As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, our collective impatience grows. The people of Judah spent 70 years in Babylonian exile without the Temple, but we’re not sure we can do Zoom church for more than two months.
People protest at state capitol buildings, and dozens of churches across the country have sued government officials. The mantra of this movement demanding the right to hold in-person religious services in the midst of a deadly virus seems to be that churches should be treated like Costco.
Really, that’s the slogan.
“If Costco can make it work, so can the churches,” claimed Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, as he criticized Illinois’s governor for not letting churches hold in-person services for the foreseeable future.
“If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions,” argued an attorney representing pastors who unsuccessfully sued their state’s governor for not yet allowing mass gatherings.
So, I decided I needed to test this theory out. What if my church could run like a Costco? Then perhaps we could reopen without sparking a coronavirus outbreak like the dozens already linked to churches across the country. But my church isn’t open. If I can’t bring the Costco experience to my church, perhaps I could test this by bringing my church to Costco!
I pulled up to the store and realized I actually needed to go in. I’ve been getting my groceries via curbside pickup the last couple months. But I’ve never had that experience at church — pull up, pop my trunk, and have a sermon manuscript and perhaps communion elements conveniently loaded. So, it’s in I go.
It turns out Costco requires masks. I’m not sure most churches reopening actually mandate these. But I wasn’t about to end my field research yet. I wrapped my tie around my nose and mouth. After the first time in months wearing a dress shirt and slacks (or really any pants), it’s a little more casual than I wished to be for church, but it’s for science.
I passed on the shopping cart. I’ve never grabbed one of those at my church. (Maybe it’s a megachurch thing.)
No one gave me a bulletin as I walked in. I’m not in the habit of reading them, but it is nice to have a place for my gum. So, I made a mental note that we should probably not pass those out right now.
Looking around, I quickly saw some people I didn’t know. Normally at a store, I ignore others. No saying “hi,” no shaking hands, no time of standing up and waving at one another. But since this is Costco church now, I needed to change my ways — except no shaking hands until there’s a vaccine.
“Welcome!” I said as friendly as I could be from six feet away. “My name is Brian and I’m happy you’re here! What’s your name?”
This didn’t work very well. Four tries, and no one told me their name. One man did say the name of our Lord, but I don’t think he was Jesus (though a few more months of not visiting the barber might help the look). And a lady asked me if the store would be getting more toilet paper soon. I said I didn’t know since I didn’t work there. She backed away pretty quickly. Maybe she had to go.
So much for the fellowship time. Next, I figured we should sing, even though I worried the mask might hamper my joyful noise. I left the grocery section (didn’t want to be too close to the tomatoes!). I know some people think we shouldn’t sing in churches right now, but I needed to test out every part of this Costco church experiment. After all, the best way to spread Christian cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.
“Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore!”
A crowd gathered at a distance near the spirits section, but no one else joined in. But an usher approached — I assumed he was an usher since he had a name tag — only to tell me singing time ended.
I really expect to sing more songs than that at church. This Costco thing wasn’t working very well yet.
With the greeting and singing times over, it was time for the offering. Since we’re not supposed to pass things around right now, I asked those I saw about giving. That brought the usher back, who said something about a solicitation policy. Maybe there will be a box by the register where I can drop off my tithe on the way out.
My pastor refused to join me in this experiment, so I decided I needed to bring the sermon standing by myself like he does on stage. At this point I had only been there less than 10 minutes but I really needed to be there for about an hour for accuracy (not counting Sunday School and a bathroom break, which I should probably skip now).
Needing an uncrowded area, I headed over towards the books. I found a Bible for sale, tossed it open, and started reading at the top of the page.
“Our reading today comes from 2 Chronicles 21:14,” I proclaimed. “‘So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel; and seventy thousand persons fell in Israel.’ The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.”
Seeing the customers’ reactions, and wanting to avoid that usher again, I quickly made my way toward the exit. I skipped the offering stop (sorry, pastor, but this is probably a realistic experiment) and avoided eye contact with the usher.
As I left and, like the Magi, went home by another way in case that usher followed me, I reflected on how it didn’t feel like a church in there. And frankly, no visit to a grocery store ever has.
Perhaps my church isn’t like Costco. Praise God, indeed!