A year ago, Brady Boyd’s words would have seemed normal. Today, he sounds radical.
“Human contact,” he says, “is required.”
Boyd serves as lead pastor at New Life Church, the largest congregation in Colorado Springs. The faithful need to gather and worship, he says. And he’s right. We all need to be near to each other.
The novel coronavirus will retain its deadly power for months, maybe years. Boyd talks of the need to “create a new normal.”
That creation will be exceedingly complicated.
“There’s no way you can create an absolutely safe environment with a virus,” he says. “Unless we all show up in space suits, no one can be completely safe. But long-term isolation is going to create problems that could be worse than the virus itself.”
Boyd stood at the New Life podium Sunday to preach a sermon from the New Testament’s Letter of James. He saw 5,400 empty seats. And 600 of the faithful, or 10 percent of the room’s capacity. He preached on the demands Jesus makes for his followers to show no partiality. In the realm of Christianity, he preached, all must be welcome.
For weeks, Boyd had preached virtually alone into a camera. He heard no amens. He missed them.
New Life was not motivated by financial concerns to open its doors, Boyd says, explaining contributions rose slightly during the weeks the church was closed to worship while online viewership grew 8,000 percent.
“But church at its core is a gathered group of people,” he says. “It’s like any family, and families need a place to gather together. It’s super important for people’s well-being. Human concern, communication, empathy only happen in the presence of other people. Zoom can’t take the place of that.”
I join Boyd in doubting Zoom can substitute for genuine human interaction.
But there’s a problem:
Zoom meetings are sterile, yes, but safe. And gathering, regardless of scrubbing and attempts at distancing, remains risky in our time of danger.
For months, the state of Colorado determined essential behavior for its citizens. Those days, filled with shut doors and isolation, are ending.
We — you and I — are determining what is essential for our daily lives. We will decide to eat a meal at a restaurant or remain at our dining room table. We dwell in a perilous time. You can pretend we do not, but you’re only pretending.
Coming to a consensus is never easy, but the virus has made agreement even more difficult. What’s the proper level of caution? What’s safe? What’s reckless? How long should we stay home? Is living with extreme caution the same as stepping into the shadow of extreme fear?
I talked with a Colorado Springs minister who shared his struggle with the decision to open. He polled his congregants on opening the doors to worship, and the vote was close to even. Half the congregation wanted to gather in person for worship and half wanted to continue watching from home.
If he opened the church doors he would be unpopular with the half who wanted the door to remain shut, he says. If he left the doors closed, he would be a villain with the other half. He could not win.
The minister struggles with the question that hovers over our society:
When is the best time for us to open?
Here’s another question:
Is there a best time?
Boyd says he struggled with those questions. He listened to members of his church. He listened to his heart. He followed guidelines set down by El Paso County officials and opened the doors to a limited number of the faithful.
“All we’ve heard over the last 12 weeks is if you go into a crowd of people, you’re going to get sick,” Boyd says.
He thinks back to Sunday’s atmosphere inside New Life’s sanctuary. For the first few minutes of singing, there was little life in the room. Even worship seems dangerous these days.
But after a couple songs, the worshippers grew comfortable, and Boyd felt a welcome surge of energy.
“The joy came back into the place,” he says. “At some point, we’re going to have to come out of the house and face this virus. Not going anywhere for two years will not work.”
Church provides hope, Boyd says. That hope ranks among its most precious functions. Hope for today and hope for tomorrow. Hope in time of darkness and despair.
But remember, especially now, the danger of false hope.