On Social Distancing and Public Worship

The coronavirus poses serious threats to the physical health of the elderly and those with complicating health conditions, which is why it is in the best interests of our communities and nations if we temporarily suspend face-to-face contact.

Yet this suspension of face-to-face contact also poses its own grave threat to the mental and emotional health of our communities. I study communication, which makes me keenly aware of the power of relationsips. And living in almost total isolation from others (and “social distancing” when they are present) makes the temporary removal of those flesh-and-blood relationships acutely felt. I live in a dormitory with literally hundreds of other people. I have seen three in my building in the last 24 hours. Actually, I saw two. I only heard the voice of the third through the wall.

People are beginning to feel the pressure of this isolation, as evidenced by recent videos of Italians singing together from their balconies along a deserted neighborhood street–a beautiful example of human solidarity in the midst of suffering.

Social media can do a lot to bridge this interpersonal gap, but it cannot remove it completely. And what about those with no access to communication networks? If our elder loved ones do not die because of coronavirus, will they nevertheless pine away when no one visits them for months? If a shut-in’s immune system is compromised by exposure, is it not also compromised by loneliness and isolation?

This is a particularly thorny question when applied to local churches, a topic of great controversy in Poland as well (I imagine) as in other parts of the world. It is not a question of whether or not the goverment has the authority to forbid believers from worshiping. It is merely a question of whether ceasing to worship the Lord in community actually poses a graver danger to our health and well-being than the disease it is intended to alleviate.

I have been reading a lot of Abraham Kuyper in recent months, and one of his most emphatic points is that the church is the assembly of believers. The Old Testament tabernacle was called the “tent of meeting,” where the Lord met with his assembled people. By its very nature the church is the ekklesia, the called-out ones, the assembly of saints. It is the con-gregation, those who have gathered together. In short, the church is precisely the thing that public officials currently warn us is the most detrimental to our health.

To some extent, we cannot cease to worship together without ceasing to be the church. I recognize that this sounds overstated. But Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Physical gathering is the crucial activity. Even at the peak of the disciples’ fear after Jesus’ crucifixion, they continued to gather secretly (John 20:19). We are told that the fish symbol associated with Christianity has its origins in the Roman catacombs, pointing the way to a place where Christians gathered to worship. Through times of persecution and warfare in the years following the Reformation, groups of the faithful continued to gather in “conventicles” in the meadows of Holland and the moors of Scotland. Throughout history, the most stubborn tyrants and the most subtle spies have not been able to prevent the church from gathering. Even today, the persecuted church in many countries continues to meet. They must meet. It is who they are.

This is not merely a concern for believers, those within the church whose spiritual health is compromised by ceasing to fellowship together. It is also a concern for the watching world. How can we proclaim our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven without public worship, the most concrete and unchanging expression of that citizenship? How can the church offer solace and comfort to the needy and afflicted when its doors are shut and its own members are (at least by appearances) cowering in their homes to avoid a virus? Jesus touched lepers, yet we wear gloves and imaginary six-foot-wide hula hoops?

Of course we need to be prudent. Of course we need to practice isolation when necessary as an expression of love for others. But we need to think carefully about how to do this in a way that compensates for physical distance with spiritual intimacy–in a way that does not communicate the very opposite of what we preach.

This is why my heart goes out to congregations such as the Reformed church in Milan, Italy, which has been required to suspend worship services for many weeks now. Polish churches are now also forbidden from meeting, and I suspect the same already holds or will soon hold in parts of the US as well. But instructing congregants to listen to a sermon on YouTube is not public worship; it is private worship conducted by multiple individuals at the same time. Even a video chat with other members of a congregation lacks the face-to-face intimacy that is so central to the nature of the church.

But there are options. There are creative, intentional, committed things that we can do as the body of Christ to proclaim our unity and solidarity while honoring the counsel of our governments. Geneva College’s president recently released a creative video that seeks to strengthen the college’s sense of identity and community even in the midst of isolation. It sets a helpful tone for churches to consider. I am not equipped to offer specific solutions, but there are some questions that come to mind.

  • What are the channels of communication for the shut-ins and elderly in your congregation? How can they regularly hear the voices of people who care about them? How will you periodically ensure that they are healthy and cared for?
  • If your church building is closed, is there a sign on the door that directs passerby to a phone number or email address where they can reach a pastor, elder, or deacon for assistance? Is there information about online services?
  • Although large gatherings are unwise, does your church have small fellowship groups of 5 to 10 people each which can meet periodically to sing, read, discuss, and pray with one another? As the weather gets nicer, a local park would be a perfect place to hold these small meetings while minimizing the risk of contagion.

Moreover, I return to my earlier plea for a committed time of prayer and fasting to be shared simultaneously by God’s people around the world. In biblical terms, the main differences between fast days and feast days are the presence of food and the letter “e.” Both are spiritual activities which offer up prayer and supplication to God and build up the participants in their love and commitment to one another. And both happen in community.

There is no such thing as an individual feast. You can gorge yourself, but you cannot feast without other people. And while there is certainly a place for individual fasting and devotion, this circumstance calls for community as well. Fasting together teaches us to long together for the satiation that can only come from our heavenly home. Fasting is something that can be done in isolation, yet in solidarity with believers across town and across the world. And fervent corporate prayer is something that God promises to reward. “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19).

Americans’ ears should be attentive, then, when the civil magistrate has called for an extraordinary national day of prayer tomorrow, Sunday, March 15.

Such a proclamation does not happen often. And it leaves the church with a clear responsibility. Article 66 of the Church Order of Dort states:

In times of war, pestilence, national calamities, severe persecution of the churches and other general difficulties, the ministers shall petition the government that by its authority and order public fasting and prayer days may be designated and set aside.

In the midst of terror and fear on every side, the church of Jesus Christ in America has been provided with a public platform on which to stand as it proclaims its reliance upon the Lord through every storm and trial. Through this act of faith the church can continue to exhibit its identity as the church, putting into the practice King Solomon’s prayer: “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other” (1 Kings 8:60). If we shoulder this responsibility, seeking God’s face and praying not just for physical but spiritual revival, this pandemic may prove to be the most important thing that has happened to the human community in a long while.