When will our church buildings reopen?

April 15, 2020

This past weekend many pastors across America faced a situation they never would have imagined: preaching an Easter sermon to a congregation trapped in their homes.

We should be exceedingly grateful that the Lord has given us the technology to make remote preaching possible. But our appreciation does not dull the sense of loss that is felt when standing in your living room preaching to a video camera. Pastors have a natural longing to worship in the presence of God’s people, especially on the biggest holiday of the year, which is why we are all wondering, “When will we be able to meet again in person?”

The short answer, of course, is that no one (other than God) knows when that day will come. While many medical experts and government officials have expressed their preferences, no authority in our country can set a definitive timeline because they are weighing multiple factors in making the decision to lift the stay-at-home orders, some of which are presently unknowable.

Medical factors

In an ideal situation, the decision about when it was safe to return from a medical crisis would be based solely on medical criteria. Although the medical models have varied widely (mostly because of lack of adequate testing and data in the United States), the medical elements that weigh into the decision are rather straightforward: We need to drastically lower the infection rate and/or drastically increase herd immunity.

The infection rate (R0 or “R naught”) describes the average number of additional infections caused by a person who has contracted the virus. For example, measles is highly contagious with a range  of 12 to 18, while influenza is moderately contagious with a range of 2 to 3. That means a person with the measles will (on average) infect 12 to 18 other people, and a person with the flu will infect 2 to 3. 

A new study highlighted by the CDC says the median R0 for COVID-19 in the China outbreak was about 5.7. Ideally, social distancing practices can help to get the number below 1, the point at which the virus is not spreading fast enough to be an epidemic. However, if the number stays above 1, the epidemic will continue until there is sufficient herd immunity (i.e., when a high enough percentage of a community becomes immune to a disease because of vaccination and/or prior illness).

Because we currently have no vaccine available, the percentage of herd immunity right now is based solely on prior infection. It will take time for herd immunity to build up to appropriate levels for the quarantine to end. Some predictions estimate that there could be an additional 1.5 million to 1.7 million deaths (the same number of people who died from cancer in 2019) before we reach the necessary level of immunity in the general population. 

Psychological and political factors

If medical considerations were our only concern, we could just implement “suppress and lift” policies based on the infection level of a geographic area. But as we’ve seen, many Americans oppose such measures for a variety of reasons. Some reject any sort of quarantine (seeing it as a violation of their civil liberties), while others are confused as to why different parts of the country are not also quarantined. Further, the emotional toll of the stay-at-home strategy is beginning to wear on even the most committed social distancing advocate. However, government officials know that it will be difficult to begin another round of quarantines once this one ends.

Since we don’t have adequate testing, the best metric for the peak of the crisis is the number of daily deaths related to COVID-19. Current projections—assuming full social distancing through May 2020—estimate the peak occurred around Easter weekend. Some state governments are likely to reopen or loosen restrictions as early as May 4; others may attempt to hold out longer. 

Now is the time to prepare 

Elders of local churches need to prepare policies and communicate how they will be implemented. Here are some questions that will need to be addressed:

How will you decide when to reopen? Scripture tells us that we must be subject to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1). But we should recognize that there are multiple authorities speaking into these decisions. If guidance issued by various governments and public health officials about when it is safe to meet seems unclear or to be in conflict, make sure that you are committed to taking every precaution to care for and protect the people you serve in your church and community—and make sure you are communicating your plans to them. 

When will you reopen? Will you hold church services the first Sunday after being allowed to do so? What if the announcement comes on a Saturday? Will your ministry team be prepared? Even when shelter-in-place orders are lifted, bans on large gatherings may remain in place. Smaller congregations may be able to meet in person, while larger church bodies may still be legally prohibited. Pastors need to prepare now to deal with how that difference might affect their church community.

What mitigation policies will you be putting in place? Being allowed to return to our church buildings does not mean our churches are safe from the coronavirus. How will we protect the elderly, pregnant, and immunocompromised? What mitigation measures will be put in place to protect our people? What level of risk are we willing to accept to meet again in person?

These are just a few of the questions all churches must address. Whether you are a solo pastor or have a staff of hundreds, you need to make plans for how you will respond to the myriad concerns of your congregation. You don’t need to have all the answers, but your people should see that you’ve given these issues serious thought and consideration. Some of them will be putting their health in your hands, so be sure you’re using this time of lockdown to prepare for the time when the church doors open once again.

A version of this article originally appeared here.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24