Midweek Message: "The In’s and Out’s of Returning Indoors"

Week of the Second Sunday of Easter

Dear Christian Friends:

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

It may be some combination of pandemic fatigue, more people receiving their vaccinations, and a more palpable sense that we are seeing light at the end of this very long and dark tunnel of the pandemic, but I am aware of a greater extent of conversational energy in our congregation around the question, “When is Resurrection Church going to open up again for worship and other activities indoors?”

In this week’s message, I offer my own observations on this question, informed by deliberations among our congregational leaders to date. I pray that my thoughts contribute to the ongoing conversation and discernment that will lead to our coming decisions. I offer this pastorally and not prescriptively, for there are many conversation partners, and major decisions in our life together are made communally and not by an individual. As your pastor, I will be among the many leaders that will ultimately make the decision to return to indoor activities.

Which is to say, in terms of our organization and process, conversations about returning indoors have been focused in an ad hoc group formed last summer, the Reopening Planning Group, which now meets monthly to assess where we are in the discernment to reopen in relation to the many complex, moving parts and twists and turns of the pandemic. This group, in its informal capacity, does not make decisions, but offers recommendations to the Congregation Council for their further deliberation and decision-making. It is ultimately the Congregation Council that will make the decisions that will determine the date when we will return to activities indoors in the church.

Taking up now my reflections, it strikes me, first of all, that the word ‘reopening’ is something of a misnomer. Which is to say, our congregation has never been closed. We’ve simply redirected our activities elsewhere than inside the building – principally online and in person outdoors. It’s the building that will be reopened for indoor use, not the congregation!

The current configuration of leaders at Resurrection Church has taken a stance of caution pretty consistently throughout the pandemic. This dynamic continues to shape current thinking and practice. There is a guiding sense of prudent “wait and see,” and looking to how others are undertaking various activities during the pandemic. If these others manage new activities in such ways that do not result in “super spreader” incidents, then we feel more confident in moving forward.

This stance of caution has resulted in what has been an evolutionary quality of the ways we have undertaken activity during the pandemic. The major case in point here is the development of our practice of worshiping outdoors. What started as unscheduled, extemporaneous prayer in the context of our bi-weekly gathering of food items for AFAC has become a regularly scheduled brief worship service outdoors. What started as something occurring twice a month is now evolving into worship we’ll conduct outdoors each Sunday.

With every cautious step we take, and we see with confidence that it is safe to proceed, we move forward. Which is to say, returning to worshipping indoors is not likely to occur in a swift manner like the all or nothing of turning on a light switch. Rather, we will probably see a gradual return to indoor activities in coming weeks and months, doing more and more when we know it is safe so to do.

Another reality that will inform the kinds of activities we undertake is the recent acknowledgement by the CDC that the risk of spreading the coronavirus via surface contact is, in fact, very small. We have experientially known this for many months, but it is helpful to have the official word of scientists now to confirm our sense of things. Concern about surface level spread of the virus, a major concern at the beginning of the pandemic, has informed many pandemic related practices, such as deep cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. This concern has played a role in our decisions to refrain from some usual activities. Now that we know that we need not be so very concerned and vigilant about the virus spreading via surface contacts, we may be in a position to begin to address the question of returning to some practices such as celebrating Holy Communion. What was unthinkable just months ago again becomes possible given the changing knowledge about how the virus spreads.

That said, yet another set of realities that will guide current and future discernment and decision-making is the fact that the coronavirus is not done with us yet. This pandemic is not over. The rising case levels in other states, due in large measure to more contagious and potentially more lethal variants of the coronavirus, suggest the possibility, if not to say likelihood, of yet another major surge in infections. As we have seen over the course of a year, there are many unpredictable aspects of Covid-19, and these twists and turns will play a part in what we end up doing, how, and when.

There are also theological concerns which should inform our discernment and decision-making. What we do and how we do it should not be reduced to merely practical considerations. Take, for example, the question of the comparative freedom for activity of those vaccinated versus those who are not yet vaccinated. Some have suggested that we open up indoor worship for those vaccinated. This stance excludes and further marginalizes the unvaccinated, and risks setting up a kind of caste system that is antithetical to Christian sensibilities of full inclusion of all of God’s people in Christian assemblies. In short, theological considerations need to inform how we proceed with the question of returning to activities indoors.

So, you see, there are many in’s and out’s related to the question of returning to assembling indoors. There is more to be said, to be sure, but we can reserve all of that for further and future conversations. Which is to say, I welcome your input and your opinions which may differ from mine and from the current stances of those serving on the Reopening Planning Group and Congregation Council. Kindly reach out to me and to our elected leaders with your thoughts!

In the meantime, while we remain in discernment about the question of returning indoors, let us make the most of our other current approaches, online and outdoors, especially now that the weather is moderating with a return to springtime.

May God in Christ lead and guide us in ways faithful in the power of the Holy Spirit,

Pastor Jonathan Linman