This essay will likely not age well, and added to that, writing it actually breaks my heart. However, I’m convinced that it is important in this moment, as our nation begins to emerge from six weeks of varying degrees of lockdown, to consider what our re-gathered worship will look like. In essence, how will worship in a pandemic affect the groups that our churches already have a pretty lousy track record of including: the disabled community, senior citizens, and children.
I proudly consider myself a champion of intergenerational worship. Jesus included every single person in his circle and his messages, from little children to the sick and dying to rich and powerful people in society—and our churches are meant to do the same. There is no worship gathering more true to God’s intent than one where every kind of human being is present and contributing.
So one question that I bring to every worship design meeting is, “Whom are we excluding here? How will this work for children and vulnerable adults?” In my experience, worship services are easily designed for adults—the jokes in the sermon, the lighting of the room, the songs, the service length—if we listen carefully, the intended audience are adults in their 20’s-60’s (aka, the Givers and the Doers). We design a weekly service they’ll enjoy, and they in turn serve on our committees and put $100’s in the offering plate. Sympatico.
With the rise of intergenerational worship, we’re making progress in valuing our children, adults and seniors equally in worship, a growing trend that will save our church as an institution if we keep it up. This effort is now in direct conflict with resuming church life during a pandemic, because right now, the only demographic that can safely return to the sanctuary and practice physically distanced gathering are able, healthy adults. And this is a major problem. The church is by nature an inclusive place, yet inclusivity right now is truly dangerous.
The Disabled Community
Individuals with disabilities are unique and cannot be discussed as a monolith, so I cannot give any one reason why a disabled person may have difficulty coming to worship during a pandemic. Some disabilities carry other diseases with them, which can make the bearer immunocompromised. Some may affect the person’s ability to move, sit, stand, or otherwise participate in a socially distanced manner. Whatever the specifics are, people with disabilities are generally less likely to assimilate to all the requirements of the social gathering of worship as we know it, pandemic or not—but the pandemic brings these needed accommodations into even greater contrast. The exclusion of the disabled community in our ecumenical re-opening will be unintentional but real.
All the stats and medical experts consistently report that people over the age of 65 generally experience worse side effects of COVID-19 than younger people. For this reason, while the rest of the population begins to head back out into the world, the elderly are still cautioned to stay put. I imagine that many brave souls over 65 will still venture out to church when it opens—some because they trust their own health and immune system, others because they’d rather be exposed to the germs than miss church. I’ve started to see pastors announcing return plans that specifically disinvite older people, for their own safety, and I get that. At the same time, I want us to think long and hard about the message that limited invitation sends.
Fortunately, children do not seem to be especially affected by COVID-19. While some children certainly have suffered and even died from the virus, most recover well. My concern about inviting children back into church is less about their safety and more about the well-being of the whole group.
Most children are not capable of physical distancing.
This is one of the biggest lessons that the pandemic has drilled into me—that young children are incapable of staying apart. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but after attempting some socially distanced conversations with families, I am 100% certain that if a gathering includes children, the children will at some point break physical distancing barriers. If there is an expectation that worshipers will remain at least 6 feet apart (or even 1 foot apart!), then young children cannot be included in that expectation. It is the responsibility of pastors and church leaders to do all in their power to ensure the safety of those in worship, which means that a person coming to worship must be able to assume that they can determine their level of exposure.
When children’s natural proclivities for noise, movement, distraction, and obstacles arise in worship service design, they can usually be remedied by offering a set-apart time for children. We provide the nursery and high-quality children’s ministry options that fit into our overall family discipleship plan. But the pandemic has removed that option from our arsenal, since children grouped together will still spread COVID-19 germs to one another and their adult leaders.
The Necessary Questions
Are we okay with limiting our invitation to worship?
Is it better to invite some back into worship and not others, or wait until everyone can come?
Can we survive financially without a physical reopening? Does financial survival outweigh the dangers of exclusivity?
Is it still the church if only one group is welcome?
I don’t have answers to all of those asks, but I do know the answer to the last question: No.
Gatherings of only the healthy, middle-aged, and able-bodied do not constitute the church. That’s not to say we cannot or should not have them—personally, I really don’t know whether we should offer any sort of worship gathering during this reopening phase. But whatever we do offer, we cannot call the church. Without the youngest, the oldest, the most imaginative, the freest, the most prayerful among us, we are not the church. Any gatherings for worship and discipleship during the pandemic are now small groups, and it matters that we name them as such. To say that the church is open while knowing that it is not a safe or welcome place for people with disabilities or illnesses, for seniors and for children, is to say that those groups are less important.
As we start to talk through our reopening procedures, let’s be sure to ask the necessary questions. Ask, but not necessarily find all the answers. Anyone who works closely with children will tell you that it is more important to ask the question than to answer it. Allow space to experience the discomfort of opening up the building for some but not all. Resist the temptation to gloss over the absences in the room. Wrestle with the competing priorities of remaining open financially and remaining open liturgically. And when we do gather, let’s name the members of the church family who are not present in body but who are very much a part of our community.
Note: as social distancing guidelines change, creative gatherings such as meeting outdoors, joining 2-3 households together, or meeting in cars may be viable and safe options for intergenerational inclusion. These thoughts are offered up for more traditional church meeting scenarios that involve public church buildings and gatherings of more than 10 people.