By Ed Thompson
If your county moves into the red or orange zone in the state’s color-coded map for schools, it’s time to suspend in-person worship. If it’s not considered safe for children as well as teachers to be in school, why would it be safe for church members to gather for in-person worship? If anything, our members will be at much greater risk for contracting Covid-19 than school children because most of our members will be of an age that puts them at greater risk for this disease and/or will have health issues that make them more susceptible to infection.
Granted, this is not a perfect system. The map keeps getting tweaked in order to allow more high schools to play sports. Now I am a sports fan as well as a high school letter winner in two sports. (I will also grant that they probably awarded those letters based on my participation rather than my speed.) I get that high school sports are important, and if I had not been allowed to take part in sports when I was in high school, I would have been upset and probably depressed. Nevertheless, I think the health and safety of students and teachers has to be a higher priority than sports. I will also grant that this is not the purpose for which this map is intended. It was designed to give guidance to schools as to whether it was safe and appropriate to have in-person instruction. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, the map does give us some sense of how fast the coronavirus is spreading in our communities, which is important.
If your county is in green, where there is minimal community transmission, and you have enough space in your sanctuary so that people can spread out and safely social distance, if your people wear masks, and if they don’t sing (notice there are several ifs in this sentence), then it’s probably safe for you to gather for in-person worship.
If your county is in yellow or gold, then you need to be cautious.
Unfortunately several outbreaks can be traced to churches. Fortunately, none of those happened at Presbyterian churches so far. Whether we realize it or not, people are looking to us to set an example, and I would rather we not set a bad example.
Last week we got a call in the office from someone complaining that they had driven past a Presbyterian church the day before, and they noticed that several church members, as well as the pastor, were gathered on the front steps following worship, and they were not wearing masks nor were they standing six feet apart. While, generally speaking, I don’t like tattletales, on the other hand, the person who called had a right to be concerned. Legally, churches are not bound by the state’s guidelines. There is a separation between church and state, and that’s a good thing. However, I think we are morally bound by these guidelines so that we can be a good neighbor, as well as set a good example.
I also realize it’s easy to forget about these guidelines as time goes on. The first few weeks after many of us first came back for in-person worship, it was easy to be cautious. People were just glad to be back together. They took cleaning seriously. They took social distancing seriously. They were wary about getting too close to other people before and after worship.
Now, people see their friends, and they want to catch up and see how they’re doing. They may have a question about something that’s going on at church, something that was said in worship, or something that they saw in the bulletin. It’s easier to just ask these questions when you have the chance to do it in person instead of waiting to call or send an email after you get home. People are tired and stressed out by this continuing pandemic. It also puts pastors in a bad spot because they don’t want to be nags or scolds or the mask police or the coronavirus cops.
We increase the odds of bringing this pandemic under control by being vigilant. If we get lazy and let things slide or do nothing and pretend that Jesus will keep us safe because we are Christians and doing the Lord’s work, the disease will spread and people will die. We can’t control how fast this disease will spread. We can control whether we are helping to increase or decrease the odds that it will spread and limit the part that we may play in helping it to spread.
Please, take this seriously. If you don’t want to use the state’s map that guides the public schools, that’s OK. You can look at other metrics. There’s plenty of information out there. However, to keep going while conditions change around us – for better or for worse – and assume that it’s all going to be OK just doesn’t make sense.