Reopening our churches (and what ours may look like)

By Lee Chung Horn

As the world starts to come out of lockdown, many nations are looking around, not just inside their borders, but at what other governments are doing. The big question for Christians is: in the time of the coronavirus, what will the church of the coming future look like?
On 11 Feb 2020, a name was announced for the new virus that would go on to damage economies and strike down human life around the world. The name was severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Like all coronaviruses, the new virus has characteristic club-like projections emanating from its viral membrane. Image from Unsplash.

 

On April 16, 2020, the U.S. White House released Opening Up America Again.*

This was a three-phase guideline that outlined a path to re-opening the U.S. economy while mitigating the risk of resurgence in COVID-19 infections and protecting vulnerable populations.

The three-phase approach could be implemented on a state-wide basis, or community-by-community at the discretion of state governors. The Trump administration explicitly left the timetable for opening up states to the governors.

Singapore’s strategy for emerging from the circuit breaker also has three phases. This cautious, step-by-step approach is seen around the world, where many nations are now looking around, not just inside their borders, but at what other governments are doing.

But in Singapore, the timeline for transitioning between the three phases is determined by the government.

 

In the time of the coronavirus, what will church look like?

As a writer, I share a common impulse with other writers. What is ahead?

Many of us who write are practising Christians. The big question for us is this one: in the time of the coronavirus, what will the church of the coming future look like?

We want to tackle this question because it’s a fascinating one, and our faith communities want to know.

The big magazines – Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, ERLC, Commonweal, America and more – have published an avalanche of news stories, thought pieces, and op-eds about the coronavirus. There’s also an emerging body of content about what church, when it re-opens, will look like.            

I want to know what True Way will look like.

                          

“Get real, this will be the new normal.”

 

To be sure, a lot of the already-published content is broad commentary, not descriptions or prescriptions. For example, we are told: don’t expect to go back to the normal. Or, get real, this will be the new normal.

Although there are several fairly in-depth descriptions, there’s not really a lot that sounds substantive.

Clearly, Christian leaders, and this includes local church leaders too, are waiting for things to solidify, and for other bolder souls to speak forth, and speak first.

 

What’s happening in the U.S.?

Most of us are aware that American society in recent time has become frighteningly mired in division and partisanship. Although Singapore is very different from the U.S., there are lessons we can draw from studying what’s happening in America.

After President Donald J Trump unveiled his plan for reopening America, a more exhaustive ‘roadmap’ quietly appeared on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website on May 20.

This 60-page document gave detailed recommendations for reopening restaurants, mass transit, schools and child care programs across the United States. It’s the official word from the CDC, sanctioned by the White House, and it devolves responsibility to the 50 states, insisting that local groups and communities should decide for themselves, not federal government leaders.

There was anger at this approach, of course. Many Americans felt this was a sorry abdication of leadership. But what’s particularly interesting to me is the White House’s decision to totally remove the section on houses of worship from the CDC document.

The reason for Trump’s decision to cut down an important block of recommendations pertaining to religious communities is easy to understand. In an election year, in the furnace of a rapidly fraying society, maintaining political support from his religious base is important. White evangelicals should not feel that the President was making it hard for them to have Sunday in-person gatherings again.

 

How Singapore is different

Unlike America, where the touchstones of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence are unalienable human rights, most of us who live in Asia, Singapore included, tend to trust our national leaders and national interests. The basis of our trust is ensconced in our histories of colonialism, independence, survival and nationhood. As countries mature, shifts are seen over time. Societies become more individualistic and heterogeneous, often one segment at a time, before political transformation happens.

The way Singaporeans and Singapore residents have responded to COVID-19, both in day-to-day lifestyle changes, and on a visceral-emotional level, has been different from the U.S. and Western nations.

Also, in April, Singapore has enacted the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act. This Act has made it possible to bring about widespread changes in our country. An act like this would be unthinkable in the U.S. and the West, where leaders continue to struggle to convince their people to wear masks and avoid social gatherings.

Infected premises, like this church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, have had to be shuttered and disinfected.

 

How shall we re-open and return?

But the time has now come for Singaporeans to come out of our circuit breaker, to re-open and to return.

Certainly, many Christians are eager to return to church after a period of disruption. We are hungry for familiarity, solace and fellowship. But we know that places of religious worship may be high-risk for coronavirus spread, even if we followed every piece of advice from health authorities.

We are now about one week into Phase 1. What freedoms does Phase 1 provide churches, mosques, temples, and other places of worship in Singapore?

