercy on a Sunday and then reopen the material economy, as it were, on Monday.
Churches could assemble in gatherings of fifty or fewer, consistent with whatever the numbers for approved assembly would be in the marketplace on Monday. All appropriate social-distancing requirements would be in place. Presidents and governors have historically called for special days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving as part of the rich heritage of our land. Why not unite the hearts of people in our land by doing it again? Even more than material blessings, we need the blessing of God on our souls.
Christians have been on their knees asking God for his mercy. I’m deeply grateful that my governor here in Indiana, Eric Holcomb, took a of posture of humility before God as he prayed about the pandemic in our statehouse chaplain’s daily online prayer service a couple of weeks ago. The Lord has answered and he will again. I believe that by inviting our residents to gather carefully for a special day of thanksgiving and prayer, those of the household of faith would gladly, humbly, and circumspectly lead the way to ask God's blessing on our reopening of our state.
The deadly and destructive virus will not vanish overnight, and we must be vigilant in our fight. We grieve losses of loved ones who have died. We pray for those who still suffer along with those providing care. We must also praise God he has spared us from the worst predictions. Indeed, for my home state of Indiana, early April projections by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation showed a peak of 97 deaths on April 14. That day, the state reports there were 34 COVID-19 deaths (as of data posted on April 20). Similarly, numbers are down on other fronts from the original projections. Whether the early projections were based on the best data or models or not can and will be debated, but the point stands: the curve has flattened compared to early warnings. In most parts of the nation, our healthcare facilities have kept up.
We are grateful for the many efforts of leaders, healthcare workers, and ordinary citizens far and wide for their efforts to serve as best as they have known how. Residents have learned of our need to take this virus seriously and behave carefully. People have proven themselves trustworthy over the weeks of this pandemic, by and large.
Because the Lord has been so gracious to us in preventing the worst predictions of the coronavirus impact from coming true, it is fitting to acknowledge his mercies as we reopen the economy. We will need more of his mercy in the days, weeks, and months to come in this long battle.
In most cases, churches have been willing to comply with restrictions of meetings of ten people or fewer. Christians want to see the coronavirus stopped. They recognize the rightful place of civil government as an authority ordained by God to guide us with public policy in such times. Acknowledging social distancing as the most effective means to slow the spread of a disease without a cure, churches have ramped up their livestreams and ratcheted up their prayers to the living God. While the technology is different, the effort is similar to what congregations through the centuries have practiced in times of plague and pestilence. In the last two months, Christians have pleaded for mercy in Jesus Christ because they love their communities. God has answered in mercy.
While churches will participate willingly in “stay at home” orders, they will not stand to be treated differently from other organizations and businesses as restrictions are lifted. Nor will they allow government leaders to define their theology. When the “stay at home” orders were first given, our governor urged churches to remember that “church is a body and not a building.” That spiritual reality has caused the church to flourish more than other organizations in these extraordinary days. But, we also know that God’s word calls his people to gather as an assembled body. Aside from the most extraordinary of circumstances, God’s people will gather. The Lord has been pleased to bless our virtual “assemblies” and to hear our prayers, but that does not give any governor the right to determine a new norm for the practice of worship.
Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week to conquer sin and its consequences in the world. Christians celebrate his resurrection each week by faith as they gather. It is a day to acquire and store up treasures for the soul. George Swinnock, a 17th century English pastor called Sunday the “market-day of souls.” A century later, Rowland Hill wrote that Sunday is the, “Christian’s market day, upon which the soul lays in the provisions for the week.” The souls of people across America need to be healed as we continue through the trauma of the coronavirus. The pandemic is a health crisis and an economic crisis, and it has also afflicted many souls with fear and led to many other needs in families and individuals - the kinds of needs that doctors and politicians alone cannot meet. God has given his church to be a blessing to communities in ways no other organization or entity can be.
As churches are given clearance to reopen along with the rest of society, we must do so circumspectly and carefully. We must prove ourselves trustworthy with the rights we have been given by God. And, we must humbly and willingly restrict our gatherings along with the rest of culture if there is another outbreak.
Like other Hoosiers, I'm preparing to carefully participate in the reopening of our economy - materially and spiritually. People in the church that I pastor have suffered like others with the fear and/or the experience of COVID-19. Many are now feeling the economic impact through job loss or cutbacks. Though we have been afflicted, we call this to mind, and therefore we have hope, "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him'" (Lamentations 3:22-24).
Governors, too, love the people of their states. They want to keep people safe from disease. Understandably, they do not want to be blamed for COVID-19 outbreaks. In our present circumstance, that means keeping crowds from gathering, as much as possible. Most do not want to fight with churches over religious liberties either. We can work together on these matters. My prayer is that trust would continue to develop as we seek the welfare of our states and our nation. May God bless these efforts for good as we seek his face.
To that end, why not reopen our marketplaces with a special reopening of the market-day of the soul first?