The damage being done by in-person worship

As a Christian, the images of pastors leading large in-person worship and the interviews of people attending in blatant disregard for science is very upsetting to me. As with so many things, a vocal fringe come to represent a much larger class of people who wish the spotlight were shown on better examples. Even if one were to believe that such behavior is not threatening to others (and to be clear it is), we would have to be naive to not recognize the longer term damage to the cause of faith being done.

Fundamentally, sin is about being selfish instead of selfless. All of us struggle with sin, so I don’t want to suggest I don’t have my own issues. I do. But what I see here is selfishness masked as faith.

Yesterday, our pastor gave a wonderful message and asked us to consider how we are seen during this pandemic and how our current actions will reflect on us later. Are we being selfish or are we being selfless? I feel extraordinarily blessed to have found a congregation that can continue to serve others in the midst of crisis. In the last two weeks, we’ve donated $10k to a local food bank and $15k to an orphanage in Mexico. We have people delivering meals to the open shelter and others buying groceries on behalf of the vulnerable. A few weeks ago, amidst flooding in central Ohio, our senior pastor delivered flood buckets and supplies that we had collected on Super Bowl Sunday in preparation for just such an event. We have people giving their time and talent on Wednesday nights to offer community and positive connection over live streaming. We have people making masks to distribute for free.

And here’s the thing. I know our congregation is not alone in doing things like this. I suspect the vast majority of churches are doing these kinds of things without fanfare or media attention. And for the most part, that’s exactly as it should be. Christianity isn’t about serving in an effort to attract attention and acclaim. In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus tells us:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Very few messages in the Bible have had a greater impact on how I try to live out my faith. It explains my preference for traditional forms of worship over contemporary services. It has made me see servant leadership as more than just an effective technique but also a way for me to act out my faith. But I have also used it as an excuse to pause when I should speak up and hesitate when I should act. Now is not the time to stay silent.

Time after time, we see that the easy story is the controversial one. People will never tire of tuning in to criticize hypocrisy. And to the extent that media coverage of people acting in ways that put all of us in danger can be a force of good in changing that behavior, I’m all for it.

But I also know that there are a lot of people out there who are struggling right now. And the pictures being painted of Christianity are ones that understandably make it difficult to see how having a faith connection can help lift you up. To the contrary, they paint the faith as a cult incapable of human empathy and critical reasoning. If that describes you, I just want you to know that there’s a community of people who stand ready to welcome you and assist you.

One of the better known lessons Mister Rogers taught us is that when times of trouble come, look to the helpers. Whether your struggles are of an existential or mundane nature, you need not face them alone. Reach out to me. Reach out to others you see offering help and selfless assistance. In this time of physical distancing, our hugs and support may need to be temporarily virtual, but the love and fellowship will be no less real for it.