The church my husband and I were attending closed its doors at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 and had done an admirable job of reaching out to congregants through a quick pivot to online technology for services and prayer meetings, phone calls from staff and leaders to check on members, and packets of activities for kids that masked and gloved volunteers handed to people via an outdoor drive-through line. We were impressed by the energy and care the leadership team offered to all.
We noticed that once they began offering in-person church services…
After a few months, advanced air filters and purifiers were installed in the church building. After this, church leaders began holding in-person, socially-distanced worship services, first with masks required, then strongly suggested, before eventually dropping the requirement altogether. But even with those precautions, many people continued to stay away. My husband and I were among them. I have a rare immunodeficiency that is treated with weekly infusions of a plasma-based product. My husband has some age-related chronic health issues as well. We noticed that once they began offering in-person church services, the energy for reaching out to those who chose not to show up at the building seemed to dissipate. We continued to watch services online during those months.
…the energy for reaching out to those who chose not to show up at the building seemed to dissipate.
About a year into the pandemic, we received a monthly newsletter featuring a “word of encouragement” from the head pastor encouraging the entire congregation to come back to the church building for corporate worship. He suggested that the primary reason for ongoing low attendance was moral weakness: some church members had simply gotten out of the habit of going to church. Others stayed away because their fear of gathering had paralyzed them. “Faith fights fear,” he said. His antidote for these moral failings was simple: just show up at church.
I pushed back. I wrote him a note reminding him that everyone is afraid of something. Some in the congregation were afraid of what they perceived as government overreach. Others who scoffed at lockdowns and cautions were afraid of loneliness. I know quite a few pastors, and
some were struggling to pay the bills—both those of their empty church buildings, their staffs, and themselves. And others (like us) were afraid of being exposed to a virus that was killing and disabling millions around the world.
Our doctors had advised us to exercise extreme caution. Our pastor was telling us that caution was a lack of faith.
I asked him if he felt what he called fear among congregants was rooted in their lack of faith (something he certainly wasn’t qualified to judge) or might have been for many an expression of wisdom. The notion it was something other than fear for perhaps a sizable portion of his aging congregation seemed to surprise him.
Scripture tells us not to be afraid. While some have suggested that there are 365 instances in the Bible where we are told to fear not, one for each day of the year, I don’t believe that the answer is quite that tidy.
We are told not to fear precisely because the One who made us knows we will fear. God’s “fear nots” are spoken to us out of compassion, not shame or judgement.
When King David was on the run, fleeing from his enemies, he sang the words to God, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” (Psalm 56:3) It doesn’t say, “If I am afraid,” but instead focuses on the reality that fear is a part of our very humanity. Those who diminish the experience of fear in others or attempt to shame those who are afraid as a way of motivating (or, more accurately, manipulating) them into doing something they might not want to do is itself an expression of fear.
My diagnosis in 2016 and the invasive, expensive treatment that allow me to live a fairly normal life also offered me new eyes through which to view tactics like the one the pastor used. I was once susceptible to the kind of velvet-gloved bullying in the name of “faith” that some church leaders used to staff the nursery or fill pews or solicit donations. But nowadays, I recognize that it takes faith to say “no.”
The pastor told me he was aiming his words at those healthy people who could attend church services but had chosen not to do so. I reminded him that while I may look fine, he is not sitting in my living room each week when I push four needles into my abdomen in order to pump into my body immunoglobulin G extracted from the plasma donations of thousands of people. The uncomfortable conversation ended on a gracious note, and I appreciated his willingness to engage. As the pandemic eased, this incident coupled with some other theological concerns about the church led us to search for a different church home. It turns out that it takes faith to make that choice, too.