Indiana churches embark on a unique opportunity to serve the state this week. Last Friday, Governor Holcomb unveiled Back on Track Indiana - his plan to reopen the state. It outlines five stages of reopening as Indiana deals with its coronavirus challenge. While the plan calls for other sectors to allow gatherings of up to twenty-five people in Stage 2, churches are given no limit to the number who gather for worship, provided they safely social-distance and employ the other guidelines outlined for houses of worship. The plan applies in most counties. I’m admittedly sad to be in a county with a one-week delay for the whole plan since we are the most populous in the state.
Many churches will open their doors again this Lord’s Day. They will gather larger groups of people than any other sector in the state. As they worship God, they will also serve the community by giving thanks for the Lord’s mercy, confessing sin, and pleading that he would be merciful even more, and will proclaim his word as we walk forward by faith.
Why are houses of worship being welcomed to open in these ways (provided they are ready to do so in well-organized ways and apply the guidelines)? Media members, doing their due diligence, asked Governor Holcomb at his press conference just that on Monday. The governor replied,
When it came down to making the ultimate decision on places of worship, we said we'd recommend this now to see, as we look back 14 days or 21 days, what effect it might have. If we can manage this, it gives us a lot of confidence in some other arenas as well. What we're going to do is learn from these steps that we're taking. We thought a good place to start or have a control group would be places of worship — that these would be, in my mind, most responsible. But I did say we needed those church leaders to be responsible for their congregations. We can prove we can do this, and I think we'll see just that.
The Lord, in his mercy, has built a high level of trust between church leaders and our state government. Churches have worked hard to help “flatten the curve” and care for people by heeding “stay at home” orders and working to move worship online in the pandemic. To be clear: churches are not now being ordered to open. The new guidelines call for the church to continue using online worship for congregations not ready to reopen on-site worship safely and for people who are high-risk including those over age sixty-five and older. Of course, others who choose to remain home and participate online are encouraged to do so. But churches are being welcomed to open their doors if they are ready.
Some will complain the church should discourage the governor from reopening so rapidly. Others will complain the governor has flexed too much authority and wish the church would somehow stand up to the governor. Perhaps a case can be made that churches should not be opened or that too much executive authority has been exercised. As always, we confess the Lordship of Jesus over all, and we encourage an engaged citizenry to debate such questions, but the church is not going to assume authority not rightfully its own. Kevin DeYoung has helpfully written about how the right answers in this pandemic are not obvious now, even if someday it becomes clear what those answers are or should have been. Especially in such uncertain times, the church should work with leaders in civil government who are better equipped with necessary information to help the society flourish. As Romans 13 reminds us, it is for conscience sake and to avoid God’s wrath that we submit ourselves to the governing authorities the Lord has given to be servants for our good. In so doing, we seek the welfare of our great state.
Whatever people’s personal opinions may be, Indiana’s governor and his team are trusting church leaders to be responsible and care for their own as the elders of the church lead the people together to the throne of grace. The church will lead the state on its knees as a “control group” to see what reopening looks like and perhaps how the virus spreads. We know the virus is still with us, and we know it will spread. It may be that it spreads such that worship and other activities need to be scaled back again for a season. Someone must take the lead; churches are being trusted to do just that.
By stepping up to the challenge, the body of Christ will be in the spotlight. Jesus is using the coronavirus in Indiana to turn the eyes of the whole state to his bride. Will she show herself to be a body that does everything decently and in order? If so, the Lord may bless the governor’s desire in reopening and churches will “prove we can do this” responsibly in other parts of society too. Inevitably, we won’t do everything perfectly. There could be COVID-19 outbreak even as we seek to do all things well. But, at least we will have acquitted ourselves well, and we will walk by faith through sickness and even death if need be. More than any other organization, the church is equipped with the knowledge of God and of his word to deal with the risks of life and reality of death. We constantly remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead.
I pray that the churches step up to the challenge positively. The congregation I serve has skeletal plans ready to implement a plan to meet our needs and mesh with what the governor has outlined. Since everything is changing rapidly, we’re waiting to release those until the timing and other parameters are clear in our situation. Certain normal privileges will obviously be curtailed; people will be called to sacrifice. Worshiping God together will be our joy. We want to excel in care and responsibility even as we trust our Lord to care for us.
So, I encourage my fellow elders across the state to be vigilant in this unique opportunity. We must serve with diligence as the Lord has called us. The world will be watching. Let us give the enemies of God no opportunity to mock by our carelessness or callousness.
Most of all, I pray the Lord will help us see the special calling to serve that he is giving us at this time. We get to lead the state in thanks, praise, confession, pleading for mercy, and the proclamation of good news. We serve a God who hears the prayers of his people and who gives life eternal. We are not a people fighting for our rights or cowering in fear. No, we are a people humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God pleading through Jesus Christ for his mercy upon the church and upon our state. It may be that he not only stays the virus by his hand but also brings new life to many.
What an opportunity we have been given to serve! And serve responsibly we must. Are we up to the challenge? If we’re on our knees humbly before the Lord, we will be. I pray we are.