A View from the Pew: When is it Okay to Go Back to Church?

You may already be back in your traditional place at church on Sundays, or you may be wringing your hands and wondering when it is safe to rejoin your church family in person. Either way, you may have lingering doubts about your decision.

My parents’ church in central Florida resumed Sunday services in late May, and they are taking many precautions—thorough cleaning before and after a service, refraining from up-close greetings or conversation, blocking off seating to maintain social distance of at least six feet, etc. My church in the metro Atlanta area is still supplying video clips and an order of worship each week for in-home services.

Well-meaning people of faith can justifiably differ on the question of returning to face-to-face worship. Given that I’m no public health expert, epidemiologist, or ordained minister, here are some guidelines for laypeople contemplating the question, “When is it okay to go back to church?”

  • When we consistently exercise good habits. By now we all know the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by heart—wear a mask, maintain social distance, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, don’t touch your face, etc. Even with nonstop reinforcement of these practices, I’ve heard a number of people say the first few times they saw people as the reemerged from shelter-in-place orders, they completely forgot and shook hands or gave someone a hug. That’s what makes COVID-19 so dangerous. A simple handshake or hug is all it takes to spread the coronavirus, and the place we are most likely to “forget ourselves” and reach out to someone to express our heartfelt love is at church. We have to discipline ourselves until keeping your hands to ourselves is a habit.
  • When we have a heart for worship. Our motives for attending worship are as varied as our beliefs about where Cain found a wife. Wanting to get out of the house or see our friends don’t meet the criteria for gathering for worship in my book. When you have an urgent call to worship God that is reinforced and strengthened by being with your family of faith, then your heart is in the right place. It might be time to resume worshiping together, but, of course, only if the good habits are closely followed.
  • When we have a deep need for genuine fellowship. Seeing members of our church family lifts our spirits. The past months of sheltering in place has been difficult, and those who live alone are feeling it most acutely. It’s a legitimate need for our mental, emotional, and spiritual health to be with fellow believers. I’m not talking about getting back together to catch up on the latest gossip, argue politics, or tell jokes. Genuine fellowship feeds the soul and nourishes the spirit.
  • When we decide to go out, thus putting ourselves at risk for less important activities. If you feel you can go to a restaurant or get your haircut, then it’s certainly worth having the conversation about returning to church. People do what they want to do. If you can take precautions to safely make other forays into the public, then going back to church can be considered. The care and feeding of your spirit are at least as important as getting your favorite Mexican meal or a manicure.

It is important to remember the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Coronavirus is still spreading. People are still dying. The talk of a “second wave” is premature because the “first wave” has not ended. Returning to face-to-face worship services isn’t a decision that should be made hastily or in a vacuum. As you prayerfully consider the unique factors of your geographic and demographic situation, I hope you will be sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit as you seek to discern what’s best.

Whenever you decide to go back to worship at your church, please be mindful of God and others.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and has resumed blogging at newsouthessays.com.

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