And judgement is turned away backward and justice stands afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. (Isaiah 59:14) In Isaiah’s day he made it clear; truth and true worship must prevail for Israel to survive. But now, as then, truth seems to have fallen in the streets.

God neither delights in our crisis nor does he waste it. COVID-19 is meant for our good. God is calling the world to attention by means of a virus. Discernment, however, is fallen sick and the church finds itself in a great debate – “How much risk shall we take in assembling again?” Put another way, “How do we manage to stay safe in this health crisis?” I propose there is a much greater danger in a safe return to sleepy churches. Sleepy churches are those whose main concern is a return to “normal.”  Isaiah, Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah did not waste their national trials asking God for relief from calamity but rather a return to God. Please remember, the “troubler of Israel” was not Elijah, nor was it famine and drought – it was Ahab and all those complacent with idolatry. What lengths do we go to to insure safe health practices while ignoring the eternal threat to soul safety?

 COVID-19 is not our greatest problem; sin is.

Barna Group suggests that a full third of church members are still opting out from live meetings since the emergence of the virus. The statistics are even higher among millennials. Fifty percent of young adults formerly accustomed to church attendance are simply “checked out” due to COVID. Businesses and schools face similar realities. Legitimate health concerns are responsible for some of those absences, but seven months into the crisis, how much fear is warranted?  

Some of this fear is very personal. By now, we all know someone who has contracted the disease and likely know some who have died from it. Many churches have had the virus infect a significant percentage of their congregations. Christians are not immune to the Coronavirus. Just as blessings fall on the just and unjust, calamities do as well. No pastor wants to put his people in harm’s way without careful thought to the consequences, but carefully consider that harm’s way has always been part of God’s way.

One legitimate fear is that risk aversion may drive some churches into extinction. The media would like us to believe the church is part of the problem. In July The New York Times touted a headline suggesting that churches are a major source of the spread. “More than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic.” Simple math shows that 650 out of 3,000,000 cases across our nation in mid-July means that 0.0216% of them were church related at the time of writing. Less than one-tenth of one percent can hardly be attributed as a major source of infection spread, but church-shaming and fearmongering has set the church on its heels. When should the church come out of hiding?

Left up to the media the answer may be never. On the whole, the American church is a force for conservative thought and a strong vote for morality. Dr. Fauci notwithstanding, maybe we need to get back to a biblical understanding of risk aversion and church attendance. What started as a health crisis has now become a political tug of war and the church is embroiled in a contest of will with local officials. In some states, onerous restrictions have unjustly targeted houses of worship. How thankful I am for the governor of Georgia and his balanced approach to the health challenges we face. As a church, how should we respond?

Let’s be responsible.

We all value good health. Not only do we not want to offend others by negligent behavior, but as believers we show the love of God by caring for the image-bearers he created. We all want to believe that what began as a protective mandate is still meant for our good months later. However, as we see signs of government “intrusion,” we need to be more aware of what God’s Word says than we are of what our government suggests. I do like what Ronald Regan said about the government. “Be wary when someone from the government shows up at your door and says, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you!” Even when the government wants us to be healthy, the compelling truth is that God wants us to be holy. COVID restrictions aside, the government has zero interest in the spread of the Gospel – we must understand that. Though there are many Christians who serve in the government, it is not their job to promote the church. When politicians align themselves with church priorities it is a gift to our country, but the role of government is not to do our job. Government’s role is to defend law and order and protect citizens. It is their duty to properly respond to the threat of Coronavirus in our country. It was wise to shelter and seek to evaluate the initial threat, but please understand that our health and safety is not a bigger prize than our responsibility to God.

Ours is a risk-taking life. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) I appreciate what missionary John Patton said to a concerned and elderly friend when he set off to minister among the cannibals in New Hebrides. “Sir, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms.”  I am not suggesting Christians need to take a dose of stupidity and blindness to good health practices but where in the Bible does it say, “If any person will come after me, let him avoid all health risks, stay at home and enjoy his comfort zone?” Remember that the early church was surrounded by those like Saul who were “breathing out threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1) Health hazards and missions often hold hands. Look at Hebrews 11 and you will note the high cost of discipleship is laced with all sorts of dangers. Covid doesn’t even make the list.

