by Ronald L. Preast  |  12 February 2021  |

At first glance the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulations for reopening our churches appear to be inconvenient. Yet if one looks more closely at these guidelines, it becomes clear that our churches shouldn’t have too much trouble with them: variations of these actions are already the norm for many churches. 

Let’s look at some of the CDC guidelines and see how our congregations are already familiar with the principles behind them. 

1. Religious and faith-based organizations are permitted to conduct indoor services at a place of worship with up to 25% of room (or building) capacity with a recommended maximum of 200 people, whichever is less. 

Let’s hope this happens: in many churches 25% attendance would be significant church growth. 

Many of our churches have been meeting at 25% capacity or less for years. In one study, “Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler found that only 20.4 percent of the population attended church each weekend.” The median church in the United States has 75 participants at a weekend worship service.

2. COVID-19 safety information and requirements, such as CDC, DOH, and OSHA posters shall be visibly posted at each location.

Our churches have never had a problem putting posters on the church walls. The problem many churches face is taking down the posters. Want to know what the Sabbath School Quarterly lesson was 1983? The poster is still on the bulletin board. Wish to know who was the “Elder-in-Charge” when Uriah Smith preached at the church? A faded scrap of paper taped on the wall of the pastor’s office lists his name.

Years from now our great-great grandchildren will be looking at the bulletin board and see a poster announcing that everyone must wear masks due to COVID-19. They will comment that they are studying this in history class, and want to know if they can have the poster? Of course that would first have to be approved by the church board.

3. All services may provide access to restrooms, provided that access is controlled and limited to no more than two people at a time. Individuals waiting to use the restroom must maintain at least six feet of distance between each person. Soap and running water shall be abundantly provided at locations for frequent handwashing.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see a problem with this regulation. When I go to the bathroom I want everyone to stay six feet away from me, pandemic or no. And before they leave, to wash their hands. 

4. Inform all employees, members, and guests that they must self-screen for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 before arriving at the location.

Religious people are good at screening for signs and symptoms over several kinds. The Pharisees questioned Jesus asking, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (Luke 5:30 NIV). The religious leaders knew that no self-respecting prophet, and certainly not the Messiah, would associate with such people. When Paul was preaching and baptizing Gentiles, the disciples called a special General Conference Session (Acts 15) to screen these newly baptized Christians for signs of paganism.

You may have noted that the plan calls for self-screening. We’re going to find that hard. It’s easier to screen others for sin than ourselves. In our churches we screen newly baptized members so they know what foods to eat and what is lawful or unlawful on the Sabbath day. Every church has self-appointed screeners who are called by God to search for signs and symptoms of not-fully-Adventist lifestyles.

I’ve heard churches say they welcome everyone: “Come as you are.” That may be our intention, but if you smell like cigarette smoke or have alcohol on your breath or have a different sexual orientation, we may ignore you. We have a reputation to keep up. 

5. Request employees, members, and visitors to take their temperature before attending a service. Any individual with a temperature of 100.4°F will not be permitted to attend the service or attend work at the organization.

We church members have always taken one another’s spiritual temperature. I know that I’ve personally committed my life to God, but I’m not at all sure about the rest of you sinners. 

The book of Revelation even gives us the temperature we’re to look for: lukewarm people aren’t acceptable. People must either give their lives 100.4 degrees to God, or else stay home. Our churches are here for the truly committed. 

If your spiritual temperature is cold (according to the guidelines of the Laodicean Church as set forth in Revelation 3:14-22) we will do all we can to get you baptized. First, we will have to orient you to our culture and make sure you’re ready to enter our church membership. Then we will monitor your spiritual temperature to make sure you are hot, and not drifting back toward lukewarmness—which a great number of the rest of us already are, but don’t know it. 

We welcome anyone with the proper spiritual temperature, and will immediately put them into church office. But the last thing we need are casual observers—unless we can count them as part of our attendance to boost our numbers and make us look good. 

6. Any individual with a household member who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or with symptoms of COVID-19 (including a fever above 100.4°F) may not attend the service or attend work at the organization.

If members are going to bring one of their relatives with them to church, they should check their spiritual temperature before arriving, too. You certainly can’t blame us for being more concerned about the status of our church and its reputation than we are for your family members. If your children are into drugs or struggling with some other addiction, it may be best to leave them at home. 

They may blame the church for why they no longer attend religious services, but we can’t be responsible for someone’s past thoughtlessness. Our churches aren’t hospitals for the sick; they are museums for the saints.

7. All church members and visitors in attendance shall wear face coverings before, during, and after the service (whether indoor or outdoor).

