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COVID questions for America’s churches

Did congregations act out of fear or out of love for neighbor?

Pastor W.R. Starr II preaches during a drive-in Easter Sunday service while churchgoers listen from their cars in the parking lot at Faith City Christian Center on April 12, 2020, in Kansas City, Kan. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel

COVID questions for America’s churches
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Three years ago, the world shut down. Reports chronicled the immense impact of COVID-19 on our times, but Christians seem reluctant to talk about it now. Pastors and religious leaders say to me, “Nobody wants to talk about COVID-19. We just want to forget about it.”

Nevertheless, we should talk about our Christian witness, the effect on Christian communities, and challenges to the practice of faith. Most importantly, did we, as individuals and communities of faith, respond in fear or love? Did we take appropriate action, or were we lethargic? Did the world see Christ’s church as indifferent or lovingly engaged?

First, the challenges to churches were many—most notably draconian government bans on public worship gatherings and administration of the sacraments, clergy barred from ministering to the sick and dying, prisoners locked away from chaplains and other religious services, weddings and funerals shut down, and severe limits on faith-based humanitarian efforts. Congregations and pastors were threatened with fines and imprisonment for hosting public meetings.

Secular media portrayed many Christians as rebellious citizens. Some “screamers” seemed to operate out of a “don’t tread on me” default. Most churches and denominations cooperated with authorities, at least at first. These initial efforts were appropriate, assuming they were based on love of neighbor. Let’s return to that in a moment.

What a shame if lessons American Christians learned from COVID-19 simply had to do with camera angle and the comfort of sipping coffee while watching “video church” in a Zoom “community.”

But, when it comes to government restrictions on religion, we should remember just how ridiculous, onerous, and unjust many of those restrictions were, such as barring parishioners from meeting in their cars in church parking lots or socially distanced at parks and playgrounds. Some edicts were plainly onerous, such as the mounds of red tape required to re-open some churches. Others were unjust, such as limiting access to religious services in prisons, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals. Even worse, in some cases, like New York and California, religious Jews and Christians were targeted by government officials. This was simply wrong.

For Christians, this third anniversary is a good time for such reflection on whether love of neighbor, not fear, was the driving force for the decisions made by pastors, elders, and other religious leaders during the pandemic. Neighbor love means putting others first and caring for the vulnerable. Hence, it may have made sense for congregations to avoid in-person meetings during the initial uncertainty of the epidemic to protect their neighbors. At the same time, neighbor love should galvanize action on behalf of the vulnerable and needy. So, the question is this: Did we make decisions intentionally based on the love of our neighbor or out of fear?

In late 2020, this distinction was brought home to me when I was on a conference call with religion experts. One, the president of an international faith-based charity, spoke of churches holding services and ranted, “Don’t they know they are killing people?” She was talking about average churchgoers like you and me.

This is what fear looks like: She had utterly lost a perspective of the eternal. If a church or congregation was motivated primarily by fear, whether fear of illness, fear of temporal death, fear of politics, or fear of losing non-profit tax status, then this was not in accord with Christian witness. But, if churches made judicious decisions based on love—love of God and love of neighbor—then they were headed in the right direction. How did your church do on this criterion?

What a shame if lessons American Christians learned from COVID-19 simply had to do with camera angle and the comfort of sipping coffee while watching “video church” in a Zoom “community.” Rather, we should think in terms of loving witness and solidarity. The good news is that during the pandemic, we saw Christians continuing to give and care for their neighbors and even act out a gentle form of civil disobedience by refusing to stop helping others—from local soup kitchens, rehabs, and outreach ministries to the mobile hospital that Samaritan’s Purse set up in New York City when hospitals over-filled. The lessons of active neighbor love in the face of government hostility should not be forgotten. Most importantly, we were all reminded of the necessity and blessing of not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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