The Harvard risk level map for West Virginia as of November 12.

By Ed Thompson

I flinch every time I read or hear Governor Justice refer to the 41 outbreaks of Covid-19 that have happened in churches. I am grateful that none of them have happened (as far as I know) in any of the churches in this presbytery. It makes me want to knock on wood, though, because I’m concerned that it could happen to one of us.

This has been a difficult year full of difficult decisions: the decision to suspend in-person worship, the decision – at least by some congregations – to resume in-person worship, and then, again by some, the decision to suspend in-person worship once more. On top of that, there’s the decision about which set of metrics to use: the one used by the State Department of Education, the one put out by the State Department of Health and Human Resources, the one developed by Harvard or the Center for Disease Control, or some other. The list goes on.

 As the infection numbers and rates rise throughout the state and nation, I think we need to suspend in-person worship again for the foreseeable future. However, that’s up to each Session. I do not have that authority. (I kind of wish I did, but as I often say, “I’m not the bishop.”)

Here’s why. Even though it may feel that way, you’re not closing the church. I think we need to be careful about the language we use. You may decide to close the church, but that’s a completely different decision. You can still have worship without meeting in the sanctuary or in your building. It still counts.

Maybe you prefer to meet in your sanctuary. Even though you can’t sing (or shouldn’t be singing) and even though you have to wear masks and maintain social distancing (please do that), it still feels more like worship when you are in that special space. Maybe that gives you a sense of comfort, a sense of security. Maybe that allows you to forget about the pandemic or allows you to feel that things are the way they used to be, the way you want them to be. Maybe that helps you to be connected in some way with your parents, your children, your friends, and others who are no longer with us. And maybe it breaks your heart to think that you won’t be having a traditional Christmas Eve service.

While I can appreciate those feelings and can even agree with some of them, friends, this is deadly. People are dying. Too many people are dying. Infection rates are going up. The number of cases is rising in every state. I don’t think they are going to go down any time soon. I think it’s reasonable to assume that they will take another jump after Thanksgiving and probably again after Christmas.

Some have expressed the concern that if we go back to only having worship online we will lose members, either because they won’t come back to worship at all or because they will start attending worship at another congregation that is worshipping in-person.  Personally, I think that concern is exaggerated. If we are providing opportunities for worship and education, opportunities to engage in mission as well as ways to help people stay connected to our church, I think people will hang in there and stay engaged. If we’re not doing anything, then yes, maybe they will drift away.

Even if it’s only a small risk and even if only a few people take that step, I would be more concerned about the people who may get sick and the people who may die because they contracted this disease at the church. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. Nor would I want my church to be known as the church where people got sick or, even worse, the church where people died. If that happens, the news will spread. People will talk. It may take generations to live that down. That may well be the legacy that you leave behind because that may become the tipping point that leads to the closing of your church. You would forever be known as the church where people died and, maybe even worse, the church where people didn’t care.

I’m going to keep the commitments that I have already made, but I’m not going to preach or attend worship in person for the foreseeable future. That may last until Easter, maybe later. We’ll just have to see how things go. I’ll gladly travel to preach in your sanctuary if your services are online. Or I can have a sermon ready by Thursday if you want to tape the service ahead of time. 

Please take this seriously. Please be careful. And please know that God will see us through this and that God is pleased whenever and however we worship, whether that happens in person, online, over the phone, and yes, even by Zoom.