Since both our governor and the President of the United States have been making a lot of noise about restarting the economy, and “getting back to normal,” I’m certain that many of us are wondering when church, and specifically, Sunday worship, will get back to normal. It’s a great question, and it’s one that I have spent time thinking about, and one that has generated considerable discussion among my Methodist and other clergy colleagues.
And the answer is… it depends.
First, it depends on how quickly the rules are relaxed, both by our various levels of government and by our bishop. But second, it also depends on how you define “normal.” As to the first part, Governor DeWine has already made it clear that he intends to find a way forward with a “phased” restart which will insist that reopening businesses follow the safety protocols that have already been developed and put in practice by those essential businesses that have remained open.
What I think that will mean to the church, is that the restart will, at first, open things up to small groups of five or ten and then only if those group can insure a six-foot spacing between people. It may also insist that meetings be kept under an hour. Obviously, those guidelines will preclude worship, but we might be able to restart Bible studies, Threads of Love, or small Sunday school classes. A little farther down that road, when larger groups are permitted, we might be able to worship in our sanctuary, but there will still be some significant changes. We will have to be deliberate in spreading out across the sanctuary so assigned seating might be necessary. We won’t want to shake hands, hug, or pass a plate from hand-to-hand, so our greetings and offering will look different. Communion is going to be different too, and I have no idea how we will manage it just yet. Similarly, it won’t be safe for the choir to squeeze into the choir loft, or the choir room, together so either we won’t see the choir for a while or, Lew and the choir will need to get a little “creative” in how they arrange themselves. I honestly don’t know yet what that might look like.
And, more than that, any of our members and friends who are in a “vulnerable population” may well want to wait even longer. Like it or not, gathering in groups is going to be risky, and potentially life threatening, until a vaccine is proven to be safe and becomes widely available. That means that even though the economy restarts, people who are older, immune suppressed, have heart disease, asthma, or some other “underlying medical condition” may well want to stay home and join us in worship over the internet for some time to come. That means that we should, and already are, thinking about how we can record, or livestream, our worship service over the internet even after we return to our sanctuary.
Altogether, the only thing that will be “normal” for a while will be change. Things are going to be different, and the “normal” that we are used to, and the “normal” that we’ve seen for the last hundred years or so, is probably not going to return for at least twelve months. And twelve months might easily turn intosomething like thirty-six months. And, at some point, we might just have to accept that the old “normal” isn’t ever coming back and just get used to a new normal.
But no matter what normal ends up looking like, God hasn’t changed. Our faith hasn’t changed. Our mission hasn’t changed. We are still the church. We are still called to carry out the mission of the Kingdom and to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. We will still go about doing the same work that we have always done. How we go about doing that work might change a little, and that’s okay. This is a pivot point in history. The church has adapted to change through the Renaissance, through the Industrial Revolution, through the changes brought about by steam ships, railroads, electricity, automobiles, and the internet, and we will adapt to whatever new things lie in store for us today and in the future.
Take heart. Have courage.
God is with us.
But hold on to your hat, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
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