Yesterday, Gov. Pritzker held a press conference where he outlined “Restore Illinois,” which is his version of reopening. Interestingly, his plan involved five phases rather than three.
According to Pritzker, we are in Phase 2, which will continue through May. Many regions of Illinois will move into Phase 3 after May and then can eventually move into Phase 4. Phase 4 and 5 is where I got stuck—particularly with regards to large gatherings (which I, as well as others, assume includes churches).
Under Phase 4 (“Revitalization”), “Gatherings of 50 people or fewer are allowed with this limit subject to change based on latest data and guidance.” However, “P–12 schools, higher education, all summer programs, and child care [can] open with IDPH approved safety guidance.” Under Phase 5 (“Illinois Restored”), Pritzker’s plan notes,
Testing, tracing and treatment are widely available throughout the state. Either a vaccine is developed to prevent the additional spread of COVID-19, a treatment option is readily available that ensures health care capacity is no longer a concern, or there are no new cases over a sustained period. . . . Large gatherings of all sizes can resume.”
In other words, according to the state of Illinois, large gatherings over 50 will not be allowed to resume until the above criteria is met. (Lord knows when that will be.)
To be clear, this is Illinois’ proposed gating criteria to reopen the state. Since President Trump released his plan, governors are following suit. I ran across a CNN article that gives a snapshot of every state’s reopening plan. In scanning through that document, some states are further along to reopening than others (like Iowa and Montana), while others still have no set date to emerge from “shelter in place.” Like I said in an earlier article, this certainly will be a dance.
I know that in a dance there are rhythms, rules, and moves. However, I’m certain many believers and church leaders are struggling with some of this strict language around church gatherings.
What I want to do is walk through the struggle many people are having, explain the predicament facing many churches, and provide some general guidelines for how churches might discern what to do in the coming weeks and months.
What We Were Told Early On
Early in the pandemic crisis, the nation was told by government officials—based upon the advice of medical and scientific experts—that we need to shut the nation (the economy) down in order to “flatten the curve.” In so doing, we would prevent the hospitals from being overloaded and thus give them the time they needed to institute plans and protocols to combat the virus on the other side.
In addition, this time would be stewarded to create ventilators and other necessary medical equipment needed in the fight against COVID-19. Furthermore, the lockdown period would give the time necessary to make testing more readily available throughout the country. While we know the scientific community began tirelessly working on creating a cure and helpful treatments, we [all] knew that it would be a time—hopefully in the not too distant future—when a vaccine or treatment was produced.
For the most part, everyone in the country pitched in to bring life as we knew it to a standstill. Over the last six to eight weeks, most Americans have complied and cooperated with this massive endeavor. Since then we have seen almost 70,000 people contract the virus and die. In addition, we have seen over 30,000,000 file for unemployment. And still, for the most part, people waited patiently holding out hope that reopening was right around the corner.
Now that the reopening conversation is happening in many states, people aren’t happy with what they are hearing. They see the “strict” or even more “moderate” measures to be too restrictive compared to what they were told.
A Helicopter Nation and Rejecting First-Rate Intelligence
My wife and I have three kids. If we had to pick a style of parenting we have adopted over the years, it probably is a cross between a “Hummingbird” and “Free-range” style. I’ve seen over the years those who are “Helicopter” parents. They are the parents who hover over their kids, solve their problems, and strive to prevent anything bad from happening to them. Such a cultural type of model would fit under a more “Authoritarian” type of parenting.
If you ever wanted to know what kind of nation we have, as Americans, “parenting” us today—it is the “Authoritarian” and “Helicopter” parent.
According to the Constitution, the basic functions of the United States government are: (a) to form a more perfect Union; (b) to establish Justice; (c) to insure domestic Tranquility; (d) to provide for the common Defense; (e) to promote the general Welfare; (f) and to secure the Blessings of Liberty. Even in light of these functions and the “opinions” of so many different Americans (who may or may not be aware of these functions), we will have a raging debate over the next several weeks and months around the role of government in the life of its citizens.
There are many who are growing more and more impatient with the federal and state governments with regards to their “governing” measures to protect people from the virus. At the same time, there are many who have seen, up close and personal, the devastating effects of this invisible terrorist and are issuing their own warnings and exhortations to “stay home” and “keep others safe.”
But herein lies the problem that exists in our nation, you can’t be both and, you have to be either or; you can’t be for both safety, in an effort to protect, and the freedom of choice.
In other words, we have rejected first-rate intelligence. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in 1936, defined first-rate intelligence as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
In our current dissonance and divisive culture, people aren’t allowed to hold conflicting views at the same time. In the case of reopening the nation and the states therein, you are either for “safety” (strict measures for people, organizations, and gatherings to fight the virus), or your for “freedom” (allowing people to exercise common sense in their lives, businesses, and organizations in light of the virus).
In all honesty, this isn’t helpful. All this does is create more division, hostility, and hate—never mind creating deeper trust issues on both sides.
The Predicament Many Churches Face
Living in a “Helicopter” nation that rejects the notion that you can hold two competing views at the same time is the climate the church in America finds herself in. While this is unfortunate, the old idiom, “It is what it is,” comes to mind.
