June 20, 2024

Editorial: The Evangelical Church May Have Created a Problem for Itself

I am reluctant to go back to church.  This past summer my family started attending a new church. When the holidays approached my family made the strategic decision to miss certain Sunday services so that we could better track COVID exposure and possible symptoms for the safety of family visiting from out of town.  After Thanksgiving, it became clear that the US was starting another surge, and the decision to stay home from Christmas Eve service left us with no regrets.  As numbers stayed high, we bumped our reentry to Sunday service a couple of weeks until finally my spouse, like a dove, ventured alone to the 10:30 am service.  She said she walked into the service and almost immediately walked out and went home.  She described the scene as a mask-less crowd of people sitting shoulder to shoulder.  She couldn’t in good conscience put herself, and thus, her family at such a risk considering the behavior of people in the service.

I concluded that Sunday service was the most dangerous place for my family regarding physical health at the time.  My family goes shopping and goes to the indoor community pool.  We have Sunday dinner with grandparents.  Both children attend in-person school.  I even watched the last NFL game in my neighbor’s house.  We have multiple social events each week that encompass our work, school, and leisure time, and Sunday service was the riskiest event.

The past two years has trained me for COVID risk analysis.  It has been worth it for me to do daily analysis.  I have a job that requires me to meet with in person with individuals.  I work in healthcare and my job connects me with many other people in healthcare who give me information from direct experience.  I work with physically and emotionally compromised and dependent individuals.  I am the head of household for a family with young children.  I have a child who cannot be vaccinated.  This unvaccinated child also has a health history that puts her at high risk for hospitalization should she get COVID.  I am in the unique position of giving COVID to several high-risk people.  All of these factors have pushed me to think about risk on a daily basis, and also the nature of risk.  Currently, I am perplexed that Sunday service feels like the most dangerous place of those I frequent.  Why does Sunday morning church represent the highest risk in my analysis?  This is especially disconcerting since I know that most people believe the church should feel otherwise.

In my analysis, there are two main clusters of issues when it comes to forming my opinions (and affecting my feelings) on the riskiness of attending church.

  1. Church became an unwitting bastion and safehouse of people who do not want to be told what to do.

Early in the pandemic, there was a question about what the government could force religious institutions, and specifically Evangelical churches, to do.  People examined how far the separation of Church and State could be extended in a public health crisis.  The result is that the government for the most part left churches alone.  There was some criticism from all sides, but most churches were allowed to do what they wanted, especially as the pandemic continued.  Some churchgoers rejoiced because they felt both persecuted by the State (which many have taken as a badge of honor) and victorious over the State.

The Church became one of the most public places where people with the “you can’t tell me what to do” attitude toward society could congregate.  When we went to church in summer 2021, about 10% of the congregation wore masks.  About a month later my family was the only ones wearing a mask.

I don’t think that the majority of people in the congregation were the “you can’t tell me what to do” type.  Quite the opposite, in fact, based on my conversations with them.  Likely, enough people were such a type and this affected things in two ways.  First, going mask-less was not only less stigmatizing at church, but it became the norm.  Even though Americans are radical individualists, we still are humans who are subject to the message from the group.  It is true that it is easier and more comfortable, at the moment, to not wear a mask.  My soccer coach used to warn us of the danger of “playing down” to less skilled teams.  In church, I think many people, lacking vigilance, “played down” to the people who were choosing to be mask-less on principal.  I know this because I felt the same draw myself from week to week as my family became the only masks in attendance.

Second, the resulting culture of mask-lessness is off-putting to those who do or must wear masks.  My spouse’s response to Sunday church likely happened both in-vivo and through reputation to many others.  I think a lot of people who are committed to masks have removed themselves from the church group.  Either they walked out of the church, or were wary of the church’s reputation as a group of mask-less individuals and never went in the first place.  The result is that there is an over-representation of people who are the “you can’t tell me what to do” that are dragging the ambivalent mask-wearers into poor health choices.  This adequately explains why my spouse can walk into a room of two hundred “good” people (after all, they were in church on a Sunday morning instead of doing drugs) and see about 5 of about 200 people wearing a mask.  If she had gone to the supermarket from church I am sure she would have seen about 50% of people wearing masks.  The gap between 3% and 50% is large.

In summary, the church may have a reputation as a public health nuisance and a haven for those who do not want to be told what to do.  Even though this is likely a belief of the minority, it has become the whole church’s reputation.

2. Refusing to be decisive in times of crisis erodes trust in leadership.

Despite Evangelicals having a reputation for being politically conservative, how leadership in the church has approached the issue of COVID protocols is remarkably liberal (e.g., Heed the minority opinion).  In some cases, it is better described as Libertarian (e.g., It is unjust to tell you what to do).  I now have examples from at least eight Evangelical organizations to pull from, and these examples are those where I have a direct line to the people making the decisions about COVID protocols (e.g., masks, distancing, online-only, etc.).

In all eight cases, the consensus seems to be that there will be no mandates, and very few recommendations for behavior, along with a general message of, “let the people decide.”  This approach became especially intense the spring/summer of 2021 when vaccines became widely available.  There have been several explicit ways I have heard various leaderships justified this position. Below is a summary of many opinions that I have gathered informally:

  1. People are able to make their own safety choices.
  2. We (Leadership) are not healthcare professionals, so we cannot make healthcare decisions for people.
  3. The will of the people is freedom to do what they like, so we should let them do that.
  4. Freedom in Christ means fewer mandates and restrictions.
  5. We (Leadership) do not feel comfortable telling people how to act in this situation.

The result of this general approach, however, is the message that one can decide for himself how to live or what COVID protocols and recommendations to observe.  Another way to state this message is that, “You are on your own.”  Watch your own back.  I am able to contrast this with a recent school play I attended.  My child’s class put on a school play and there were hundreds of people in attendance.  Much like church there was limited seating but my anxiety was much lower because the school had a mask mandate for people in attendance.  Also, spaced-apart seating was not an accommodation but an expectation (e.g., staff provided such seating options without being asked; I didn’t have to problem-solve distanced-seating).  I trusted my child’s school to create and adequately uphold reasonable rules supporting public health, regardless whether or not I agreed with them.  There was of course people with differing views of safety in the crowd, but I knew the school “had my back,” and specifically that of my child, when it came to setting a clear and reasonable standard for my behavior.  I therefor trust my child’s school in a way I do not trust my church.

When people who are in charge do not make decisions, or improperly turn over that responsibility to people under their care, problems occur.  This can also happen in situations that include abdication of responsibility and unclear communication of beliefs. We have numerous recent examples of this, from parents to Presidents.  Church leadership seems less than eager to make decisions regarding COVID that might be unpopular, even when the utility of the decision is clear.

COVID has created an unprecedented situation regarding public health for this generation.  Naturally there is going to be a learning curve to dealing with this crisis and its aftermath.  I do not think the Evangelical Church was prepared to navigate this unexpected situation perfectly, and thus there are some errors which need to be corrected.  The good news is that if my assessment is correct, there is a clear path forward for correcting such errors and promoting a sense of health and trust in the Church.  I hope enough Church leadership have the will to make some adjustments to this new status quo.

AJ Switzer

This name is a moniker so that the text can speak for itself. I am developing what I can write about more than how I write. I use AI to edit my stuff.

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