“All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (I Corinthians 10: 23-24).
In “Faith Leaders Say It’s too Early to Reopen,”a May 9 op-ed published in the Fort Worth Business Press, Dr. Tim Bruster, Senior Pastor, as part of a group of 17 local religious leaders, representing a variety of faith traditions and centuries of theological reflection on the ethical implications of faith-based freedom and responsibility, expressed their beliefs and collective decision making to remain “closed” for corporate worship.
“Many if not most of Fort Worth’s largest congregations were represented in the letter,” the FWBP staff article states, adding that “freedom is not license and carries with it the responsibility to make hard choices.”
The letter, prompted by Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to begin to “reopen” Texas, these pastors say they felt inherent pressure for places of worship to “reopen” as well. Expressing concern that some Texas religious and political leaders view this freedom to reopen as the right to do as they wish, the signers of the letter said. “ . . . we believe that by gathering together for worship, fellowship, or service, faith communities put the health of their congregations and communities at risk of the highly communicable COVID-19 virus.”
These local faith leaders agree that while it’s true that government must walk a careful line between protecting the right to worship freely and promoting public health, faith communities who have now been granted the freedom (within certain restrictions) to choose how they will respond to the pandemic must also recognize that “government and faith communities throughout Texas need to work together to stop the spread of Coronavirus.”
“Remembering that the first rule of Methodism is to “do no harm,” and citing the words of Paul in I Corinthians 10: 23-24: Dr. Bruster adds that freedom to reopen also means that we have a choice — and a responsibility — to protect the most vulnerable, both in our congregation and in our community. “We have met with and are heeding the words of public health officials who are telling us that the coronavirus has yet to reach its peak in Tarrant County,” he says, “and their consistent advice is that it is not wise for faith communities to open up until testing and contact tracing are fully in place. Neither, they tell us, is true in Tarrant County.”
Here at First Church, we are fortunate to have a 45-year history of broadcasting our services in one manner or another, and a robust communications program that allowed us to step up quickly to meet the strange new needs and demands of this pandemic. With amazing creativity across all our ministries, we have been able to continue to reach and engage our congregation in ways that many churches have not. But that’s not to say this unprecedented constraint on ministry has been easy.
“While we yearn to see you in person and to gather together physically,” a recent letter to the First Church congregation from Dr. Bruster and Co-Pastor Rev. Lance Marshall states, “out of an abundance of love for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 and to those who dedicate their lives to treating the ill” we will continue suspended on-campus gatherings.
This abundance of love, also expressed in the collective sentiments of local faith leaders in the Business Press Op-Ed, means understanding and taking decisive action on the difference between “accepting the risk vs. producing the risk.”
“When we go grocery shopping, we accept the risk of exposure,” the Op-Ed letter goes on to say. “But by opening to worship, faith communities produce the risk of exposure. This is morally unacceptable to us.”
So as we continue to keep our physical doors closed to corporate gatherings, our church is, in many ways, more open than ever before. We are reaching hundreds of thousands of people each week through now six weekly online worship opportunities in a variety of styles and formats, daily prayer, devotional and discipleship opportunities, and a variety of online studies and activities for all ages that allow us to continue to connect with God and one another through technology.
“At some point resuming in-person gatherings will be prudent and safe,” the most recent Update for Tim and Lance assures. “What a day of celebration that will be! Until then, we will continue our vibrant ministries and witness of hope and love to our city and the world using all the technological tools at our disposal.”
Thank you, First Church family, for staying connected, for being willing to learn new things, stretch beyond your technological comfort zones, and for loving and supporting our church and one another in so many amazing ways. From your generosity in giving that is keeping our ministries going and creating and reaching out to others in this time of global need, to your stepping up your support of our First Street Methodist Mission to, as Director Linda Murphy says, “keep folks fed,” to your participation and engagement in all these new ways of “doing ministry” in a challenging time, we are living boldy into our mission to Love God, Serve People, and Transform Lives, even and especially in the face of global pandemic.