There’s no question that we’re living in unprecedented times, both for our world and for those of us who follow Jesus Christ. In fact, nothing in my nearly fifty-eight years of life has come close to matching the effect that COVID-19 (C19) is having on the planet, or of matching Christianity’s response to it, and it is to that response that I would like to address this article.
Of faith and COVID-19 Orthodoxy
Like all other Earthlings, Christians have had to react to the C19 pandemic, and we seem to have done an impressive job thus far. Above all, C19 is a human and a planetary issue, and so we’re in the same boat as everyone else, and it’s been a good thing to watch Christians and their churches pitch in and shoulder their part in what can only be described as a major war effort. That part in the war effort has given rise to what I perceive as a COVID-19 Orthodoxy, which is roughly defined by the following parameters here in the United States:
- Christians are abiding by federal, state and local requests/ordinances to not congregate
- Churches have voluntarily suspended in-person services and have moved to online services, classes, devotionals, studies, etc.
- Churches have severely curtailed (and in many cases completely stopped) visitations by pastors, elders and deacons
- Physical person-to-person ministry has essentially ceased
- Christians are voluntarily or mandatorily sheltering in their homes, with little person-to-person contact outside of their immediate family
- Christians are keeping in touch with one another largely through electronic means
- Christians are checking in on their neighbors and friends more often than normal, and are looking for ways to help those most affected by C19
Given the circumstances in which we find ourselves, these parameters are to be expected and applauded, and are in keeping with the Scriptures’ guidelines to be good citizens and to work with the civil authorities whenever and wherever possible and appropriate. Yet having said that, there are questions about all of this which I believe need to be asked, because all actions have consequences, and we may not like where these consequences eventually take us.
Of Snowflakes and the Resident Skeptic
Prior to my ordination as a pastor, I spent 16 years in the nuclear energy field as a nuclear plant operator (known as a nuke). Six of those years were in the U.S. Navy, and were followed by 10 years at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), a commercial power plant. One of the enlightened things SONGS did during periods of high/heavy activity (such as a refueling outage where there is a non-stop flurry of activity and change) is that they would station an extra person with a Senior Reactor Operator’s license in the Control Room, and this person’s sole purpose was to get in the way and ask bothersome questions, and we lovingly called that person the Resident Skeptic.
The job of the Resident Skeptic was to essentially question everything we were doing in order to further insulate us with layers of safety by avoiding unintended consequences during times when activity and stress were at their highest. And so they would ask pesky questions: Are you sure you want to do it that way? Have you thought about doing B before you do A, instead of the other way around? Do you know how this evolution will affect systems X, Y and Z? They could also make recommendations when they thought it necessary: Hey, let’s slow things down a bit. Let’s stop and think about this first. I’d feel more comfortable if we talked to a design engineer on this one, etc. The idea was that we had someone detached from the work processes and the outage schedule who existed to be an advocate for plant safety.
Interestingly, the Resident Skeptic didn’t need to actually believe in his/her question or position in order to bring it up. Their job was simply to question everything; to be that lone voice going in the other direction in order to keep us from succumbing to the herd mentality or schedule pressure. It was wise and brilliant stuff. And as I look back on those years, I’m forever indebted to that industry for instilling two things in me: The desire to fully understand what’s going on around me, and a skeptical, questioning mind that automatically looks in the opposite direction when everyone is traveling down the same path.
After my time at SONGS, I completed 18 years of full-time pastoral ministry (including 7 as a senior pastor), but had to step away due to health issues (from which I’ve thankfully recovered) and have been privileged to rest in the pews for the past 2 years, and so I now find myself sitting on the sidelines as I watch the collective response to C19. Given my past and experience, coupled with the fact that I am currently unencumbered with the helm of church leadership or needing to act in any executive manner during this crisis, I’ve found myself playing the part of the Resident Skeptic of COVID-19 Orthodoxy, and it’s in that role that I now bring forward some of those questions and issues that may come back to bite us if not addressed or thought through.
As I do so, though, please understand that I don’t necessarily believe the points I’m making, nor insist that they’re right. Neither is this an indictment of anyone’s actions, or a dissatisfaction with my own church, which has been pitch-perfect through this whole ordeal so far. But I do see a herd mentality in operation, and I feel duty-bound (both as a nuke and a pastor) to question it. The herd may be doing exactly what it should be doing exactly how it should be doing it, which would be great. But to establish that, I think that we need to question it first.
Much of my skepticism results from the era in which we find ourselves living; an era that I label as the Snowflake Age, and which is characterized by fleeing to one’s safe space whenever one encounters opposition. And there’s no arguing that we’ve all made a tactical retreat to our C19 safe spaces – we’re now sequestered in our homes where we have contact only with the sacred few, fearful of a virus that we’re told will kill untold millions if we don’t all do our part to flatten the curve. And so within the span of a few months we went from normal life to being isolated cave dwellers, and are systematically destroying a wonderful economy (and possibly a civilization) over fear of a virus that can have the tar demonstrably kicked out of it by a highly available and decades-old malaria medicine coupled with a Z-PAK.
