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Disappearing Churches

I’ve been thinking a lot about mask mandates this week. No surprise since the CDC (a few weeks later than WHO) has finally conceded that the vaccines while showing some protective effect against the Delta variant, are not adequate to the task of fully preventing an infection or reinfection with The Virus. In response to the resurgence of COVID-19 diagnoses, many communities in California (including Sacramento County) have reinstated the mask mandates that were lifted on June 15. For us, this means a return to covering our faces whenever we are in public locations – courthouses, grocery stores, churches.

            As I reflect on this, I am struck by the fact that the mask mandates both present and past were government orders. For now, I’ll set aside the fact that as Christians we are Scripturally charged with showing concern for one another’s’ well-being and focus solely on this factor. Because we tend to value obedience to the laws of the land in which we live, most courthouses, grocery stores, and churches have elected to abide by the mandates.

            There is no denying that this makes the situation difficult for many individuals. The truth is, if most of us wanted to be wearing masks, obscuring our faces, altering the way our bodies intake oxygen and exhale CO2, we’d have been doing it already. (Just ask anyone at the gym training for high altitude athletics.) Masks are uncomfortable; they itch and scratch and fall off our noses. They hinder communication because we can no longer see each other’s expressions. (Are you being genuine? Sarcastic? Insulting?) And it niggles those of us raised with an unusually broad range of freedoms (more than are available to most citizens in most parts of the world) to have to give any of them up – even if doing so might save our own lives or the lives of others. So in proper American tradition, many Americans protested and continue to protest… in church.

            I admit that I find this peculiar. If one is protesting a government order, it would seem that the first place to protest would be in… well, government spaces. Places where those responsible for creating the laws and with the capacity to lift them would have to confront the displeasure of those living under them. Yet I haven’t seen a great many disgruntled Christians protesting by refusing to wear masks when called for jury duty or standing in line to renew their drivers’ licenses. While there are a multitude of possible reasons for this lack of open confrontation, my guess is that for most protestors this is a bit too risky. They simply don’t want to pay a fine or sacrifice their freedom (or any more of it) for their violation of the new legal standards. So they may not like the law, but most choose to comply in government settings – at least most of those whom I and my clergy colleagues know to have protested in other ways and places.

            It also seems odd that in an economically driven country (one in which the government has a vested interest in ensuring that funds continually flow through the market place), those who protest often don’t do so by refusing to mask-up before walking into grocery stores or small businesses. Admittedly, the stay-at-home orders have already caused pretty significant economic damage, but many of those protesting the mask mandates aren’t willing to deepen this impact. Again, the decision not to protest in this way is, for some, likely tied to the level of risk involved. Most Americans have a limited ability to refrain from eating for any prolonged period of time. (Kudos to all of our ancestors who, prior to the industrial revolution, often did go without two or three small meals between lunch and dinner). Buying food requires compliance. Compliance means putting on a mask.

            And this leads us to the peculiar case of the churches. Admittedly, for much of last year churches were shut down. Some congregations protested by continuing to meet and the most prominent of these made the news as police officers barred their doors shut. Others small enough to fly under the radar sometimes did manage to sneak through – with disastrous consequences for some who did so without considering ways to mitigate the risk of viral spread among their congregants. Others (like our own) continued with worship online as they sought creative ways to follow the Biblical mandate not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25) while showing equal concern for making that “assembling” safe for those most at risk within our communities. And, sometimes, with a bit of interest in the fact that the government was mandating the type of caution that Christian churches have taken of their own accord without any mandate through outbreaks in the past – including Europe’s Black Death.

            Earlier this year, when it was again safe to reopen, many congregations (our own included) did so, but continued to observe what we (in our limited knowledge) considered reasonable health standards for the protection of our membership and visitors, and in compliance with the law. Fascinatingly, it is at this point that many Christians decided to protest – refusing to return to worship at all until the mandates are lifted. In other words, in response to a government order, many Christians have chosen not to deliver a message to the government by putting something they themselves value at risk, but to God and those whom God has called by putting something they don’t value at risk.

Because of this, it really isn’t surprising that in the early part of this year, many of the congregations who survived 2020 began to close their doors. Permanently. Without people in the pews or money in the coffers, these mostly small congregations simply couldn’t make ends-meet. The last statistics I heard suggest that 30% of churches closed permanently in the last year – they won’t reopen when the law changes or the economy improves. They are gone.

Remarkably, these closures aren’t due to COVID-19 or mask mandates. If anything, the events of 2020 and 2021 have merely served to amplify a truth that has undergirded Christian worship for the last 50 years: namely, that the majority of those attending Christian worship don’t value the privilege. Sunday morning service, corporate prayer, Bible study, the sacraments (all ancient hallmarks of the Christian faith) have become merely a few of our ever-increasing options for the investment of our time. If we’re honest, the fact that the things we offhandedly label as “sacred” often lose out to everything from time with family (which if I recall my childhood correctly can involve sitting together through a service and discussing the sermon afterward), going for a hike, or attending sports events, suggests that they simply aren’t things upon which most churchgoers place much value. And that leads to a hard truth: things we don’t value become easy to sacrifice. And the things that are easy to sacrifice… well, they disappear with or without a mask mandate.

            So, write your congressmen. Vote when you can. Then put on a mask and bring your family to church.

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