Wednesday, May 27, 2020

New Rules for a New Church...

Dear Friends,

You can’t go home again. I have so many wonderful memories of the neighborhood in which I grew up. In the 1950's, we lived on the outskirts of Los Angeles in a suburb that could have been the set for the “Leave It To Beaver” television show. Today, urban blight has transformed it into a ghetto. Many of us have so many treasured memories of our past that if we go back with the expectation that nothing will have changed, we may be shocked to find that the place is barely recognizable. It was novelist Thomas Wolfe who told us that “You can’t go home again” and today it’s the coronavirus that tells us “You can’t go back to church again.” Like returning to a once family home that has been gutted and completely remodeled, you may return to your church when it reopens, and experience disorientation as the reality of the “new normal” worship service and a radically different physical space collides with your memories of the recent past. Some AMEN Corner readers have expressed dissatisfaction when I’ve described this new normal coming to the church and prefer to believe that it will be exactly the same when they return. They may want to stop at this point.. or take a deep breath and continue reading.

There is an evolving hodgepodge of church guidelines with a Catholic Archdiocese releasing a 36 page document of very strict guidelines, a leading Evangelical organization with stringent guidelines and one of the nation’s largest Protestant mainline denominations (ELCA Lutheran) publishing a modest seven page guideline that’s a little vague and far more permissive. But a May 25th California Health Order usurps these denominational guidelines and State and Local Health Orders will need to be followed once a country lifts its own lock-down on churches and other places of public assembly.

In past AMEN Corners, we've been making informed guesses about what the church might look like. With the new California Health Order, we now know what it must look like. For now, a church must limit attendance to 25% of the worship space capacity or a maximum of 100 people. That makes it impossible for a large or megachurch to open. Grace Baptist in Santa Clarita – a church of 2500 – would have to have 25 services on a Sunday! 

Churches are advised to use an online reservation system to prevent people from being turned away at the door. They will be sent “eTickets” that will admit them to the service. County guidelines require that the reservation system obtain the person's name, phone number and email which will facilitate tracking should a person in attendance be later determined to be COVID-19 positive. 

Body temperatures using an infrared thermometer must be taken at the door by an usher wearing PPE, including safety goggles and gloves. Hand sanitizer stations must be at the church entrance and used by every person entering. Face coverings will be required for admittance. 

A strict six foot distance must be maintained between families or individuals. No more than one “family unit” per pew and every other pew roped off. Everything touched must be disinfected after each individual use so no cloth covered chairs (can’t be disinfected). 

Removal of all paper handouts, contribution envelopes, brochures, devotionals etc. No handing out service bulletins. No Bibles or hymnals. 

No singing (more on that next week). No reciting prayers or creeds out loud. No passing a collection plate. No “passing of the peace.” Shorten services as much as possible to reduce exposure times. 

No gatherings in kitchen areas and prevent walking in or through smaller rooms or narrow hallways. Close off all smaller rooms outside the worship space. Only one person at a time in a small restroom. Close off every other space in the parking lot. 

The State, Catholic, Lutheran, and other church guidelines discourage, restrict or prohibit Holy Communion until the churches are in the final phase of opening which may be months away or next year. When churches are once again permitted to distribute Communion, the restrictions will change forever the way we have participated in this sacrament. 

At the end of the service, the pastor must not greet the attendees at the door and no food or drink are to be served after the service. 

Some of you may be hoping that your pastor will look the other way when you gather with your friends in the kitchen or that he or she will continue to allow singing in the service. But for the health and safety of the people and for the protection of the church itself, all pastors and church leaders must follow the guidelines. A local Lutheran Bishop has warned his pastors that, according to their insurance companies, failure to conform to public health orders could make churches liable for the consequences of any infection that occurs in their public worship service. A wrongful death lawsuit would permanently close most churches.

The most critical decision for the church to make is what to do with the “vulnerable” church member. Some churches who have fought to stay open have become super-spreaders and people have died. As all churches gradually reopen, if guidelines loosen up, or are not followed, infections will increase and many more church members will die. That’s why Lutheran and other denominational guidelines call for vulnerable church members to not attend services, but to participate in online services. The vulnerable church members are those older than 55 and those of all ages with medical conditions (heart, lungs, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cancer etc.) The difficulty with these decisions is that the vulnerable church member is the core of our church – in many, these members are the vast majority. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 78% of everyone in the United States over the age of 55 has at least one of the medical conditions that would make them vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. From the age of 55 to 65 (what we might not consider as “old”), 70% of those in that age group have at least one of those medical conditions. Younger is only a little safer. Of all adults in America, 45% have one or more medical conditions that put them at an elevated risk if they become infected with this coronavirus. That’s why many churches and denominations are not willing to open until a vaccine is being distributed which could be many months away or not until sometime next year.

I know this is hard to read. It grieves me greatly as it does you. But you and I can't ignore the new normal in our church. I’m a realist and my own mental health depends on my having reasonable expectations for the church of the future. I can’t go back to “church” again. But I can look forward to the church of tomorrow because what’s important about my faith will never change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Hebrews 13:8


1 comment:

  1. Do I go to church for the fellowship or do I go because it's all about God regardless of the setting? I can worship in my garage because He is there with me. But I really miss the bread and the wine and what it symbolizes to me, and aren't we social animals. Can man be alone? I look forward to AC. Thanks for encouraging critical thought.