Early in this pandemic crisis, the church paused and pivoted hard as the national lockdown ensued—with very little pushback might I add. At that time articles were produced that expressed “not gathering for the sake of your neighbor” was the most loving thing you could do. And I certainly believed that and still stand by it.
However, as time has passed and more data is available, I believe there should be more moderate—rather than strict—measurements in place with regards to large gatherings (especially in places where the curve has flattened). And I believe I can say that and be both pro-safety and pro-freedom. I don’t think we have to pit one up against the other.
I understand some will respond and say that we need to err on the side of life. That this is a medical issue not a legal issue. Once again, I don’t know why we have to be so black and white. Can it not be both? Let’s take car accidents. 1.35 million people die in road accidents every year—over 37,000 people in the U.S. alone. The U.S. traffic fatality rate is 12.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Car accidents are the 8th leading cause of death globally. In addition, 4.4 million are injured seriously enough to require medical attention.
Because tens of thousands die and millions are seriously injured, do we limit the number of cars? Do we stagger the going and coming of traffic and restrict when people can travel? No. There are safety guidelines that manufacturers have as they build their automobiles. Drivers have guidelines and laws that they should follow—like wearing a seatbelt, observing the road signs, keeping safe distance from other cars, and following the speed limit—or face the consequences. There’s both safety restrictions and freedom of choice.
I realize that many are scared with regards to the virus. I also realize that some are angry at the measures that were taken that adversely effected many lives. I also realize that many (if not most)—as they slowly emerge from “shelter in place”—will take protective measures when out in public. They will wear masks, observe physical distancing, and implement the best hygiene practices. I also realize a large portion of the population want to get back to somewhat of a normal life, while others will not want to fully emerge until there is a vaccine.
In realizing all of this, I believe there can be more moderate protocols for larger gatherings. It’s not like churches want to go buck-wild like Noah when he got off the ark. But, they do want to start meeting again with brothers and sisters. They also want to be able to provide safe places (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) for those seeking and searching for hope… for God.
And I believe people should have the opportunity to choose to worship with their church family in person—not to mention, to be able to choose to gather for any other event—at least with moderate protocols in place.
But as of right now, that decision is being made for them by state governments.
So herein lies the predicament of some churches: they want to meet but are, in many cases, under strict restrictive guidelines until (at least according to some states) an effective vaccine or treatment emerges or there are no new cases.Tweet
Discerning What to Do
So what do churches do when they sense the reopening measures are too strict? In other words, what if state governments insist on limiting the number of people rather limiting a building’s capacity? I think that will be a question some churches in some states will have to wrestle with in the coming days, weeks, and possibly months.
First, churches need to realize that there are antagonists who are not for the church. They would love nothing more than to see every church shut down indefinitely and the word “Jesus” removed from our vocabulary. In addition, these antagonists will be waiting for an opportune time to accuse the church of doing something wrong—whether it is disobeying government orders, failing to “love thy neighbor,” or being reckless in their gatherings. Churches should not be making decisions with the antagonists and accusers in mind.
Second, if your church believes the measurements handed down by the state government are too strict, I would encourage you to create a guiding coalition of leaders from other churches, organizations, businesses and local health officials (in your area) to discuss the issues and come up with what you all consider to be reasonable protective measures for your particular context.
Third, once you’ve created your guiding coalition and have formed what you consider to be reasonable measures, I would encourage you to reach out to the state government officials. This is where I believe in diplomacy and attempting to work out our differences for the common good. Here in the US we have this ability, whereas in other parts of the world people don’t.
Fourth, if there’s no movement or compromise between the guiding coalition and the state government, your church (and the guiding coalition) will have a decision to make. Do you obey guidelines handed down from the government or do you enact civil disobedience? [Civil disobedience is the nonviolent “active, professed refusal of a citizen to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands of a government.”]
Fifth, if you choose to enact civil disobedience by going against the guidelines (or orders) handed down by the state government, you will need to be able to communicate the “why” behind your “what.” In other words, you need to be able to communicate to your people as well as to those in the community why you have chosen to break the guidelines. In addition, you will need to be able to communicate the policies, procedures, and measurements you have and will continue to take to create safe environments for people’s protection.
Sixth, if you choose to enact civil disobedience you will need to be ready for potential consequences.
In closing, these sure are interesting and disheartening days in which we live. My heart aches at the tens of thousands that have entered their eternal rest, leaving behind a wake of grief and mourning. My heart breaks for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, their livelihoods. My heart hurts for the small business owners who are and will continue to struggle as people slowly emerge from the enclaves of shelter in place. My heart weeps with the students who missed their spring sport, their prom, or their graduation.
Such pain and suffering make me long even more for the world to come—the new heavens and earth that Jesus will usher in as a result of his death and resurrection.
In the meantime, we live between the times. We live in the time where the people of God live ultimately for his glory, which naturally leads them to embrace a posture towards the world.
Therefore, what churches do in the coming days, weeks, and months cannot be solely for their good—it must be for the glory of God and the good of others. As God’s people, churches should seek the peace and prosperity of the states, cities, and communities in which God sent them.
How do we seek the glory of God as well as the good of our neighbor in these days. This is the tension. God would you give your people wisdom, discernment, and unity in the coming days as we seek to be a people for your own possession who seek to be part of a nation of states that hope to form a
more perfect, or (better yet), better Union.