++ One ++

Superspreaders and broad brushstrokes. I wince every time I read a list of high-risk places to avoid during the pandemic. “Places of worship” is usually near the top of the list. Ouch!

The story usually goes on to tell of a Pentecostal church in Idaho that sang for 90 minutes during a three-hour revival attended by 1400 people that included lots of embracing and laying on of hands. Or perhaps a fundamentalist church in Alabama where worshippers were told to “unmask evil” by collecting face masks and throwing them into a giant bonfire in the parking lot.

Just as you may often wish to declare, “I’m not that kind of Christian!” I too want to proclaim “We’re not that kind of church!”

We mask. We distance. We abbreviate worship. We worshipped outdoors from July until October. We went indoors briefly until the numbers caused us to go back to online-only for a couple months. Now we’ve been gathering in the midst of an endless polar vortex that made social distancing no problem at all.

More than a few have thought us overly cautious. Yet no one on our staff has had the virus, and I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that no one has contracted the virus at our worship services.

I’m not asking for the Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t think we are unique. Among my close colleagues, I’ve seen almost all exhibit conscientious leadership and attention to detail. Many congregations chose paths that could be viewed as detrimental to themselves, that generated ire from lots of their own people, but were for the greater good of the community. Such actions garner no attention, let alone accolades.

++ Two ++

The virus falls on the just and unjust. After just mentioning reckless churches that became superspreaders, I also observe that many churches whose response to COVID I would deem irresponsible, have done so with impunity. They began gathering for worship weeks before we did. They’re running a full schedule. Worship lasts an hour and 15 — with lots of maskless singing. And no apparent repercussions.

I hear whispers about a few here and some others there catching the virus, but no superspreader. For that, we should all be grateful. But I’ll confess to muttering a few times as I look at our long list of protocols, or the many Sundays we didn’t gather when others did — “Why do the maskless prosper?”

Healthy 22 year olds die from the coronavirus and nonagenarians skate through asymptomatically. And then conscientious congregations don’t seem to have any noticeably better safety records than chancier congregations. Do we do good for the results or because it is intrinsically good? Be slow and cautious about answering that.

++ Three ++

People who have left your congregation over a mandatory-mask policy, didn’t really leave over that alone. A wise colleague shared that.

What was a hairline crack of discontent a year ago has grown into a full fracture through a year of discord, different news sources, and not being together. A mandatory mask policy was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. There were many straws, perhaps known only to a few, on that camel before the pandemic.

If the COVID pandemic is indeed the “great winnowing” for the American church, it also may be the great reshuffling. Churches have lost members but also have gained new members because of their response to COVID. I’m not in any way suggesting, however, that the gains will equal the losses. Thanks to COVID, churches become even more homogeneous and sociologically-defined.

I wonder, however, if this doesn’t point us toward some rarely-discussed fallout of not gathering for worship. We’ve come to see that safeguarding students through online school or those in care facilities by restricting them to their rooms can unintentionally produce deep social detriment. Similarly, after a year of not sharing a pew with someone, it is easier to detest the person who last March was merely annoying. It is easier to walk away from a community that has not truly and fully been together.

Once, when we worshipped together weekly — singing, praying, eating, and hearing Good News — we could hold together as a community even if we disagreed about God or Trump or music or immigration or LGBTQ inclusion. When we can’t do those things together do our differences and distrust become insurmountable? Could worshipping together, seeing one another, hearing a message of love have prevented this? We will never know.

++ Four ++

Ghosting. The Urban Dictionary tells me that ghosting is ending a relationship or cutting off all communication with zero warning or notice.

There’s been a fair amount of ghosting in churches since last March. It hurts. It makes you wonder. Is it wishful thinking to hold out hope that it means nothing? They’ll show up this summer without skipping a beat?

Obviously, people have left churches during the pandemic, but the ghosters are a whole other category. Nothing. Na-da. Zip. Are they angry? Are they inordinately scrupulous about possible exposure? Are they lazy? Perfectly content? Poor communicators? Unaware? Calls, cards, invitations, opportunities dropped down their well haven’t produced even the slightest echo.

