Church v. church: On the president deeming houses of worship essential

Like many Augusta churches, Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in the Summerville neighborhood of Augusta has been televising its services during the pandemic. (staff photo)

Jenna Ingalls |
Staff writer

This time last year, I was prepping for the last days of vacation Bible school and the summer mission trip. I was at the church nearly every day for meetings, preparations or times of fellowship. Even now while social distancing, I still engage with many church activities throughout the week online.

Though a significant amount of my time is spent with my church, President Donald Trump’s declaration on May 22 that houses of worship were essential did not sit well with me.

A large percentage of the congregation at my church is above the age of 65, putting those members at high risk for COVID-19. If we go back to the church, everyone is putting everyone else at risk. The physical distancing is necessary to keep the congregation safe.

In Hebrews 10:24-25, the author writes: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,  not giving up meeting together.”

The idea of meeting together in this verse is just that, “together.” The original translation of the word church comes from the Greek ecclesia, meaning to gather. The idea that the church is limited to the sanctuary on Sunday morning ultimately undermines the idea of what the church is. Many churches continue to gather virtually for services and Bible studies throughout the week, continuing the act of walking together in faith outside the walls of church. Of course, local radio and television stations have broadcast services for a long time. National and international religious organizations have long broadcast their worship services. The proliferation of services on YouTube has been profound in recent years.

The Transformation Church, located in Tulsa, Okla., had more than 200,000 viewers on its most recent Sunday service broadcast on YouTube. The physical church was shut down, and yet thousands of people continue to meet together from all over the world. If the house of worship was necessary to the Christian faith, this gathering would not have happened.

Meeting in the church building is a mere fraction of being a part of the church. Personally, being the church is an act of worship by sharing the gospel and loving your neighbors. Building or not, these are calls on the Christian life that are supposed to be acted on in daily life.

Don’t get me wrong. I miss church, I miss seeing my friends, I miss the intimacy of gathering together, I miss the sandwiches the old ladies would make after service. I miss it all. However, I am frightened at the thought of going back too soon.

According to the Los Angeles Times, nine cases of COVID-19 are linked to a service held by the Assembly of God in Redwood Valley, Calif. The spread of COVID-19 is not just a risk for these people, it is a reality.

Ultimately, it is the individual church’s decision on when to reopen and the member’s decision to return, the president’s comment cannot change that. However, encouraging churches to open back up when things are still uncertain may lead to even more unnecessary cases if done improperly.

It is necessary for houses of worship to take the safety precautions posted by the Center for Disease Control. CDC guidelines emphasize sanitizing shared surfaces, so no passing the offering plate or passing the cup in communion. Staff and visitors are encouraged to wear cloth masks during services, especially when it is hard to maintain social distancing. Limiting the number of people in a single service is  encouraged by the CDC, even moving the services outdoors for more space and better ventilation.

Faith Temple Missionary Baptist Church, 2411 Young Drive in Augusta, on a spring evening. (photo by Jenna Ingalls)

Contact Jenna Ingalls at JEINGALLS@augusta.edu.