I beg everyone to contemplate the idea that this surely won’t be the last scary virus to come down the pike. And so the question to ponder then becomes, Are we going to shut down the world for 3 months every flu/COVID season? And if this is indeed going to be the new snowflake reality, then we should just kiss civilization good-bye right now, and along with it ever hoping that public, congregational worship will ever be the norm again. We need to take a hard look at this, therefore, and ask the tough questions, and decide who we are and what’s truly best, because I think we’re letting the snowflakes destroy an essential tenet to our faith – that of gathering together for corporate worship. Throughout the ages Christians have been imprisoned, have been tortured, have bled and have died for the privilege of worshiping with their brothers and sisters in Christ, and yet we today have walked dutifully away from doing so because some specialists and experts with charts and graphs told us it was absolutely essential to do so. Boom. Just like that.
So, time to don the Resident Skeptic hat. These first series of questions are asked with the assumption that the COVID-19 Orthodoxy is solid in every respect, and that we are essentially and/or outwardly doing the right thing.
Are we forgetting that gathering together is core to our faith? From the day of Pentecost until a month ago, Christianity was synonymous with Believers physically gathering together. We are today reacting to some dire circumstances, to be sure, but I now hear many extolling the amazing virtues of the online church experience as though it should be the next great movement. In normal times such an experience may be fine for the shut-in or the isolated, but for the rest of us it’s nothing more than lipstick on the pig of quarantine, and we should hunger for the return to actual physical gatherings, and beware of the easy allure of remote Christianity.
Have we pushed the ministry of presence too far aside? Tele-visits and virtual visits may work well for medicine and some other areas, but these are fairly unnatural for Christianity. Although He could have had a virtual ministry, Christ chose to become a physical presence in peoples’ lives, and it grieves me to hear that so many pastors, elders and deacons have set aside physical visitations for the duration of the C19 issue. Where is the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil, or the greatly needed hug and physical presence in time of crisis, especially a health crisis?
Are we truly protecting the most vulnerable from C19, or just ourselves? It’s very easy for high-sounding ideas like civil obedience and concern for the most vulnerable among us to mask the fact that we may actually just be hiding in fear of C19 in our own homes just as much or more than our unsaved neighbors and friends may be. If we’re scared, admit it and stop hiding behind spiritual catchphrases.
How much hope are we giving to the world? I submit that extolling the virtues of our caring, mighty, loving and protecting God while holing up in isolation over fear of contamination is somewhat ridiculous. This is not to say we should all go charging out of our homes just to make a point, but it does go back to the issue of the ministry of presence. We laud David for facing Goliath, we praise Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for facing the fiery furnace, and we revere Daniel for facing the lions, but yet we won’t go physically visit the sick and needy in the name of Jesus because of a virus – a virus with a proven Achilles Heel? Is God great, or isn’t He?
Are we missing a chance to be lighthouses in the world’s greatest hour of need? Of course God will use what we offer to Him, and if that’s livestreaming on the internet, He will use it, and He is doing so. But I think it a true shame that during a time of such deep hysteria, panic and despair, the lost could not visit our places of corporate worship and find hope in hearing beautiful, unashamed, unafraid praise and worship emanating from within.
Is the church really deployed? We’ve probably all seen the meme: The church isn’t empty, it’s deployed! While I understand the sentiment, this is kind of nonsensical. To be deployed means to be sent out and on patrol. That’s just not the case with everyone on house arrest (especially those on voluntary house arrest). We are decidedly not deployed.
And finally, Are we confusing quarantine lemonade with ministry we should have been doing all along? As I question the way things are going with the quarantine, I’m often told that the church is just being differently deployed, and as proof I’m told of all the good things that are coming out of it: Families spending time together, getting to know your neighbors, finding unique ways to bless hard-to-reach people, showing support for heroic people and deeds, etc. Wonderful! But isn’t this nothing more than a reminder that we should’ve been doing these things all along? If we’re just discovering this, well, shame on us.
Okay, that was the easy stuff. Now it’s time for the Resident Skeptic to shift gears and talk about the elephant in the room, which is that all of this was most likely a huge overreaction with very serious and long-lasting consequences.
How much do we trust the experts? From the beginning, the information about C19 has been all over the map, and the so-called experts have been proven inexpert and, frankly, incredibly inept. And fully trusting this ineptitude led us to the point that we believed that we were facing the end of the world as we know it, and that nothing short of a total societal shutdown and loss of all freedom would stop this juggernaut of planetary cataclysm. Not only did the experts not want to be the first ones to undershoot the numbers, but they outdid themselves in demanding draconian control of society in order to save us all.
I inherently don’t trust most so-called scientific modeling, because I’ve lived long enough to see that science is not politically neutral. It should be, but it isn’t, and we need look no further than climate change modeling to see this. I love science, but I don’t inherently trust scientists any more than I inherently trust politicians, since too many of them have an agenda, or work for or are funded by organizations that do.
We would do well to always remember that the civil authorities do not have in mind the things of the Church, nor should they. That is left for us to pursue and insist upon.
