As pastors, we are leading during one of the most devastating global pandemics in over 100 years, which makes these extraordinary days full of complicated and fluctuating circumstances. In the midst of this foggy chaos, the body of Christ has been a shining light. We are still moving forward because the gospel isn’t limited by a global shutdown. The church has responded with phenomenal expressions of sacrificial love, meeting the growing needs of our hurting world. It’s also inspiring to see the creative ways you are leading your churches, engaging one another in care, prayer, discipleship and fellowship.
Now our conversations have shifted from crisis response to plans for reopening. We find ourselves asking, can churches begin meeting in their buildings again? And if so, how should they approach that transition? How long is it wise to wait? When is too soon to open? These are legitimate questions, and we need a framework for answering them while making good decisions. After consulting with our Foursquare leadership, I believe it is wise to hold a framework in common as we think through the issues related to reopening our local church buildings.
But first, let me qualify the guidelines with two primary considerations:
Context is everything.
- Most of the planet has been affected by COVID-19, but not equally so. The severity of the pandemic’s effect has not been consistent across the world or the United States. For some areas, few, if any, have contracted the virus; in other places, thousands have lost their lives. Therefore, we must consider the local context when making decisions about reopening.
- Every church is different, so their reopening considerations will be, as well. The unique characteristics of each church’s location, facilities, staffing and congregational size will present unique challenges to reopening. In some parts of the country, many churches are already reopening. In other parts of the nation, churches of all sizes are months away from doing so. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.
- Operational and logistical matters are easier to tackle than the polarization and divisions we all see emerging in and around the church. The political battles, economic strains and differences in social experience between varied communities are challenging our mandate to contend for a peaceful unity of the Spirit.
- Because of the stresses these dynamics bring to making wise decisions, we will need to offer continual grace to one another. We’ll need to resist making judgments about other’s actions and viewing them unfavorably through the lens of our context and particular church culture.
In light of these qualifications, let me propose Four Guiding Questions when considering the reopening of our churches.
Four guiding questions when considering the reopening of local Foursquare churches:
1. Is it ethical?
The most important consideration for us is simple: “Is this the right thing to do?” Just because we can, should we? We cannot separate the ethics of a decision from our command to love one another. We must always consider if a proposed action is loving, as well as if it is wise. As believers, love compels us to do so (2 Cor. 5:14). Therefore, our love for God and for our neighbors is our primary motivation.
It’s inspiring to see the creative ways you are leading your churches, engaging one another in care, prayer, discipleship and fellowship.
Love dictates that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other obligation. The principle of Pikuach Nefesh is central to the Jewish law. This principle highlights the purpose of the commandments that God gave to Israel: Through them, His people might choose life. Although the individual commands were important, the focused intent of the law was ensuring the preservation of life among the people God loved. That is why Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and Jews could eat non-kosher food if their life was at risk. As New Testament believers, we’re not under the law, but there is still a lesson here for us. It is never virtuous to risk life.
When faced with the decisions regarding reopening, we take Paul’s admonitions from 1 Corinthians 10:23 to heart: “ ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive’ “(NIV).
Paul had in mind to limit his rights for the sake of love. Our first filter for any decision must always be love. If there is a reasonable risk that a reopening would put people’s lives at risk, the loving decision is to delay the reopening until we have reasonable assurance of safety.
2. Is it permissible?
Joshua M. Best, Foursquare’s general counsel, shares the following:
With so much information coming at us, the first question we encounter is: What government rules do we follow? First, distinguish between “laws” and “guidelines.” For example, throughout this pandemic, the CDC has issued a number of guidelines; those guidelines do not have the force of law unless and until adopted as a rule by a particular official with lawmaking authority.
On the topic of reopening, the federal government (White House, Congress and Federal Judiciary) has not issued law on the matter, but rather has left it to individual states. This is why you see governors (some more than others) issuing executive orders, which carry the force of law. Perhaps you live in a city or county that has issued laws that appear to differ (or even conflict) with your governor’s executive order. A legal concept in interpreting the law when dealing with multiple layers of authoritative lawmakers is that the strictest rule applies. For example, your governor may say gatherings of fewer than 50 people are approved, but if your county officials issue a rule that gatherings cannot be more than 10 people, the county rule applies. If, on the other hand, your governor issues a recommendation that gatherings not exceed more than 10 people, and your city mayor says that gathering up to 50 people is OK, then up to 50 is OK.
If there is a reasonable risk that a reopening would put people’s lives at risk, the loving decision is to delay the reopening until we have reasonable assurance of safety.
For many jurisdictions, we are starting to see regulations ease up, and some are allowing churches to start gathering again. For others, the prohibitions on church gatherings have the prospect of staying in place for months, and many people are tired or frustrated. Some are even asking whether our constitutional rights (both as individuals and as the church collectively) are being infringed upon in various jurisdictions. There is no clear-cut answer on that, and the factors of whether something might be unconstitutional are far too varied for this communication to address. Furthermore, ultimately, only the courts can decide if a rule is infringing on constitutional rights. So, what are we to do?
