Churches in Lockdown: A Personal Response

Early in the Wuhan virus[1] lockdown, I emailed my pastor: “May I come to church?” Fewer than 10 people would be present. I planned to wear a mask and distance myself. 

Michigan’s governor had declared church gatherings nonessential and our church had substituted online services. I had not been able to access the live stream (never could). 

A couple days later I got my answer: No.

Church gatherings, he explained, were against our governor’s order and the church council did not want to risk liability. 

My church’s response was not unique. Some churches did not wait for stay-at-home orders. One pastor emailed me: “Our diocese—all the Episcopal churches in the region—was already in the middle of suspending worship voluntarily when the Kentucky governor asked churches to close.” 

She reminded me that 45 members of a Washington choir had contracted Wuhan virus during a rehearsal and at least two died. 

All the same, I had a gut sense we were cheating ourselves. I write about heroes from church history. I found myself wondering, “What would Cyprian counsel? How would Sebastian Castellio respond? What would Ashbel Green Simonton do?” 

Cyprian urged third-century Christians to nurse their persecutors during a plague. Castellio risked his life visiting contagious parishioners when other clergy in sixteenth-century Geneva would not. Against the pleas of friends and family, Simonton settled in a pestilence-ridden Brazilian city to share the gospel—and died of fever in 1867. 

I wondered if churches that allowed themselves to be defined as nonessential were not tacitly admitting a truth. Shutting down without pushback at Easter on the orders of secular governors seemed more than a little shocking, not only because of the aura of fear it exuded but also because of the unconstitutional precedents it established (not just the right of religious practice, but of assembly, of free speech, and of exercise of property rights—the use of church property).[2]

Easter services were an obvious casualty of church shutdowns, but other deprivations continued. During the pandemic, Christians needed one another more than ever. 

Many were scared. Some had lost their livelihoods and yearned for encouragement. Brethren in poorer countries faced starvation and needed our intercession. In the West we risked real loss of liberties and should have been pushing back. Suicide, alcoholism, and domestic abuse were on the rise, but Christians could not look into the hopeless person’s eyes, smell the drinker’s breath, or see the victim’s bruises because observers and victims were sheltering in place. 

International events demanded that church leaders convene to strategize. Unless the world experiences a strong economic rebound, wars are probable as nations scramble for resources or levy blame in a contracted global economy.

When I mentioned my concern to one of my friends, whom I’ll call Rock, he said he didn’t have a problem with shutting down churches because he likes to err on the side of caution. Rock is in his 70s, has gone into sepsis twice in the last 18 months, and suffers from diabetes. He can live with the shutdown, he said, because it is temporary and we have alternatives to gathering in church buildings.

The favored alternative was to utilize social technology for online worship. My place of work held prayer meetings over Zoom and those inspired us. Yet even as technology served as a stopgap, many of us lamented its limitations. 

The subtle cues of body language easily got lost in digital gatherings. Emoticons were no substitute for the squeeze of a hand or a pat on the shoulder. Voices conveyed less meaning filtered through electronics. When my church held call-in prayer meetings, for example, I often could not tell who was speaking. Electronic gurgles detracted from—and even drowned—comments. And candor was fettered: Who wanted to create a permanent cyberspace record of a confession or a sensitive prayer request? 

Online worship didn’t work for everyone either. Rock, who is technologically challenged, could not connect on Zoom. A friend whom I’ll call Pam could not afford internet. Before the virus, she accessed the web at libraries. Now that libraries were closed, her church’s internet worship might as well have been held on Mars for all the good it did her. No one ever accommodated her—her church had few resources and some older members admitted they, too, were baffled by the tech and also were missing the broadcasts. 

My concern with online worship went beyond that. Cameras created a perception that the service was a show: a performance by a few. Is a nonparticipatory church really a church?

Sitting on my lawn (a violation of our governor’s orders), my friend Mika (not her real name) stressed the void that comes with electronic “participation.” She missed community, “You know, like the song says, ‘I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.’” 

Fifty years old, with dangerously high thyroid levels and severe diabetes, Mika remains a prime candidate for viral complications. Yet she would risk the danger for the sake of joining with others. “I’m sure we could wear masks, distance ourselves, clean the pews. That’s something I’d volunteer for.” 

