Returning to the Church Building

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in the Lord’s holy place?”           

(Psalm 24:3)

The 2020 pandemic has stretched us in ways we could not have imagined! We have faced challenges with resourcefulness, adapted missional responses based on newly emerging needs, and shifted to a new paradigm of thinking about “church,” not focused on a building but on a community of people.

Now, we have yet another new thing to figure out. How do we return to gathering together with one another, after a season of stay-at-home distancing? How do we come together again while the pandemic is still a threat? What risks will we take, and what risks will we refuse to take, in a time like this, in order to gather for worship in our buildings?

Gathering for worship has been a time-honored value for Christians. Many times I have said over the years, “We are not Lone Ranger Christians. We are connected to one another as the Body of Christ.” Being together, in person, is something we treasure. We do not want to forego it without a very good reason.

So, as many other parts of society are beginning to emerge from the cocoon of stay-at-home orders, what should the Church be doing? The Virginia Conference has had a task force that has been working on this question for several weeks. They have released their findings this week, and you may find them here: https://vaumc.org/return

I would invite you to think about several things as you review the work of the task force. First, please do not skip the first page where it talks about the values that undergird their work. Everything that they offer is grounded in John Wesley’s 3 Simple Rules: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. Translating these “simple” rules into actual practices for returning to church turns out to be a bigger project than it looks like at first glance. The guidance comes in a summary form (with graphics or without), as well as in an extended handbook. Even then, there will still be more questions that arise when churches actually try to implement these guidelines, and we will need to learn as we go. That is part of what the task force envisions: creating a learning community in the districts and across the conference so that we may share our best practices with one another, and for the sake of all the churches in the district and conference.

The volume of the documents may seem a bit overwhelming for some. However, the volume bespeaks the importance of what we are doing. We do not simply put out a few short pages and move on, as if this doesn’t really matter. Returning to church gatherings in a time of pandemic is a very serious undertaking. Sitting together in an enclosed sanctuary with other people whom you have not been around, over a prolonged period of time, is risky. It is riskier than going for a walk or a jog, or going to the grocery story or getting a haircut.

In order to minimize the risk of doing harm to others, we will need to implement new measures as we return to church. Everyone will need to wear a mask for a while, and everyone will need to stay six feet away from those whom they do not live with. We will need to limit the number of people who come into the room rather than squeezing in everyone who wants to come. And more, much more.

So, in order to make this work well, we are asking every church to establish a special group called the “Healthy Church Team” (HCT). This team will begin to meet immediately, if it has not already done so, and start seeing what it will take in that local church to implement the guidelines from the task force. It will take time and it will not be easy. Remember, this is no small thing that we are undertaking.

Some churches may want to become “pioneer churches,” to lead the way by going first and seeing what we need to adapt and adjust and add so that other churches may best be prepared when they discern that it is time for them to reopen. Please contact me if, after reading the guidelines, you are interested in being a pioneer church.

Here in Northern Virginia, we are aware that the severity of the virus’s outbreak has been more pronounced than it has been in many other places in Virginia, and according to the task force, we have flexibility to adapt the timeline of re-opening to fit our reality rather than what is happening in Richmond or Roanoke.

I will continue to meet every week with all of our pastors by ZOOM and try to navigate these next steps together. I will also meet weekly with all of the pioneer church teams, as well as those who may want to join us to learn together, when that time comes, perhaps as soon as early June. We do not intend to rush anyone or any church. We expect all churches to continue to offer online worship as long as it takes, and maybe indefinitely, for the benefit of people who will not feel safe in gathering together at the church building, for whatever reasons. This online outreach has helped us find new and effective ways to reach people, and we do not want to lose that!

Most of all, we want to do all we can to help people follow the third simple rule: to stay in love with God. Surely that can be done in many ways, including at home, and including together in community with one another. We cannot neglect this rule any more than we can neglect the other two. Staying in love with God is our sine qua non mission. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, we remember that He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as you love yourself.” That is where John Wesley gets the 3 Simple Rules from. And that is what we are all about, whether we are adapting to new ways, or trying to return to familiar territory. We stay focused on Jesus and we will be in good hands, the best hands ever!


Grace and Peace,

Jeff