Well, we’re told that from June 2, places of worship may re-open for private worship. People may enter churches to pray individually, or together if they are from one household. No more than five from one household at any one time. No more than five households in the same house of worship at any one time. No congregational worship, no religious classes.

Weddings and funerals are allowed inside churches in Phase 1, but only ten persons can be present, and they must be family members.

Allowing private worship is a bit of a moot point in True Way. Our gates remain locked. We don’t have a tradition of private worship in our church. This is true of most Protestant churches in Singapore as well.

But if you’ve visited cathedrals in Western countries, particularly Roman Catholic or Orthodox ones, you would have seen the spectacle of private worship many hours of a day, most days of the year. There’s no worship service going on, but as you walked up and down the aisles, you would walk past people sitting quietly in the pews, kneeling, meditating, reading and praying. You would have seen votive candles placed before altars and statues. This is private worship.

But, for our church, nothing will change as we leave the circuit breaker for Phase 1.

 

Why do we have to come together again?

It’s when our congregations are allowed to come together again in-person that the uncertainties re-appear. But why do we need to gather?

This is an important question to ponder.

Well, firstly, because the church is a body of believers. The church is not solo Christians, or a scattered group. Leaders have to winsomely explain the true nature of the church as a gathered people, and why it is so important to physically gather.

In a physical gathering, we experience in and through all of our senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste – the holy church’s embodied mission, its solid ballast and its fiery love.

Churches featured early in the history of the outbreak in Singapore. On Feb 25, investigators found that a married couple who attended a Chinese New Year gathering at Mei Hwan Drive was the missing link between the COVID-19 clusters at The Life Church and Missions church and Grace Assembly of God church. As the pandemic gathered steam, churches and other houses of worship around the world were advised to limit their gatherings, or shut down totally. Photo by Erick Kencana.

 

Physical gathering is commanded in God’s word. Heb 10: 24-25 is a key scripture about the gathered ekklesia: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more, as you see the Day drawing near.”

If we watch a service on our computers, there is no glimpse of our brother and our sister. It’s just you alone, or perhaps you’re with your family. What you see and hear watching a recording misses the searing grace of church, and the accompanying realisation that faith is alive, untameable and transformative. Online, all we have is a cache of intellectual statements, critical as they are, and a predictable tick-tock till the live-stream or recording comes to an end.

But gathered worship draws us deep into God’s means of grace, making us a bell-tower that witnesses every Sunday to our neighbours in Queenstown. Every week that our bell does not toll is a week where a Lord’s Day had come and gone without the clarion call of public worship.

So therefore, the church, properly understood, is a gathered body. Virtual church is, in an out-and-out sense, not church.

Three compelling reasons have kept us apart – public health science, laws, and our Christian duty to love our neighbour by reducing the risk of infecting him with coronavirus. We know these are good reasons. Christians are enjoined to submit to local government (Romans 13), and by not gathering for a season, our distancing lets us obey the commandment to serve our neighbour.

But at some point, after some period of distancing, we have to gather physically. The longer we go without doing that, the more it seems we would risk people drifting away, or losing touch with the incarnational meaning of church.

 

More problems

There are other problematic areas.

Apart from the fact that virtual church cannot feed you the way a physically gathered church does, there are things we cannot do if we don’t gather physically.

We cannot conduct the Lord’s Supper when there is no gathered body. We can’t baptise and confirm people, or conduct business meetings. All these are parts of church life that require the presence of a church.

When we bring a believer to baptism, affirming his union with Christ through the sacrament, we are performing an act that is hallowed because it is given to, and belongs to the church. It is to an embodied church that the baptised person publicly commits himself by receiving membership. When our church meets for ACM or ECM to discuss our work and mission, we give flesh to the descriptions and requisites in Matthew 16, 18, and 28 about a body of committed people who are present to, and responsible for each other.

So we can’t baptize people when the church is not present, or half-present.

If the recommendation is, when it comes during Phase 2 or 3, that we should limit church services to 100 persons at any one time, we would imaginably have to do some, or all, of the following:

Paste tape crosses on our pews, permitting four congregants to a pew.

Remove, or cancel out, alternate-row pews.

Create additional services, perhaps three services on Sunday, and one or two on Saturday so that we keep people a safe distance from each other, and don’t turn them away.

Instruct members and congregants to tell us beforehand which services they would choose, and explain how we would adjudicate when seats are oversubscribed. Can we still admit on a first-come, first-served basis?