At first, we did believe our government did want to protect her citizens from the spread of an unknown health threat. I do believe that was true, initially. Many within the system still do. So we did as we were told. The church went digital or met outdoors. By the end of March we were all “sheltered in place.” It didn’t mean we gave up. Far from it! Some of the most creative and far-reaching methods were discovered during the early days of quarantine. But it is not God’s purpose for the church to “disassemble” long term. Assembly is what we do – it’s in our name. Sheep need direction. Sick sheep die, wandering sheep need to be rescued, hurting sheep need counsel, and all sheep need shepherding (not just “zoom meals”). An assembly needs to care intimately for its own members. A fractured church cannot long survive without the many “one-another” ministries in the Bible. The Body of Christ must be nurtured by the fellowship and accountability of coming together. By sharing in ordinances and the service of our gifts, members can only find full expression in the context of community life. Nobody can live in a state of sustained dissection.

The Devil must have smiled as we went into our living room “shelters” this past spring. Scattered, shackled, and silent Christians are just fine with him! An old Sunday school song comes to mind, “Hide it under a bushel – NO!” As pastors, we knew we couldn’t just abandon our gospel calling, so we resorted to digital meetings and turned our empty sanctuaries into online churches. After all, we are a creative, mindful, and respectful crowd. Our audience was enlarged in some cases but not better served. Days turned into months and we tried our best to shepherd our churches from afar. Thankful for technology, we set aside the ideal for sake of the risk. But Covid persisted and still does. So what now? How much risk can we stomach?

Within the Christian community there have been a variety of responses. Some would say that the crisis facing our society is purely medical and has no real religious implications, but it’s not that simple. The church has never been called to hide long term from threats, medical or otherwise. Rather, it has always been called to buy the truth and sell it not. We have the truth about the pandemic of sin and the cure found in Christ. Ours is not only an essential service, our message is the only hope there is for recovery. Some of us need to be reminded of that. Matthew 5:14 reminds us that we are the light of the world. That passage is emphatic, meaning, we have the only light there is. If our light be hidden all hope is gone. There is no other light. I call that essential, don’t you?

Sadly, much of the church discussion surrounds the word “risk.” How risky is it to assemble? How much risk in not wearing masks? In congregational singing? In passing an offering plate? Then there is the dilemma of governmental mandates. Are they helpful or conspiratorial? How deferential should Christians be to the local regulations that are in some cases quite onerous or even confusing? What of deference and Christian liberty? What about not offending those we are called to reach? Who do we trust? As leaders we are faced with important ministry decisions.

Numbers can be manipulated, I know, but statistics do provide some hard data that when carefully examined can be helpful. As of August 16, 2020, a total of 5,403,361 people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Since the pandemic began in February studies indicate that at least 170,052 people have died in America because of the virus or complications resulting from the infection, according to Johns Hopkins University. The cases tallied include people from all fifty U.S. states, Washington D.C., and other U.S. territories as well as repatriated citizens. This virus has indeed reached most of the world and in that sense, it is truly a pandemic. But should the Church of Jesus Christ go into sustained seclusion and suspended animation? Let’s be responsible with the gospel, the world needs the church, now, more than ever.

Don’t play the blame game.

President Trump keeps pinning the virus on China. China is not to blame for Covid; the fall of man is! This blog is not intended to discover the original virus or blame shift. We know that sin originated in the Garden of Eden. Sin’s curse has infiltrated every corner of our fallen world resulting in widespread disease, natural disasters, war, pain, hostility, and general malady which came through our federal head. Before we get angry at Adam, please remember the old adage, “The only difference between Adam and you is that given the same opportunity, you would have fallen sooner!” Sin manifests itself in death. Death’s reality demands that we are prepared with the antidote which must be applied or we will all likewise perish. The statistic that should matter most is that one out of every sinner dies.

Keep things in perspective.

