It was just a normal Sunday. I sat with my closest friends, my surrogate D.C. family, shoulder-to-shoulder in our normal pew. In addition to hearing the regular preaching of God’s word, we confessed our faith, encouraged each other with words and proximity, and sang out with voices full and unmasked. Who would have thought that Sunday would be our last?
Since that day in early spring, everything has changed. Our church, for months, ceased gathering. We believed splitting into countless services to accommodate health guidelines would be antithetical to the purpose of the church, effectively fracturing our body. Instead, we resorted to listening through sermon archives and committed to prayer and long-distance communication to help monitor our spiritual vitals. For me, long-distance meant Wisconsin. As the pandemic persisted, staying in Washington D.C. just didn’t make sense.
Waking up on Sundays and listening to my pastor from my iPhone just wasn’t the same. I missed it — all of it: taking notes that helped me listen more intently, making nervous conversation with a visitor before exchanging phone numbers for a mid-week lunch meetup, and being surrounded on all sides by rich harmonies in what could only be described as a fleeting microcosm of heaven. As the weeks passed, the loss of church weighed heavier, and its return somehow felt further away.
So I was thrilled when I received the members email saying our pastors had found an outdoor venue, the parking lot of a different church, that would accommodate our entire congregation.
Broken in Spirit
Last Sunday was my first chance to attend. My family had planned a trip from Wisconsin to the East Coast, structuring our itinerary around a Sunday in D.C. so we could gather with my church. I had often told my parents about it, about how the congregation had so eagerly enveloped me into it, about the worship, the power of the prayers, and the theological depth of the preaching. I couldn’t wait for them to experience it.
Before setting foot on the outdoor lot, I read another email explaining service logistics, and my heart sank. Print the bulletin, or read it from your phone. You’ll want insect repellant — the bugs are bad. Stay six feet away from anyone outside your immediate family. Wear a mask at all times. I was more worried about preparing my personal protective equipment than I was about preparing my heart.
Although government health guidelines at the time required masks indoors but not for outdoor religious gatherings, our elders instituted the mask rule for our congregation. They did so out of ample caution, care for our members, and to help the church whose lot we were using to maintain good relationships with its neighbors. After our pastors asked us also to maintain six feet of distance between each other, outdoors no less, masks seemed excessive as a means of promoting caution and care.
Protecting the reputation of the church who graciously shared its property with us seemed reasonable and charitable, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether we had crossed from virtue to virtue signaling, caring more about the opinions of man than what was actually good and true and right. Does performing a demoralizing mask exercise guard a church from public criticism? Or is it a cheap virtue signal to the onlookers who hate our gathering whether we are in a pandemic or not?
We finally arrived last Sunday, lawn chairs in hand, and any remaining sense of eagerness was replaced with sadness.
“Do you see your friends?” my mom asked me.
I looked around, squinting as if that would give me X-ray vision through fabric. “I can’t tell, Mom. Everyone’s faces are covered.”
We positioned our chairs where we thought my dad, essentially deaf in one ear, would have the best chance of hearing the message over the traffic. The songs were lyrically strong but vocally weak. Robust choruses used to drown out the sound of my voice, but now I quieted myself to hear fellow members, far away from me. The sweltering Washington sun and sweat dripping behind my face mask made it nearly impossible to focus on the message, even though the service length was reduced by half.
It was strange to leave the gathering of my church more broken in spirit than when I had arrived.
A Poor Substitute for Church
Many people scoff at mask detractors, dismissing their complaints as trivial. After all, they tell us, masks are worth it. Social distancing is a small price to pay. Refraining from gathering is common sense if you care about anyone but yourself. But viral infection isn’t the only human cost of this pandemic. After months of lockdown and economic, social, and spiritual suffering, is it even the most significant? I’m not convinced.
Is this real fellowship? Is this true communion? Have we decided to reassign our trust from Christ to face coverings? We can label extra-scientific restrictions an “abundance of caution” or “loving our neighbor,” but we can also call them living in fear.
Contrary to the Bible’s teaching, many churches are communicating through their actions that we should be anxious about everything. Distancing congregants or requesting that they cover their nose and mouth when they’re face to face seems prudent. Doing both is just unnecessary — and depressing.
Humans were created for community, closer than six feet apart. Praise wasn’t made to be obstructed by masks on its way to the Father. For months, we pleaded that it was time to get back to church, but this restricted, distanced, faceless version is a poor substitute, and so many things suffer for it including evangelism, discipleship, and especially joy.
The church faces enough persecution from without. Why are we oppressing ourselves from within?