Josh Kellso, a pastor at Grace Bible Church, delivers a sermon via livestream for virtual attenders from an empty sanctuary March 22, 2020, in Tempe, Arizona. Many houses of worship have suspended all in-person services and programs and moved to online services in compliance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote social distancing in the effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Conservative churches need to get the social distancing memo

(RNS) — COVID-19 has been emptying the pews at a majority of churches in the past few weeks as congregations follow local government recommendations to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some churches are choosing not to cancel in-person worship services, and it's hard not to notice a correlation between “those that stayed open” and “theologically conservative.”

In other words, yes, most faith communities cancelled services. But of those that remained open, I’d bet my last rolls of toilet paper they were conservative Christian churches.

Technically, smaller churches here in California (such as the one I pastor, Sojourn Grace Collective, a progressive Christian church in San Diego) could have stayed open, because our numbers don't rise to official bans, and most of our attendees fall in low-risk demographics. But our leaders made the call two weeks ago (March 12) to move to virtual services for the time being.

The choice seemed obvious to us: If you care about the risks of this growing pandemic and the threat it poses to the most vulnerable, cancelling church was the right call.

Unfortunately, not all churches got the memo. Or, rather, they got the memo but disregarded it and opted for business as usual — albeit with a few tweaks. Some made extra pleas for the sick to stay home or encouraged members to scoot six feet down the pew from each other. Some moved their gatherings outdoors.

Why were some churches ignoring calls for closure? And why are they generally churches that espouse a more conservative theology?

I grew up in conservative evangelical contexts. It wasn’t until 2010, a decade into my ministry, that I began a process of shifting toward a more progressive expression of Christianity. So I think I get why some conservative churches resisted the call to close.

As a conservative Christian, I viewed going to church as a religious obligation that pleased God. I believed deep faith in God’s power offered some form of protection against the chaos of the world. When it came to the most vulnerable, weak and marginalized in society, my primary responsibility was always to lead them toward belief in the saving work of Jesus, promising heaven in the afterlife. 

The Rev. Robert Jeffress preaches at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Sunday, March 15, 2020. Video screengrab

Today, while church is an integral part of my life for experiencing belonging and community, I understand that the divine’s posture toward me is neither stiffened nor relaxed according to my attendance at church. I see God not as a shield from suffering but as a presence amidst pain.

In progressive Christianity, I see how Jesus’ work among the most vulnerable was motivated by compassion to help them avoid hell here and now, before death.

More conservative churches are staying open because, when you believe that God not only desires your worship but demands it; when you believe that God will keep you from harm if your faith is firm; and when you believe your obligation to the weak is primarily about the next life, then going to church — even, or especially, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic — is about the most faithful thing you can do.

I’ve seen some of my fellow progressives criticize the churches and leaders who stayed open. While I share in their frustration, I reject any suggestion it’s because conservative Christians are naive, power hungry or dismissive of the needs of others. Such caricatures like this by those on the left are unkind and untrue.

Rather, if you'll excuse a bit of theological jargon, I believe the difference stems from viewing Jesus' Great Commandment as hierarchical rather than integral.

What this means is that when, in the Gospel of Matthew, religious leaders asked Jesus his opinion on what mattered most, he replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” During my years in more conservative Christian contexts, we taught that the first part, loving God, was the most important thing one can do in life, placing it above any potential acts of love toward neighbor.

Yet for the progressive Christians and churches I know, loving our neighbor is not the sequel to loving God — it doesn't come after our regard for the divine: it is the tangible manifestation of it. This is one of the gifts of progressive Christianity: a harmonious integration of love for God, self and neighbor. For the churches that closed down, even when we didn’t have to, loving others is how we love God.

I imagine the time is coming soon when all churches will suspend their weekend gatherings. In the meantime, if you lead or attend a church that is still planning to hold in-person worship gatherings, as an act of compassion I urge you to consider cancelling. Loving God right now does not look like worshipping in a building or continuing to gather in belief that God will keep you safe.

Loving God right now might very well look like doing everything you can to love the most vulnerable among you, taking every precaution to slow the spread of COVID-19.

May all communities — conservative and progressive alike — trust that closing our churches is not about fear; it’s about love.

And according to Jesus, that’s the greatest thing we can do.

(Colby Martin is co-founder of Sojourn Grace Collective in San Diego, California. His new book "The Shift: Surviving and Thriving after Moving from Conservative to Progressive Christianity" will be out in April. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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