In our democratic country, we are blessed to be able to use our voice to affect change. If you are concerned that rules are unfairly impacting your church as compared to businesses, contact your local government officials and express your concerns. Many of you have relationships with your officials—engage with them. For those who do not have relationship: what a great opportunity to build one. We recommend you approach them the way you would want your congregants to approach you about a decision of yours with which they disagree: with respect for authority, kindness of voice, a balanced viewpoint and reasoned thinking.
As ministers and leaders within the Foursquare family, the Foursquare bylaws prevent a church from initiating litigation without first obtaining permission from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (ICFG) board of directors (Bylaw 16.1.F.18). There are a number of religious liberty organizations in our country, and some are taking actions to advocate for the church. We are monitoring those situations.
Defying the law (i.e., engaging in civil disobedience), is not approved by our board of directors. While we have not analyzed every law in every state, let alone the laws of every county or city, we know that some of you are in disagreement with the rules and are wondering if you can violate those rules for the sake of gathering. Our board of directors has said that we need to obey the laws and find other (perhaps, new) ways to carry out the mission of the church. Defying the rule of law is not the witness of Christ that Foursquare wants to put forward in these circumstances. We are all part of the Foursquare family, and we all represent both Christ and each other, and so we all carry the weight of the decisions each of us make.
Several have asked if gathering in defiance of law would subject your local church and/or Foursquare to legal liability. As has been reported in the news, some jurisdictions are issuing fines and even threatening jail time for violating COVID-related rules. Furthermore, defying the law substantially increases the church’s potential civil liability in the event of COVID-related litigation.
3. Is it missional?
This virus may have shut down buildings, but it did not close the church. In fact, the church has left its buildings to be the church in ways more powerfully visible to its surrounding communities. We have learned to prioritize the essence of our mission, forced by a crisis that we did not welcome. This prompts us to ask less obvious questions. Could it be detrimental to our mission if we prematurely reopen? Is it more effective at this stage to delay reopening our buildings to gather again? These may be counter-intuitive questions to ask, but ones that need to be part of the decision-making process.
What creative insights will we retain from this disruptive season, and what ineffective habits will we discard? Jesus wants a different church on the other side of this crisis. A rush to return to “normal,” or the comfortably familiar, could come at the expense of a divine opportunity to rethink how we accomplish our mission. Dallas Willard once said: “Since making disciples is the main task of every church, every church ought to be able to answer two questions. What is our plan for making disciples of Jesus? Is our plan working?”
This virus may have shut down buildings, but it did not close the church. In fact, the church has left its buildings to be the church in ways more powerfully visible to its surrounding communities.
Our inward reevaluation needs to be matched by outward sensitivity. How might the communities we serve view our reopening? We don’t fear man or the opinions of others, but it is wise to consider our collective witness. If we appear unloving or reckless in our decision to reopen, it may result in unnecessary negative reactions among the public that can hamper our mission. We want to have a “good reputation” with outsiders to the extent is in our power to do so (1 Tim. 3:7; 1 Thess. 4:12).
Not only do we consider our witness to others, we remind ourselves in times like these that we are an interdependent body. In unique ways, our choices affect others directly and indirectly. Let’s consider ourselves as the Foursquare family. My choices have consequences for you and vice versa. Let’s remember the words of Jesus as He spoke about our missional impact in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV).
4. Is it practical?
Government bodies will mandate reopening requirements for occupancy, social distancing, sanitizing procedures, etc. Some have already done so. Can we meet them? Do we need to exceed them? Can we in good conscience serve children and families safely and with excellence? Do we sing or not sing? When we avoid hugs, hide our faces with masks, or stay apart from one another instead of drawing near, we feel the artificial constraints on our desire to connect all the more. Given that, could we provide a better experience online and in small groups than we can in our buildings? Will the criteria of gathering hinder our purposes in gathering? These are important questions to consider.
In closing, my intent isn’t to issue an edict or to be overly prescriptive. I do want to challenge, exhort, and even provoke us to continue in prayerful and thoughtful decision-making. When we consider the ethical, legal, missional and practical questions posed above, we will make better decisions about when and how to reopen.
As pastors, everything in us wants to gather with the people God has given us to shepherd. The apostle Paul’s words give voice to what I believe is the source of our deep desire to be with one another again:
“For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.” — Col. 2:5 (NIV)
“Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again. We wanted very much to come to you, and I, Paul, tried again and again, but Satan prevented us. After all, what gives us hope and joy, and what will be our proud reward and crown as we stand before our Lord Jesus when he returns? It is you!” — 1 Thess. 2:17-19, NLT
We don’t miss one another simply because we are not in the same physical space; we miss our people because we have a real connection. The Spirit Himself has connected us through the blood of the cross. Whether we are together or not, we are deeply and truly bonded in the Spirit, and this spiritual reality only increases our desire to be with each other face to face. It even sustains our love for one another when we are apart. It is why the book of Revelation gives us this insight, The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ We are one with Jesus by the Spirit, and together, we long to be with Him.
Please continue to access the many resources provided by our central office and your district office. We also invite you to share with us anything you have learned or developed during this disruption that could be helpful to others. I’m thankful for you, and am praying for you. I always believe that our best days as the church are still ahead.