It feels like COVID has been a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card for some — a chance to disappear with explanation or notice. I suppose if people have been quietly equating church with jail before the pandemic, it’s not surprising they saw a crack in the wall and quickly scampered through.

++ Five ++

Context Matters. Big, blanket pronouncements and ideological litmus testing about how churches should deal with COVID have seemingly decreased over time. Could we even hope that the whole thing is becoming somewhat de-politicized? Frankly, as I’ve written here before, last spring it sometimes felt like the “don’t rush to re-open” crescendo was driven as much by anti-Trump spite as concern for public health.

Maybe we’ve all realized that we have enough to figure out with our own congregations without trying to tell others what they ought to do. Yes, of course, the coronavirus is incredibly slippery, mobile, and acts like the same virus everywhere. Still, hot-spots and spikes have shown us that appropriate responses may differ. It isn’t as simple as one-size-fits-all when it comes to how congregations face COVID.

++ Six ++

We All Have Blindspots. As a pastor, I’ll admit that I get frustrated, hurt actually, by the family that believes gathering for worship is risky but basketball tournaments and boy scouts are not. People concerned about how we might celebrate the Lord’s Supper safely are not concerned about eating at restaurants.

While I’ll admit to being puzzled and disappointed, I try not to be too judgmental.

I’ve noticed that even those who consider themselves the most meticulous about COVID safety have odd exceptions and incoherent ways. Everyone has caveats and loopholes. I’d tell you my blindspots if I could see them. Maybe a robustly Reformed understanding of sin is helpful here. We are all incredibly unable to perceive our own inconsistencies and foibles. Grace, kindness, and patience seem to be the only response.

+++++

The grind goes on. Has our skin grown thicker? Are our expectations so much lower? Is it just me, or have the sudden, deep, and piercing pains abated? Become more a chronic, hollow ache? Flashes, blasts, and wildfires have given way to bitter, blinding smoke. Still, hope persists.

Maybe at Easter we could… Do you think by summer we’ll be…?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

17 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for an interesting article. I appreciate your honesty in evaluating the relationship of Covid to that of church culture. What are the underlying reasons for the differing responses that are expressed by people toward the church and even toward Christianity? Some are survivors, others aren’t. I suppose this article only scratches the surface, and we all have opinions.

    I think that people, especially Christians, are coming to see that God doesn’t really make any difference. If there is a difference, it’s subjective, it’s a difference we make up and feed ourselves, but not objective. It doesn’t matter if you are Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Jehovah Witness or atheist. As long as you are doing the same thing (wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing, etc.) the results will be the same. There is no golden wand for Christians (like putting blood on the door post) that will garner God’s favor. What in-person worship at church does garner is a false sense of security. And what we need emotionally, is a number of people that will stand with us in bolstering such security. When we find ourselves alone (without in-person church) that confidence in God and the church erodes. People begin to see that God is not a differential, God is not a factor in resolving the pandemic (He’s a little bit late now). Human endeavor (vaccines) seem to be doing the trick. I imagine others can add their thoughts as to the success of the church in this time of pandemic. Thanks, Steve, for your honest opinion.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Excellent. Number two especially.

  • Tom says:

    This is good, I appreciate your thoughts. Re: “those who consider themselves the most meticulous about COVID safety have odd exceptions and incoherent ways. Everyone has caveats and loopholes.” Truer words have rarely been spoken (or written); that statement applies to a multitude of areas in our lives. Like you, I wish I could see my own blindspots – – but then I guess they wouldn’t be blindspots.

  • Laura de Jong says:

    This is great. Thank you.

  • Sheldon Starkenburg says:

    This article resonates with me in so many ways! Thanks, Steve!

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Steve: My heart is bleeding. I miss my church community and its ministry. And I wonder if it will come back. I trust that the Holy Spirit knows.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thank you, pastor friends. I can sense your own fatigue and hurt and confusion even in your “thank yous.”