Don’t fall prey to the word “unprecedented.” Has anybody read Ecclesiastes lately? There is nothing new under the sun. History itself should rise in objection to our willful ignorance of the past. We may be the generation that is driving without a rearview mirror. This is the third pandemic in my short lifetime (and I am only pushing 60!) Here is a list of the pandemics in the last 100 years and the U.S. death toll in each:

1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus) – 675,000 deaths in the U.S. / 50-100 million worldwide

1957 Pandemic (H2N2 virus) – 116,000 deaths in the U.S.

1968 Pandemic (H3N2 virus) – 100,000 deaths in the U.S.

2009 Pandemic (H1N1pdm09 virus) – 12,500 deaths in the U.S.

2020 Pandemic (2019nCoV) – 170,000 deaths in U.S. and counting

People have indeed walked this road before and can provide helpful lessons for those of us walking it now. All is not lost and the end is not yet. While this is certainly a harbinger of the end, God will not destroy the world by virus but by fire (II Peter 3:10-11). Christ will build his church in every season. Especially during the hard ones.

The good news is that you have about a 98% chance of surviving Covid-19! You could say that’s the “survivability rate” of the disease. While it is true that the morbitity rate of the disease is much higher than the rate of the common flu, the survivability rate of Covid-19 (cases versus deaths) is encouraging. Keep that in perspective.

Of course we all want a cure, but historians tell us that previous pandemics ultimately found their solution, not in isolation, but in community immunity, sometimes called “herd immunity.” The answer was not found in a vaccine or improved hygiene but in growing immunity by prolonged community exposure to the virus. As population groups were exposed to the diseases of the past, natural antibodies were strengthened against it. There are communities in Cambodia that have experienced an extremely low death rate since the start of Coronavirus. Virologists speculate that it is because of a former epidemic that built immunity to this strain of the virus in that part of the population base. Time and exposure to the disease proved to be a healer.

Be reasonable.

Risks are ever-present and our church is not exempt. Covid is, indeed, among those risks that should be carefully measured. Church leadership should commit to negotiating local guidelines with wisdom. And you should walk wisely, too. The most vulnerable (elderly and infirm) should continue to be careful. Wash your hands. Stay home if you are sick. Social distance when you can. Take health precautions, but not out of fear. Germs are out there. They always have been and always will be.

In some states, government officials have cancelled public assemblies, stopped the public schooling of children, closed all non-essential services, and mandated mask-wearing. Hugs are out and handshakes are reserved only for those related to you. Hospitals aren’t allowing visitors, and families are forced to say final words to dying loved ones over the phone. We, who were made for human contact, have become suspicious of everyone. If you want some space these days, just sneeze! The vacuum sound of people running from you will be deafening.

In God’s Word we find that Daniel made the costly decision to pray in public to a God who hears in secret. At great risk to his personal health he opened his window and worshipped. Go with him to the lion’s den and ask him about fear and risk aversion. Stand with Jeremiah as he faced religious leaders who demanded his death. Listen as he says, “Do with me what you must but I can’t change my message.” Look with Stephen into heaven as he is stoned to death. Peter said we must obey God rather than man. Jesus spent countless hours among the “unwell.” Some Christians tell me, “Well, if this were real spiritual persecution, I would resist. This is not spiritual oppression, it is a health risk and we must be really, really careful about this.” As churches reopen, how many of those are persisting in worship? Countless church members have disappeared for good. Seven months have passed and we, in some cases, are still hiding from each other. Business has slowed drastically, churches have gone completely virtual, travel has been curtailed, school bells ring in empty halls, and unemployment has reached levels not known since The Great Depression. And speaking of depression – suicide, unemployment, and divorce rates are rising. Is it possible that the “cure” is also killing us?

Abortionists will stop over 800,000 beating hearts this year. That number amounts to four times as many as have died from Coronavirus so far, but where are the government announcements about the obvious prevention of this pandemic? Such a slaughter has a simple solution.

Cancer will claim 606,000 lives in the U.S. this year. We bring untold dollars to the table to study prevention, mitigation, and cures and yet cigarettes fill our convenience stores. Where is the government official who is begging us to wear masks around smokers? Or one better – to outlaw tobacco?

Alcohol related deaths will take another 88,000 lives by this year’s end. We tried abolition and prohibition in the 20s with little success. While the church used to champion such preaching, today it has been reduced to a whisper. Who is trying to protest in front of liquor stores?

Cars kill 37,000 people a year, and yet we take the risk every day.

Let’s not lose our minds over risk. Come back to worship with the Body of Christ. The just shall live by faith.