By Kent Annan & Jamie Aten
The research we do at Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute has taught us that people in crisis don’t always connect the dots between their theology and how they’re responding to a crisis like COVID-19.
During this pandemic we’ve seen others too often respond out of fear rather than faith, with political ideology instead of prayer, and informed more by their social media news feeds than Scripture.
As you lead your congregation through this pandemic, we encourage you to draw on your church’s theology as you and your members grapple with issues like fear, adversity, and serving others.
The members of your church have access to the same breaking news and guidelines you do, but what they need from you is a theological lens through which to make sense of culture and science.
As you and your church leadership team consider when to reopen your doors for in-person church gatherings, continue to let your decisions be guided by the theology on which your life together is built.
Here are a few responses to the most common theological questions we’ve seen arise out of COVID-19. If members of your church aren’t voicing these, they’re probably thinking about them.
That’s why we encourage you to be introducing and leading these conversations within your congregation.
1. Is not going back to church acting out of fear instead of faith?
No. It’s not acting out of fear to use the knowledge God has given us through science to be wise in caring for ourselves and others. As Proverbs 22:3 says, “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.”
One of the important roles you play right now is helping your flock reason theologically.
By pointing to a wise and loving Creator who has equipped us to be faithful stewards of the earth in which we live (Genesis 2:15), you serve your members by discouraging them from a false dichotomy of pitting faith against science.
2. If I wear a mask, am I acting out of fear instead of faith?
No. Where it’s recommended for public health, we’re rightly asked to wear masks. The masks most of us are wearing aren’t to protect ourselves, but to protect others.
By wearing masks, we show love to those around us. We recommend following what the CDC and state and local health officials recommend for your area.
As public discourse around personal rights and responsibilities rages, remind your members that as those who are committed to patterning our lives after the person of Jesus we’ve been called to love others more than we love ourselves (Philippians 2:3).
3. Is it rude to ask people to wear masks to church?
No. If masks are recommended by health officials in your area, then doing so is a way to demonstrate our “love of neighbor as ourselves” (Mark 12:31)–both our neighbors in our church as well as in our community.
It can be fair and good to ask people in a church to love each other by wearing a mask.
You model this by your own mask-wearing. And you serve your people well as you continue to narrate the theo-logic behind the decision to love others, keeping them from harm, by wearing masks.
If you have church members who are uncomfortable with wearing a mask, encourage them to choose another option, such as online worship, until it is safe and recommended to gather without masks.
4. Should we stay united in Christ even when we disagree?
Yes. Remember that not everyone in your church or community will agree and see the reopening process the same way. The complexities and tensions surrounding decisions about possibly attending in-person services in the time of COVID-19 is challenging for many churchgoers. This tension can lead to and has led to division in some churches.
Your congregation will look to you to set the tone for this conversation. It can be aggressive and adversarial or it can be saturated with love.
Show your church what it looks like to disagree civilly because those with whom we disagree are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that we are to care as Christ cared (John 15:12).
More than ever, each person needs to recall the wisdom of Micah 6:8, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” For it is through this command for humility that God often shows us a better way forward.
If your members are diving into this kind of theology for the first time, a very practical theology that shapes our daily lives, nudge them to keep going.
A maturing relationship with Christ often leads to reflection about personal theology and how it applies to personal actions and attitudes. So continue to encourage your congregation to engage in this conversation.
And if you’d like us to address a question, join our COVID-19 church weekly Friday webinars, download our church reopening manual, share our guide on reopening for church members, and/or use our decision tree tools.
You can find all of these free tools and resources and more at our reopeningthechurch.com website.
KENT ANNAN is director of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership. He is author of You Welcomed Me: Loving Refugees and Immigrants Because God First Loved Us (2018), Slow Kingdom Coming (2016), After Shock (2011), and Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle (2009).
JAMIE ATEN, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His most recent book is A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press).