Opening up of churches both an opportunity and a heavy burden

A man sprays disinfectant as he sanitises a church in Athlone, Cape Town, to prevent the spread of Covid-19. /ESA ALEXANDER
A man sprays disinfectant as he sanitises a church in Athlone, Cape Town, to prevent the spread of Covid-19. /ESA ALEXANDER

The Covid reality has struck the core of the church in a hard way. The Covid 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.

Wesley's theology deems the family unit as an important basic unit of worship and teaching. His teaching about the Sabbath places great emphasis on the setting aside of Sunday afternoons for families to spend time together and in "family worship".

It is my submission that had we been truly faithful in our approach of being church, this pandemic would have found us with some sense of readiness.

However, because the 20th and 21st centuries 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. The imbalance 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 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 in developing and maintaining church buildings. This makes me wonder on the level and extent teaching has been done in unpacking the true essence of the church. Truly the church is "mobile".

The sense of worship in a central place has been overemphasised in relation to how we ought to live and worship. Unfortunately, it seems as though it had to take Covid-19 for us to remember the DNA of the church.

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 in rural and marginalised areas can't access what we consider to be the "new normal".

The Covid-19 virus is not so much about numbers. If two people gather without observing the protocols, the virus can spread. Yes, it is true that church services and funerals have been among the contributors to 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. We have held no less than 15 funerals and yet none were "red flagged".

This positive message is not popularised. It is clear from such anecdotal evidence that 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. 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? 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 church is to be incarnational. How are we to be incarnational if we ignore those who need ministerial presence during this time. "Opening up" of churches is both a burden and opportunity.

On the one hand it is an opportunity to teach more about the disease and being church while on the other it is a burden if something goes wrong. It is a very delicate balance.

Opening up of churches doesn't require a blanket approach [but] rather a contextual one. It requires that each community looks at its needs and capacity against the spread or curbing of the virus.

Churches may not all open at the same time. Other churches may not open at all and maybe that's another "new normal" . It is clear blanket approaches and blanket statements can be tyrannic and unhelpful. Although important, financial factors cannot be the key barometer in determining opening up churches because the very congregants have lost income.

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.

*Geja is a minister of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and writes in his personal capacity

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