(RNS) — As a pastor and a father, I was concerned at first when I heard the police had come to our church north of San Francisco on a recent Wednesday evening as my sons led worship for our church youth group. The authorities were responding to a complaint from a neighbor who thought we were violating a regulation on church gatherings.
The officer arrived to see our youth group meeting safely outside, socially distanced and wearing masks. He commended the group and its leaders and told them to proceed. It was a non-incident.
On July 13, with the virus spreading rapidly again in the state, Governor Gavin Newsom called for the closing of indoor operations for fitness centers, malls, hair salons and barber shops, other indoor venues, as well as houses of worship. (Newsom had previously banned singing indoors during worship services.) The restrictions were necessary but confused many about whether it is legal for churches to gather to worship God at all in California.
When the pandemic first reached us back in March, like the vast majority of churches across the country, we moved all of our services, Bible studies, and prayer times online. We sought wisdom and followed best practices. We prayed and proceeded with patience. We have worked with churches in Sonoma County and with our county officials to develop and implement guidelines to both keep us safe and to protect our church members and community from the spread of the virus.
We also pushed for ways to begin safely meeting again in person, along with online worship options, as soon as we possibly could. With safety measures in place, hand sanitizing stations, distancing, masks, and people spread over two services, our church began worshiping again in mid-June under our outdoor pavilion. We haven’t stopped since.
The changes and challenges of the past five months haven’t been easy. But we are grateful that no church members have contracted the virus. And we are positioned to keep going as long as we need to.
Some churches, meanwhile, have decided to defy state regulations and meet inside their sanctuaries. I have no interest in judging how other churches choose to meet or not meet during this time. I recognize that many churches don’t have the luxury of our outdoor space, a space for which I am grateful. I understand how the COVID-19 requirements can be quite a burden and very limiting.
I also believe that as Christians our first duty is to God. We are commanded in Scripture to assemble together for encouragement as we look forward to our full redemption, as the Letter to the Hebrews says. But we are not told how we are to gather together. We also know from the Book of Acts that God doesn’t live in temples made with human hands but meets with those who gather to worship and obey him wherever that might be.
But as vital as worship is, so is endeavoring to work with our state and local authorities if at all possible, as the Letter to the Romans and the First Letter of Peter tell us to do. So, there is a balance of making sure that we follow God’s commands first while simultaneously seeking to obey the laws of the land and to live peaceably with our community and work for the common good.
It is legal to meet for worship in California. But, to do so, churches must follow the regulations put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which involves meeting outside with masks and with distancing. How a church does that is up to them, but it is possible — as we have discovered.
When I become discouraged by the constant barrage of challenges thrown our way during this difficult period, I’m encouraged by remembering that God is not surprised by any of this, and he has grace for us. If I cling to my own preferences and try to assert my own power to protect my way of life, I forfeit the grace and mercy that God offers me when I trust in him. And I miss a chance for my character to be conformed to the image of Jesus.
Perhaps what is being both formed and revealed in these days is our character regarding how we persevere and hope in God. When I heard that the police visited us to find our youth group worshiping God while following the guidelines, I saw once again how their character is being developed through how they handle these trials and challenges. And that seems to be true for all of us.
Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor, writer and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus.