Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Minimizing the Damage

Most elders, pastors and church leaders would agree that formulating an appropriate corporate response to the purported pandemic has been among the most difficult and divisive issues they have ever had dropped in their laps. No matter which way they went, some Christians were going to disagree with official church policy. A non-trivial number of congregants have parted ways with their brothers and sisters over it, and some are still mulling their options.

The question for church leadership is how to minimize the damage.

Waning Requirements and Weaker Brothers

Quantifying the number of Christians opposed to masking, distancing, lockdowns and vaccination at this stage is an almost impossible task. If anything, I think they are growing. Some are opposed to all, some to only one or two. Nevertheless, it is evident from the efforts of the US government in early 2021 to use evangelical church leaders to spread the gospel of COVID vaccination compliance that the feds anticipated significant numbers of Christians would be opposed to the rollout of largely-untested gene therapy tainted by research conducted on the cells and tissue of aborted babies. Generally speaking, despite best efforts to bring evangelicals on board, those suspicions have been confirmed. A September 2021 article in Relevant magazine asks “Why Won’t Christians Get Vaccinated?” Christians remain a problem for anyone determined to see higher rates of vaccination in the general population.

Masks, distancing and locking down are less-incendiary issues, though most church leaders can point to a significant bloc among their flock that would like to see them gone for good. So long as the government stays out of our bloodstreams, many Christians are willing to grit our teeth and play along with the general perception that these things make the slightest difference to the spread of the virus. After all, we have the “weaker brother” or sister to consider, right? We wouldn’t want to stumble either.

Churches that continue to impose masking and distancing mandates on their congregations even as the public square opens up month by month certainly ensure they will not offend their most fearful, naive and compliant members, but they also risk alienating believers at the other end of the spectrum.

City and Country

In major cities this is likely less of a problem. Masking requirements were lifted in Ontario months ago, and I still occasionally find myself the only unmasked person in the grocery store. Distancing requirements remain dutifully pasted on floors in most retail outlets. My observation is that the majority of citizens in large centers are still masking some percentage of the time, even outdoors. Perhaps lifting the mandate for public transit will inspire more people to leave their masks at home. On current evidence I suspect not.

Citizens in smaller cities and towns seem much more comfortable showing their faces in public. Demographic studies tell us this may be because they are on average slightly less intelligent than educated urbanites. It may also be because people in smaller centers tend to be more pragmatic and less likely to put their faith in the medical pronouncements of the self-styled political elite, which change with every shifting wind.

If you live in a major city, your church is likely a great deal more cautious about relaxing the rules than Christians out in the boonies, and where the majority of members and visitors are standard-issue city dwellers, trepidation about returning to pre-COVID standards of church behavior may be entirely acceptable. “Official church policy” likely reflects the wishes and concerns of a majority of the congregation. That is probably not the case in rural churches, where leadership that insists on a level of compliance beyond what local, provincial or state governments require is likely to provoke the ire of many sensible Christian souls, vaccinated or otherwise.

Power, Love and Self-Control

And with good reason: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” If that applies to the fear of persecution or embarrassment, then it certainly applies to both the fear of contracting or spreading a virus, and to the fear that our fellowships might collapse if we fail to perfectly discern and respond to the public mood. Many believers are fed up with singing through surgical masks and trying to identify their fellow saints on the basis of body language. Older believers with hearing problems have great difficulty enjoying conversation between meetings when they can’t read lips. Many mature, sincere Christians are not prepared to put up with such things indefinitely when a Romans 13 willingness to comply with the rulings of the Powers That Be no longer requires them and alternatives within driving distance are readily available.

Every week Christians meet with a roomful of masked believers is a reminder that though Christ may be the Head of the Church, his headship apparently does not have any discernable impact on the physical health of its members.

Is that the message we want to send?

Spanning the Spectrum

So I come back to my original question: Given that there is a spectrum of opinions on these matters in every church, and that churches stand to lose members at one end of that spectrum or the other no matter what they do, how can church leaders go about minimizing the long-term damage to their congregations? A few suggestions:

  1. Accept that there will be churn no matter what you do. Movement of both good and bad seems inevitable. Perhaps in some cases numerical losses are even desirable. But there may also be gains from other churches in areas where their policies are different than yours.
  2. Consider whether taking a position close to either end of the spectrum may maximize your losses. I think that is probably the case. A middle-of-the-road policy may not satisfy everyone, but it certainly shows a desire to accommodate both extremes of opinion to the extent they are willing to be accommodated. Beyond that, what people choose to do is between them and the Lord.
  3. Recognize that not all losses are bad losses. Professional pew-warmers and terminally-cantankerous souls have used the COVID scare to ease their way out of a situation they would probably have left eventually for reasons unrelated to health. Your church may come out of this stronger in certain respects.
  4. Recognize that all losses are not equal. If your current policies are producing dissent among large numbers of Christians you previously considered mature, involved contributors to the work of the Lord in your congregation, they are probably not policies you want to pursue much longer. A church full of contented “weaker brothers” may not push back against policies they dislike to quite the same degree, but they will probably not do much else either.
  5. Resist the temptation to evaluate COVID-related change at the offering box. For obvious reasons, any attempt to quantify the effect of potential departures or new arrivals on the basis of what they stand to contribute in offerings is a fool’s errand. Losing the guy who tithes to the last flake of dill and cumin may be a blessing. Losing the poor widow and her two cents would be a disaster.
Photo courtesy CoronaBrowser.com, CC BY 4.0


  1. For me the meta, elephant in room like question is: Since when did evangelical/conservative churches get so political? it's not like we don't have a constant stream of political issues coming at us on the weekly. It's not like we don't have three levels of government pushing things on the populace and unwashed masses. Why has this particular issue been so explosive, disruptive and incendiary? I had assumed the as followers of Jesus, our Kingdom is not of this world, and is counter cultural and independent of whatever happens at the local City Hall or Legislature. I am gob stopped.

    1. I find it absolutely fascinating. I have no idea where this came from and could not have predicted the impact it has had in a million years. But it is definitely affecting local churches in a major way.