She reminded me that the Bible commands us not to forsake assembling together. 

The Kentucky pastor also missed community. “We feel acutely the loss … of being able to share the Eucharist together,” she said. However, she noted a positive development: Her church’s virtual services attracted people who had not been attending in the flesh. 

Although Rock was OK with the closures, he still had concerns. By our absence from church, we could not as easily use our spiritual gifts for person-to-person edification he noted. He also wondered aloud if closing churches did not indicate a failure to trust God.

“I need my church family,” Pam said plaintively. “If I had a choice, I would go and I would not wear gloves and mask.” 

And so I found my question answered: By declaring church gatherings nonessential, we demonstrated the opposite. They are essential, at least for some Christians—not so much for the sermons and the music as for the community, personal vibes, and shared rites. However, my foreboding that churches, by accepting the definition “nonessential,” were making themselves so, has also been bourne out by events. Now that churches are reopened, many former attendees simply are not coming back—in some cases because of persistent fear of the virus, but in others because they tell me they have lost interest or simply gotten out of the habit. At bottom I believe they have lost respect for an organization that claims to speak for God but at the moment of crisis showed it feared government more than God. Although I’ve returned to church, I find myself unable to shake the latter thought.

Clearly, we needed to reopen. That does not mean we should become as reckless as Pam would be. Family Research Council put out sensible “Guidelines for Reopening Your Church.”[3] Based on CDC advisories, this guide recommends mitigation behaviors such as staying home if we feel sick, social distancing in seats, taking temperatures at the door, and cleaning surfaces after human contact. One of its less obvious suggestions is to avoid passing an offering plate; another is to stop distributing bulletins. 

My own suggestion was that we separate the leaders on stage from the congregation with transparent plastic hangings to prevent projection of disease-bearing particles in either direction. If a church has a sound system, let it carry the platform voices. 

With Wuhan virus likely to return in the fall and other pandemics inevitable, we need to determine nowhow to face them. Personal choice must be paramount. Let fearful Christians quarantine themselves just as fearful soldiers were allowed to withdraw before battle in Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 20:8). But don’t restrict all churchgoers because a few are vulnerable or timid. Although critics will argue that no one has a right to increase risk to others by choosing liberty, no one can yet put an accurate number on any specific individual’s risk. Scientific models predicting this pandemic’s spread were dismally wrong.[4] What emerged as the weeks passed was that, with less than 0.3% of confirmed cases dying (not the 3%–6% originally projected), risk of death was low for all but the elderly and a few groups with pre-existing medical conditions.[5]

At any rate, lockdowns did little to prevent spread of the disease. Governor Cuomo expressed shock over a development unforeseen to him: More than 60% of New Yorkers contracted their cases at home.[6]

Opponents of loosened restrictions claimed that this virus could be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals (a claim recently denied by the World Health Organization (WHO) which backpedaled the next day because of the outcry—although contact tracing from a dozen countries showed asymptomatic spread was negligible. Apparently for WHO, science changes according to political calculus). Diseases are difficult to compare because no two are identical. However, other dangerous viruses such as measles and the flu spread through asymptomatic individuals and we’ve never before locked down the healthy because of those diseases. Hundreds of thousands of people contract leprosy each year and to this day we are unsure how it is transmitted, but its apparently lengthy contagion period calls only for the quarantine of the affected individuals, not of the general population.

I believe the best approach is to let those who want to self-isolate do so but respect the rights of those who choose to gather. Traditionally, only sick people faced mandatory quarantine, although healthy individuals could voluntarily sequester themselves (Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century Decameron has as its structure 10 people telling tales while sheltering from the Black Plague) or move to safer areas, as Wittenberg University did in the 1552 plague.

Meanwhile what? While I believe the denial of religious assembly is both unnecessary[7] and unconstitutional,[8] the situation on the ground when I wrote this was that churches in many places still were not gathering because of arbitrary and unscientific[9] governmental decrees. Even Rock expressed concern about the unconstitutional precedent. “If this was persecution,” he said, “I’d defy the authorities and go to church.”

I’m not sure there wasn’t an element of persecution. At the least, I saw a double standard. It would be no harder to distance people safely in churches than in the waiting rooms of abortion clinics (which remained open in my state, even while urgent surgeries such as post-mastectomy breast reconstruction were forbidden). Press conferences, which governors routinely held, had setups similar to churches, with speakers at podiums addressing seated audiences for lengthy times.

