The debate between state governments and churches over in-person worship during a pandemic reached a new level last week when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with religious leaders in New York state. The high court ruled that New York’s efforts to control the COVID-19 virus in churches and synagogues by limiting the number of people attending religious services was much harsher than the restrictions imposed on businesses and other locations that draw a number of people.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Brooklyn, along with several congregations of Orthodox Jews, had taken legal action to block Governor Andrew Cuomo’s orders.
The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says that regardless of where other denominations stand on in-person worship, he’s still urging PC(USA) churches to stay the course with online gatherings.
“People are dying. We should choose life and life more abundantly as our Scripture requires. We recognize that church is not a building. It is a place of worship,” he said. “We are able to worship remotely, and we’ve found opportunities to have worship through other venues that do not require us to leave our homes.”
Last spring when the virus began infiltrating the U.S., Nelson urged churches to move toward virtual worship to protect members and their communities. In addition, the entire 224th General Assembly (2020) of the PC(USA) was moved to an online format.
“Social media has been a major asset this year. Pastors have been able to sit on their sofas at home week after week and actually preach. They’ve found a way to make it work,” Nelson said. “They’ve done this because they understand clearly that abundant life is important. It cannot be done if people in a surge are being asked to continue to go to worship when it would be detrimental to their health.”
Even as potential vaccines are being shipped across the country for distribution, Nelson says this is not the time for churches to let their guard down.
“Stay the course, however long it takes, so we can safely get back to some sense of normalcy and this pandemic is gone,” Nelson said. "I’m not sure we will ever get back to the way it was. I think we will be looking at a new normal in the days ahead.”
Nelson’s advice: Be creative.
“We’ve had conversations over the past year around the issue of having communion, we’ve pulled together hybrid services, combining in-person with virtual,” he said. “All of these things have been done virtually. I have personally had the opportunity to preach on many Sundays because we were able to film these in advance.”
Nelson says many churches are finding new people tuning in to their services and are gaining members as a result of online opportunities.
“Some church members have indicated they are not planning on going back but will participate virtually. Discussions are being held on how to best utilize their buildings to further help their community,” he said. “This is a time of innovation and to really be challenged, looking beyond our boundaries and serving a community, so that when this pandemic has ended, we can determine how we can be most effective in the days to come.”