  • mstair says:

    … so much here; draws forth all kinds of thoughts/comments … maybe in summary …
    My congregation, worship has certainly changed. More have left than remain, but has the actual Body of Christ been diminished ?
    Scripturally, this thought takes me to John, 6 ( Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”)

    ..now after finishing this comment, it occurs to me that thoughts about your 6 perspectives today is quite appropriate for a Lenten journey towards the cross…

  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    One of my students, at the end of class last Friday, asked, “Why does nothing in the world make sense anymore?” That has stuck with me as I see so many examples of that insight. Now a student wants to meet with me to discuss conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism. I don’t wonder why anxiety is crippling us. But I’m working to trust God and his Word as we move forward. Thanks, Steve!

  • Lee Collins says:

    Thanks, Pastor Steve. Hope we can soon sit down together and discuss this. Outdoors?
    Soon spring comes. Unless..

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Lee, I trust we will have lots of time for a good conversation before very long. May it be under blue skies and a warm spring day.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thanks for naming what has been going on in churches across our land and in our own communities. We don’t know who will be there and who will be missing when we finally return to full communion together, even though we have worked so hard to try to find ways to remain in that communion during COVID. And you’re right, some will probably be gone, but the cement that held them had been cracking long before this all started. The rest of us will have to figure out how to be the family we thought we were, before politics and disease separated us in more than one way. Yet, there is hope in seeing the unity that has been shown, the loving kindness to each other, and the movement forward that has taken place, even through this! Thanks be to God!

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      You are right that there has been so much compassion and patience and kindness and heroism and love through this all. Lots of good conversations, trust, and support given. We do need to remember that. Thank you!

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you, Steve.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Please, let’s be very clear about this. More than half a million people have died of Covid related illness in this country in the last year. That is 0.15% of our country’s population, which may sound small, but is comparable to the population of medium sized cities like Atlanta, Sacramento and Kansas City. 3000 people died on 9/11, which is 0.6% of the number that have died of Covid- related illness this year. And many of those who died died alone because their loved ones were not allowed to be with them.

    So, if I could, I would like to make a few observations:
    1. Most of those who have died are seniors; approximately 80% of those who died were older than 65. Now suppose that we had lost half a million Americans between the ages of 10 and 30 in the last year due to some illness. Do you think the reaction would have been different? I am quite sure that it would have been and I suggest that the church should think about how it views the older among us.

    2. The second great commandment is to love others as ourselves. How does the church show love to others in times of a pandemic? Are we doing that when we meet in large gatherings with no precautions? Are we doing that when we protest wearing masks or practicing social distancing?

    3. I continually see declarations that not wearing a mask (among other things) is about “personal liberty” and then, often, that “liberty” is equated with God and America. Where exactly do we get the idea that our personal “liberty” is more important than another’s life? What theology justifies that?

    4. The science of epidemiology is difficult and Covid made it more difficult because we knew nothing about it when we started with all this. So yes, advice and suggested practices did change. But suggesting that “anti-Trump spite” was dictating the scientific responses and recommendations is a cheap shot. Thanks to the response ( or lack thereof) of the Trump administration, our country has the worst record of Covid response of any economically and technically sophisticated country. That is not an anti-Trump screed; it is the truth.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Tom, I can tell you have lots of expertise and energy around this. I’m not sure, however, if you read me as differing greatly from you. I don’t believe most of what I wrote disagrees with or undersells what you’re saying. About “anti-Trump spite” — if you read what I wrote last May, I wasn’t poking at the scientists or community health people for letting politics taint their information. I was poking at what I thought — and still think — were brash statements by pastors and church leaders, rooted more in ideology than epidemiology. These pastors are my colleagues and FB friends, not some arch-enemy from across the political divide. Still, many made pronouncements that were not helpful or accurate and which they themselves have not ultimately followed.
      See the second half of https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2020/05/26/two-takes-on-a-pandemic/

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