Opinionista Nkosinathi Geja 2 June 2020

Opening up of churches: An opportunity and a burden

The opening up of churches requires a contextual approach, not a blanket approach. Churches can adopt their ‘own levels’ of readiness in opening up – depending on their specific needs and capacity – in order to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The opening up of churches requires that each community looks at its needs and capacity against the spread or curbing of Covid-19. This, therefore, suggests that churches may not all open at the same time, owing to their unique circumstances. Moreover, other churches may not open at all and maybe that’s another “new normal”. 

It is clear that blanket approaches and blanket statements can be very tyrannic and unhelpful. Churches can adopt their “own levels” of readiness in opening up to curb the spread of Covid-19. It must also be recognised that, although important, financial factors cannot be the key barometer in determining opening up churches because, in other areas, the very congregants have lost income. 

The Covid-19 reality has struck the core of the church in a hard way. This reality has shaken our foundations of what it means to be a church no less than how to be a church. As part of its DNA, for those of Wesleyan persuasion, church has had small groups as part of its tenets. Class meetings (small groups) have been one of the key elements at the centre of our worship and evolution as Wesley envisaged them to be pedagogical, social and administrative. 

Furthermore, it must also be emphasised that Wesley’s theology deems the family unit as an important basic unit of worship and teaching. To this end, his teaching about Sabbath places great emphasis on setting aside Sunday afternoons for families to spend time together and in “family worship”. 

With this in mind, it is my submission that had we been truly faithful in our approach of being a church, this pandemic would have found us with some sense of readiness. However, because the 20th and 21st century brought about a gradual replacement of small groups and “family” worship with bigger church events, there has been no balance between micro and macro worship. 

Another dynamic was the move to focus on mission groups (Manyanos), at the expense of small groups. I, therefore, argue that the imbalance highlighted above between micro and macro “church” can be attributed to the notion that “big is better”. The pop culture of filling up stadiums at times has had an impact on our thinking and direction to the extent that we somehow “forgot”  that the Church of Christ is designed to be functional in “season and out of season”.  

One of the arguments that are brought forward during this Covid-19 time is that after all the church is not about buildings – how ironic when so much time and resources have been used developing and maintaining church buildings. This makes me wonder on the level and extent to which teaching has been done in unpacking the true essence of the church. 

Truly, the church is “mobile”. The church meets to disperse and disperses to meet. The sense of worship in a central place has been overemphasised in relation to how we ought to live and worship as “dispersed” communities. Unfortunately, it seems as though it had to take Covid-19 for us to remember the DNA of the church.  

I am of the view that “opening up” of churches is both a burden and an opportunity. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to teach more about the disease and being a church while on the other, it is a burden in that if something goes wrong, there’s a chance of destruction. It is, therefore, a very delicate balance: Are we able to maintain it? 

The church is a continuum from an individual culminating into bigger groups. There are times that these facets of being a church become more practical. Like others, I fear that the physical reconnecting of members may contribute to the spread of the virus. However, I am cognisant of the fact that virtual services exclude a lot of people. It is true that Covid-19 is a virus of inequality because those who are in rural and marginalised areas can’t access what we consider to be the “New Normal”. In the era of the new normal, it then begs the question of who benefits the most. 

Covid-19 is not so much about numbers. It is about numbers and observations of certain protocols. If two people gather without observing the protocols, the virus can spread. Notwithstanding the argument that in relation to 50 people gathered, the balance of probability is high. Yes, it is true that church services and funerals have been among the contributors in the spread of Covid-19. However, it must also be borne in mind that many funerals have been held during lockdown with strict observation of the rules. 

Do we have statistics of those funerals and how they contributed towards curbing the spread of the virus, for example, in the area in which I operate? We have held not less than 15 funerals since the beginning of the lockdown period and yet none were “red flagged” owing to a strict observation of rules. This positive message is not popularised. It is clear from such anecdotal evidence, it is possible to flatten the curve with observation of rules. 

The church cannot always live by avoidance, but at times by carefully navigating difficult terrains. Don’t we have good cases that can inspire adherence to rules? I am of the view that the success in curbing the spread of Covid-19 in the previous months was not only about police, but about citizens making the right choices. 

Is the church incapable of the above? Many of the voices that are critical of the decision of “opening up” churches are from faith communities. Are these voices subtly saying church communities have neither grasped the dangers of Covid-19 nor have the capacity to deal with it? If the church cannot operate within the confines of just laws, it has no right to exist post-Covid-19. 

Generally, we are of the view that to be a church is to be incarnational. How are we to be incarnational if we ignore those who need ministerial presence during this time? I am of the view that “opening up” of churches is both a burden and an opportunity. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to teach more about the disease and being a church while on the other, it is a burden in that if something goes wrong, there’s a chance of destruction. It is, therefore, a very delicate balance: Are we able to maintain it? 

In conclusion, life cannot be avoided, but carefully negotiated within realistic confines. Those who feel they can worship within strict confines must do so without being seen as not capable of thinking, and those who feel unsafe by going to church must do so without being seen or labelled as less faithful or less trusting in God. DM

Rev Nkosinathi Geja is a Minister of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and writes in his personal capacity.

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