The saints of God’s church have never needed a CDC guideline to mandate wearing masks at church: we’ve been covering our faces ever since Adam and Eve hid themselves from God in the Garden of Eden. There is no way we are going to arrive at church without hiding our genuine feelings and thoughts behind fake smiles. 

We may struggle with an addiction in our lives, but the last people we would want to reveal this to are our fellow church members. Our fears force us to deal with marital issues behind closed doors so we don’t face the judgments of our fellow believers. We have heard enough rumors about other people’s indiscretions to know we don’t want to be a part of that chain of gossip. Heaven forbid that anyone at the church know that we’re fighting depression or in need of counseling. If one person discovers a secret sin about one of us, then it will only be a matter of hours before the whole church knows. 

Our lives may be falling apart, and we feel abandoned by God, but we certainly can’t let others know we’re struggling. Because if the church members discover the “real us” they might think our spiritual temperature has dropped into the cold range (see #5, above). We may ask for prayer requests, but that doesn’t mean we want them to tell us all their problems. So we arrive at church behind our smiling masks, hiding the real us from everyone.

As for our visitors, they’ll learn quickly to put on their masks and not let their real feelings or problems show. If they are sad and dealing with life issues, please ask them to keep those to themselves. If necessary, we should explain our culture and our lingo: tell them to smile big and happily respond when we say, “Happy Sabbath.” They may not know what that means (a lot of us don’t really think about it when we say it, to be honest, much less mean it) but they can parrot the words back, as we do. 

Some might think it would be good to have a mandate that requires us to remove all spiritual masks when we arrive at church so everyone could see the real us. Now, that would be something the church has never experienced! 

8. No choirs shall perform during the service. Singing is permitted, but individuals must not remove their face coverings to sing – it must stay on for the duration of the service.

We’re not that good at singing in most churches. We sort of mumble, and hope the organ drowns us out. But here’s a positive side effect: now, with face masks, no one will ever know if I am singing or not, so I no longer need to feel self-conscious.!

And, this may help us to at last put an end to the war on music. For centuries church members have fought over the appropriate way to praise God and the correct style of worship songs. We won’t have to worry anymore about whether we can smile and raise our hands and belt out repeated phrases over and over—or, alternatively, just drone old hymns into our masks. 

Praise the Lord, there need be no more praising the Lord in church!

9. All organizations must adhere to physical distancing requirements and have six feet of space or have physical barriers between them. 

Physical distancing shouldn’t be a problem. I have walked into many church foyers to find no one present to greet me. Even someone to ask where the bathroom is. Going into some church services people have avoided me like a first-century leper. How many visitors have sat alone and had no one speak to them? Members see them, may smile at them, might even shake their hand if the pastor requires it during some kind of greeting time. Otherwise they’re ignored. 

With this guideline, we no longer have to feel obligated to shake other people’s hands or give them a hug. Physical distancing justifies our sticking with our family and friends and ignoring anyone outside our comfort zone. People can come and go with no one ever knowing they were present, and we don’t have to feel guilty about it! 

10. Prior to beginning operations as described in this document, all religious and faith-based organizations are required to develop for each location (indoor and outdoor if applicable) a comprehensive COVID-19 exposure control, mitigation and recovery plan. 

What if a sinner makes it past our greeters and enters our “sanctuary”? What are we going to do? We need a recovery plan in case we are exposed to the aforementioned “tax collectors and sinners,” which in today’s world would be gays and alcoholics and drug users and the rest. 

11. The plan must include policies regarding the following control measures: PPE utilization; on-location physical distancing; hygiene; sanitation; symptom monitoring; incident reporting; location disinfection procedures; COVID-19 safety training; exposure response procedures and a post-exposure incident project-wide recovery plan. 

Given all this, our plan must be comprehensive, or we could lose long-time members who don’t want to worship with the sin-infected. Some of these members might be big tithe payers—the church could face not only a drop in membership, but also financial difficulties! 

The problem is that while some of these sinners obviously need help, others are asymptomatic and not even aware of the effects their contagious lifestyles might be having. We need to be praying for discernment so we can recognize the symptoms and avoid them. That’s why we need “safety training” against not just the Covid-infected, but the sin-infected, that includes “exposure response procedures and a post-exposure incident project-wide recovery plan.”

Some churches of God have been planning and practicing these measures for centuries. We can thank God they are now in writing so we can officially practice what we unconsciously preach. The fear may be that things will get back to “normal” and people will see our practices as abnormal. These rules will forestall that difficulty.

Too bad the CDC didn’t write these commandments—sorry, I mean regulations—in stone.

Ron Preast served the Seventh-day Adventist Church 44 years as pastor and conference evangelist. He is now retired, living in Arlington, WA.

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