Have we allowed hysteria to rule the day? C19 is a serious matter, and a scary one, and people have certainly died from it, but there’s also no denying that there’s been a phenomenal degree of hysteria driving reaction to it on all fronts involved, despite the answer to it being in our hands (hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin). Why? For two reasons, I think. The first is that there are now snowflakes in the press, snowflakes in politics, snowflakes in medicine, snowflakes in academia and snowflakes in church. In fact, snowflakes are everywhere, and they are hysterical Henny-Penny-woe-is-me-sky-is-falling-run-for-your-safe-space people. It’s how they deal with problems. They don’t widen their stance, dig in, stiffen their spine and attack a problem. They freak out. God forbid that we should let that set church policy. Ever.
The second reason is that there are those who love to generate and use crises in order to gain, exert and maintain control over people. Freedom has many enemies, and those enemies love to use hysteria and the hysterical to accomplish their agenda.
Are we really saving lives? Because we love God, we love life and are pro-life people. So shutting down everything to flatten the C19 curve and save lives is a no-brainer for Christians, right? Well, bear in mind that everything we’re doing is based on modeling and predictions, and those models and predictions tell us that X number of lives will potentially be saved if we all hide in our holes until they tell us it’s safe to come out. And we dutifully obey, putting a virtual halt to our entire economy in the process. But that economic halt too will most likely have a high cost in lives; lives lost to poverty, destitution, despair and suicide from the economic carnage to follow.
Another hidden potential cost here is the cost of all of the other medical treatments being put on hold until the experts deem it safe to emerge from the C19 medical bottleneck. How many cancers or other serious issues are going undetected, and how many lives will that cost? How many lives is it going to cost to put off treating those with known, serious medical issues during this time? Are we potentially losing more lives than we’re potentially saving?
Should we so easily give up our freedoms? Our forebears on this continent bequeathed to us a near-heavenly gem in the U.S. Constitution, and most specifically in the Bill of Rights, which enshrines our right to assemble, and our right as Christians to practice our faith as we see fit. This means that our ceasing of corporate, physical gatherings for worship is done on a largely voluntary basis (there is some Constitutional wiggle room here, depending on the circumstances), and we must probe the unnerving thought about whether or not we have set a precedent by giving these up too quickly and too easily in the face of the C19 threat. We would be wise to remember that government, by its very nature, exists in order to limit freedoms, and rare is the government that will willingly and fully return to its people a freedom they willingly relinquished to that government. Look at the fascist tendencies this idea of quarantine has unleashed in some national politicians, state governors, county boards, mayors, city councils and health agencies! Will they recede quietly into that dark night when C19 abates? Doubtful.
Also, everyone now knows that the simple hysteria around a new virus is enough to get churches to close their doors and to send worshipers running for the hills. My assumption is that the enemies of our faith are taking notes, and I’m pretty sure that our ancient Enemy is. One of these pandemics every couple of years, and its adios to many a fine church and the very idea of physical, congregational worship. The snowflakes are standing by and awaiting orders.
Lastly, How many churches are we destroying in the process? This quarantine is going to devastate many wonderful churches and their hardworking pastors. Out of fear, many worshipers will not return for quite some time (if ever), and the financial blow of having closed doors for weeks or months is going to hurt many churches already surviving on the financial fringe. If we add to that the financial havoc caused in the households of worshipers caught in the coming economic crunch, which will very likely lead to significantly decreased tithes and offerings on their part, then we should legitimately expect to see many more churches in dire straits or closing their doors.
So those are the tough questions from this Resident Skeptic. Given the totality of the circumstances, I think the Church in America has done a pretty amazing job during a quite difficult and fairly unprecedented event. Other than trusting those who are untrustworthy, if there’s any weakness that I see, it’s that churches are so used to operating individually (which I love) that we don’t have time to act in concert when something like this occurs. It would be nice if somehow evangelical American Christendom could, in the aftermath of C19, agree to some kind of general standard that must be met by civil authorities before the wholesale closure of places of worship occurs. Good government is one that fears the governed, and we need to be part of that fear factor. Although I believe that the Trump Administration is largely benevolent toward faith in this regard, it still seems to me that tens of thousands of individual churches are easier to divide and conquer than they would be if they could speak with a unified voice. And like we see in First and Second Kings, this current administration may be a blessing, but you never know about the one that follows.
Having played the Resident Skeptic, it’s now only appropriate that I share my hopes. As an American I fully expect to see our freedoms returned to us in short order, and I hope that we’ve learned that we cannot trust Communist China and must break our dependence upon that nation. And as an Earthling, I hope that C19 has struck a heavy, mortal blow to the hideous idea of globalism.
As a Christian I’m excited to see churches broaden their spectrum of ministry to include the internet for those unable to attend, excited to see families acting as families again, excited to see more worship in the home, and excited to see us returning to those simple, beautiful things we should’ve been doing all along. And finally, I can’t wait to physically rejoin my dear brothers and sisters in corporate worship of our great and gracious Lord, and I look forward to all of us learning the good lessons and the bad lessons from this C19 pandemic. I know that next time we will be much better prepared, to the glory and praise of God.