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This week, I announced to our church that we will not be opening our doors to large-group, indoor events—including worship services—until next year. (You can view the video announcement HERE.)
I doubt this surprised many Meckers, as I have been open in my blogging about the dynamics at play for reopening (see: “Why We Canceled Our Weekend Services,” “The Reopening Challenge” and “About That Reopening”).
So, why make this decision now?
First, it has become increasingly clear how the fall is going to play out in relation to the virus, and second, I feel that all church leaders—regardless of their decision—should seek to bring as much clarity to their community of faith on this matter as soon as they can.
Here is an edited version of my address:
I wanted to let you know that we have decided that we will not be opening for weekend services or any other large indoor events until next year.
There are a lot of reasons for this.
Recent decisions to keep extending Phase 2 into the Fall;
… the decision of our school system to suspend in-person teaching;
… the increasing reality that there will not be a vaccine available this year;
… the ongoing spread of the virus;
… surveys regarding people’s comfort level at returning;
... not to mention the experiences of other larger churches that have opened, only to have to close again, has made our decision clear.
The bottom line is that we just can’t guarantee your safety.
Even if we were to open, we could not even begin to provide a quality adult or children’s experience—not with social distancing protocols and other necessary safety measures in place.
Further, if there was a case of COVID-19 contracted as a result of our gathering, whether a staff, volunteer, adult, or child, we would be responsible for the contact tracing. That would be the right and responsible thing to do. For a church our size, we simply don’t have those resources. It would be virtually impossible for us to do.
This was not an easy decision, but in the end, a prayerful and clear one.
I know that for some of you, this makes sense and was anticipated. I know that for others of you, it’s a huge disappointment. There will be a wide range of emotions to a decision like this.
But I want you to hear my heart on this as your pastor. Everything is so politicized right now, including when or if a church should hold large group services.
Everything, for me, is being driven by how best to express the love of Christ to those around us. We are called by God to treat others as we would want to be treated and to serve and love those around us in the way they most need to be served and loved. Unnecessarily spreading the virus, or putting people at greater risk for contracting it, is simply not a demonstration of the love of Jesus.
And as Christians have long argued, the sanctity of life is more important than the quality of life.
But as I’ve been saying all along, Meck has never closed. We’ve been as open and active as ever! Because we are still the church whenever, however, we gather. The church isn’t a building. It’s a community of people who follow Christ who are fleshing out what it means to BE church.
That’s a lot more than a weekend service.
People have been coming to faith, maybe more than ever, during this time. We’ve been reaching more of the unchurched than ever before during this time.
One of our staff serving one of the online services sent me a back-and-forth she was having in a chat room with a first-time guest. The person joining us for the first time started off by saying, “I wish I would’ve heard this message sooner.” And then she let the staff person know that she really wanted to have her husband hear it, too.
Then, when she heard about an online book club that was going to take [the conversation] even further, she asked if it was just for members…when she was told absolutely not – that it’s for everyone – here’s what she had to say:
“What if you’re not a church person at all—is that ok? I won’t know any bible stuff.”
I loved it.
Isn’t that what we’re about?
Not worrying about whether all of our needs are getting met during this time (we all know they aren’t) but focusing instead on the enormous opportunity this is giving us to reach more people than ever.
People who don’t know any “Bible stuff.”
So keep inviting your friends and family and neighbors, whether it’s to online offerings or on-campus experiences.
Keep being financially faithful so that we can keep serving those around us.
And keep engaging all that we’re doing—whether on campus or online. I’ve had moments engaging the online campus that were as moving as anything we’ve done in person. I’ve had moments of private worship that were as Holy Spirit-infused as anything that has happened in our auditorium.
We’re going to reopen stronger than ever. Bigger than ever. You want to know what faith over fear is? Knowing that this is the right thing and trusting that we will come back bigger and better and more vital than ever.
And it’s already being proven. More people have been gathering online for our weekend services than ever did in person. We’re having weekends that, in terms of estimated numbers based on the number of computers logged in, run in the tens of thousands.
And we will come out of this more missional than ever because we’ll have the reality that the mission is more…
…than an hour on Sunday.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.