Customers thronged the big chain stores in my city from the start of the pandemic; weeks later no spike in cases suggested they had become contamination hotspots.[10] If stores could operate safely, churches could find ways too.[11]

Could we be the body of Christ under pandemic strictures?

Of course we could, even if it meant lurching as if crippled. The church is the body of Christ and can be found wherever a single individual obeys God rather than man. The church is active when a Christian with a small surplus writes a check to help feed impoverished brethren. It is active when Christians open their homes to lonely fellow believers. It is active when, for Christ’s sake, someone offers an odd job to a neighbor who is desperate for a few dollars to make ends meet. 

I’m not naturally bold. I don’t want to contract Wuhan virus. I fear the government’s power to fine and to imprison. Yet faced with the virus and dubious edicts that deny peaceable assembly[12] and worship, I accepted the risk of infection and chose civil disobedience after careful consideration of the proper application of Romans 13:1, which commands us to obey authorities.

Despite stay-at-home orders, I met as safely as I knew how with others, including in a house church. Rock and I met for prayer each week. My wife and I have a friend whose only child has rejected her. When her church closed, she had no one to turn to. That is why, although police sat in their cars observing our street several times a week, we had her spend a few nights with us around Mother’s Day. 

The church requires a corporate dimension to meet its essential functions: to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to baptize, to share worship, and to fulfill its role in edification. I’m glad that is back. And now that we have it, I hope we have the grit never to relinquish it again.

[1]I choose to call the disease the “Wuhan virus” because the world’s largest dictatorship insists it be called something else. This pandemic originated in China, which aggravated its spread by reporting falsely that it could not spread human to human, and by restricting travel from the hotspot within its own borders while allowing hundreds of thousands of Chinese to travel abroad from the danger zone. In honor of the brave doctors of Wuhan who attempted to warn the world and were crushed by the Communist party for doing so, I believe we do well to stick with the truth. The media had no problem calling this virus by names such as the Chinese virus or Wuhan flu until China threw a fit.

[2]“The Coronavirus and the Constitution.”


[4]Article after article in the last three months has remarked on the wide range of predictions the models make and noted that their projections routinely fail. Those who defend the models admit this but say models are not meant to actually produce accurate results or cannot do so because of inadequate data. Either way, projections of individual danger offer such a spread as to be useless. Here are some of the many articles that have come to my notice.
“The Failure of Expert Predictions and Models”

[5]Several news stories and articles place the death rate around 0.2%. The CDC now puts it at 0.26% according to the justthenews story linked below. I could not confirm the information in the less-than-intuitive CDC site, but a BBC page also presents a similar estimate.

[6]Although the news article linked in this note says “a majority,” I watched the governor’s news conference in which he gave a figure in the 60% range.

[7]From the start I doubted lockdown was needed, which led me to issue a few protest emails and brought me into a serious disagreement with my wife about whether or not to travel to a conference in Colorado (it was canceled).

[8]A recent narrow ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States has sided with lockdown of churches. However, it does not specifically address constitutional usurpations.

[9]The science shows that 42% of deaths have been in the 1.6% of the population that resides in nursing homes. Placing infected cases in those homes contributed to thousands of deaths in Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and New Jersey. Sunshine, fresh air, and exercise make good preventatives, but stay-at-home measures ignored this wisdom. Taiwan did not shut down, opting for sensible restrictions, and was almost virus free. Sweden, whose population, city sizes, and technological sophistication closely match Michigan’s, had 418 deaths per million without stringent governmental controls while Michigan had 523 per million with onerous lockdown rules as of the writing of this article in May 2020.

[10]Colorado, however, traced a number of cases to stores.

[11]The Kentucky pastor wrote me again, “The church where [my husband] plays the organ resumed meeting on Sunday; they had every other pew roped off, masks for all (except for the moment of receiving Eucharist), abundant use of hand sanitizer, and no communal singing, only his instrumental prelude and postlude.”

[12]Michigan’s governor showed that her edicts were arbitrary and not genuinely believed when she violated her own orders to march with Black Lives Matter, while decrying as dangerous peaceable assemblies that pleaded with her to reopen the economy.