Tell elderly members (should this be 60 years old, or 65?) not to come, and disappoint some of the most engaged people in our church.

Hold more Holy communion services all round. We have more than 500 communicant members on our roll.  There are many baptized-in-other churches people who come to our table. Perhaps we will have to share the Lord’s Supper every week, instead of once-a-month. Clearly, this decision would depend on whether we allow 100, or 50 or 25 into the sanctuary. Should we give priority of admission to communion-partakers?

If the government decides to allow only thirty to gather physically, should we start, or wait till the number goes up to 50, or 80?

To make things harder, in the published literature, there are now serious recommendations# for church leaders to deliberately split their congregation of, say, 500 members, into four or five distinct congregations, each with its own pastors, elders and deacons.

Each divided part becomes a full congregation. Each functions distinctly. The smaller congregations are now able to fulfill the terms of safe distancing. And because each part is a complete, intact congregation, it is now able to get baptisms and business meetings going.

This temporary strategy (perhaps nine months) is painful but it helps Christians to remember that a church is a gathering of Christians who have covenanted together to help each other follow Jesus. The new, smaller-sized church is itself an intact church with no missing part. It functions and lives as an intact body, not missing head, or toe or liver. It meets over bread and wine, it leads catechumen and witnesses to the waters of baptism, it admits people into membership, and knows every precious person is accounted for, and every beloved one present.

It may save us from forgetting what the biblical model of church is.

There’s a lot more. Does True Way dismantle welcome teams, or reduce the numbers inside each team? Should we expect newcomers to be fewer now? Will unexpected newcomers who show up bust our quota?

How do we welcome people? Does a paper bulletin transmit virus?

Do we pass offering bags?

Do we dismantle the worship bands, the choir? In discussions that started two months ago, bands and choirs are problem issues identified by both medical experts and church groups. If we don’t need a choir on Sunday, then we won’t need them to squeeze into a small room to rehearse on Thursday. Some guidelines even suggest that singing should cease, and that people should sit and listen to recorded music. Or soloists.

What is the future of missions, evangelism, door-to-door tracting, tuition, ukulele, and outreach in True Way? If COVID-19 doesn’t leave us ever, what is the future of these areas?

What do we do with our tiny church office with its very small rooms? If we’re going to propose staggered work hours for church pastors and staff, what work are we truthfully talking about?

Many churches have Sunday schools that cater to children of a wide age range. Here, communal space is shared, and separating children and teens often difficult. Church staff, volunteers and families now need to agree on a strategy for reopening. Photo by Lee Chung Horn.

 

What do we do with U12 and YZ? Do we require parents to trust us with their children?

I think very likely, we won’t be selling food packets once a month after the 11am service anymore.

 

“How will our definitions of ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ change when a sovereign God prunes the life of a church? What have we acquired over the years that we now have little reason to carry into the future?”

 

If church doesn’t reopen soon, how will we vividly describe the joy of church to our new converts?

What do we do with worried members who don’t wish to attend Sunday gatherings till next January? Or March?

What is essential in church? What’s non-essential? How will these definitions change when a sovereign God, through the pandemic, prunes the life of a church? What have we acquired over the years that we now have little reason to carry into the future?

 

I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord

The work is mind-boggling.

When True Way reopens Sunday gatherings, we may be sure there will be a denominational recommendation, that is, one coming from the Presbyterian Synod. To be sure, this advisory will arrive with an abundance of caution. But top-down advice, however nuanced, offers uncomfortable latitude, and we would still have to pick one shade out of ten similar colours for ourselves.

So, our church leaders have to get to work. The questions that must be asked are very fact-specific but answers will carry many tones. What is permissible in one church may be impermissible in another. What is permissible may not be wise, or loving.

And it’s not just our church leaders. All of us, too, need to get to work. While we long to be the gathered church again, we need to start thinking about the scientific facts, and our own levels of anxiety about ourselves, our children, and our families. The coronavirus will stir our hearts, and cause us to ask ourselves what we understand about church polity, submission to leaders, and what obedience to God’s word means.

 

*http://www.whitehouse.gov/openingamerica

#https://www.9marks.org/article/has-covid-19-made-9marks-raise-the-white-flag-on-multi-site-and-multi-service-churches/

 

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Please send comments to together@trueway.org.sg. This is the last of a series of articles from TOGETHER. Because the coronavirus pandemic now makes it hard to distribute TOGETHER in church, we have decided to share our issue online. TOGETHER is published up to three times a year. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors. All rights reserved. Previous issues are available at truewaypc.com/newsletters