The Rush to Re-Open: A Theological Reflection


I have been deeply troubled as our state, nation, global church and local congregations begin to talk about re-opening for group gatherings. At first, I couldn’t figure out why.

I am joyfully anticipating the time when I can gather physically with my extended family, with my cabinet colleagues, and with the churches and clergy of my district. I can’t wait to sing hymns together, to hug and clasp hands and be close to one another. I eagerly await the opportunity to be in worship with a crowd in a sanctuary.

And yet, I am troubled.

Someone labeled my hesitation as fear. If I am honest, I am afraid, more for others then for myself. But yes, I am fearful about physically gathering together. The science is sobering. Here is a link to just one of many blogs and articles that should cause us all to be at least a little bit afraid:
But as I reflected more, and explored why I am so troubled, I began to see that I had a theological quandary I was wrestling with. My need to gather with others physically was running into my theology of worship and core values. The one is not supported by the others. I want to let you in on my reflections in hopes that they might help you as you and your church begin to think about and plan for physically gathering once more.
My theological reflection, my Bible study, my core values, my heart and soul and mind tell me that to re-open is to do more harm than good. We have ways to worship together that don’t rely on physical proximity. We have ways to care for the lonely and mentally ill that do not require us to re-open and gather in numbers.
After all, church isn’t a building; it isn’t doors or a steeple. Church is the people in ministry and service. If we can’t do this ministry in ways we have in the past we will find new ways to do it. And if those new ways need to be without physical gathering, we have and will develop them because ultimately the human species is an innovative and creative one. We will find a way. God doesn’t need our worship; God wants our worshipful lives.
Biblical Connections
I always begin with the Bible, the divinely inspired scriptures of our faith. I know that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of references to worship, to making a joyful noise, to bringing to God our prayers, praise, thanksgiving, offerings, and celebrations. Repeatedly in both the Old and New Testaments we see story after story and scene after scene where the faithful gather together to worship. 
It is one of the main tenets of our faith to gather for worship. And, science and experience tell us that humans are social animals and that we literally die without human interaction. It is at the core of who and what we are to gather together in the same place and provide each other with comfort, care, support, and protection. You have your favorite Psalms and prophetic words that speak to about why you worship, that help you worship, that support your own theology of worship. And mine are too many to go into in this brief article.
But one that always brings me back to my core values and by basic beliefs as a faithful person and as a Christian is the passage from Micah 6:
  • "How can I stand up before God and show proper respect to the high God? Should I bring an armload of offerings topped off with yearling calves? Would God be impressed with thousands of rams, with buckets and barrels of olive oil? Would [God] be moved if I sacrificed my firstborn child, my precious baby, to cancel my sin? But [God’s] already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don't take yourself too seriously - take God seriously." - from The Message
Worship is how I respond to the presence and activity of God in my life and in the world. It is how I go about my daily life. It is what I do, what I say, what I refrain from saying and doing. It is my demeanor, and above all else it is how I live life with God beside me, before me and behind me.
This is what we are called to as Christians, love your neighbor (Luke 10: 25-28). This is what Jesus looks for from his beloved (Matthew 25: 34-40). It is the only commandment that Jesus passed along to us (John 13:34). Nowhere does Jesus demand that we gather as faithful folk in physical proximity to pray, sing and greet each other. Jesus doesn’t command us to come to a church at 10:00am on Sunday morning for worship. God doesn’t demand a ritual or a gathering to show honor and praise.
We worship because we want to share our thanksgivings, praise, intercessions, offerings of material items and artistic expressions all to the glory of God. We worship because it inspires us to live a life of worship (Micah 6).
This brings me to my values, and in particular the value that seems to be the arc over all others. It is wonderfully expressed by John Wesley in his “Three Simple Rules” as do no harm. In order for me to “stand up before God and show proper respect to the high God,” in order for me to do “what is fair and just” to my neighbor, in order for me to “be compassionate and loyal” in my love, and to not take myself too seriously I must always evaluate what I am thinking and doing from the perspective of harm. If what I am thinking, if what I am doing, if what I am saying is doing harm to others and to God’s creation then I must weigh if that harm is providing a greater good.
With these Biblical reflections and this core value I turn again to the question of why we are rushing to re-open and physically gather. My fundamental read is that we desire to gather for our own good. By gathering, we create a great risk of doing harm that far outweighs the good that could be gained by gathering. It is this simple. It is for us that we worship, not for God.

I end where I started, with the words of Micah 6:8:
"But [God’s] already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don't take yourself too seriously - take God seriously." (The Message)
Peace to all,
Rev. Tim Overton-Harris
Cascadia District Superintendent
(whom the Bishop intends to appoint as Columbia District Superintendent in July)

Tim Overton-Harris
The Rev. Tim Overton-Harris is the Cascadia District Superintendent, supporting 47 congregations and two Hispanic ministries.