Why I’ve looked forward to church outside during COVID-19

September 10, 2020

I’ll never forget my 30th birthday because that was the Sunday one of our pastors addressed the “coronavirus” for the first time. I remember where my wife and I were sitting. I remember how ominous it all felt because I read too much news and was already pandemic panicked. But I also remember the graceful steadiness in our pastor’s words, not because he knew what was to come, but because he had faith in the One who was, is, and is to come.

He led us through what we knew about the virus, but also reminded us of the perfect love of Christ that casts out fear. He spoke to the centrality of our gathering together (Heb. 10), but also of the unique concerns of attempting to gather like normal during a pandemic. He informed us of how the church elders had been in touch with the mayor’s office and our city’s public health officials. He talked about the benevolence fund and how we could prepare to care for those in need. Then we prayed, sang, listened to a sermon, and chatted with one another after the service, as we would any other Sunday. 

That Sunday was the last time we’ve all been together in our building at the corner of 6th and A on Capitol Hill.

This isn’t the first pandemic Capitol Hill Baptist Church and Washington, D.C., have endured. The Spanish Flu of 1918 ravaged the city of 400,000 residents, infecting 50,000 and killing 3,000. Public gatherings in the district were banned, and our church then, as now, decided to accede the requests not to gather for services indoors. Eventually, some churches then, as we are now, moved their services outdoors.

Something to look forward to

I don’t know how Christians felt then about church outside, but our 5 p.m. service out under the trees is one of my favorite parts of each week. The monotony of working from home, conversations through Zoom, and the constant temptation to doom scroll online is a cycle that needs to be countered. We’ve traveled some to see family, but all other trips, for work and fun, have been cancelled. My brother recently gave words to a sentiment we all feel, “There’s nothing to look forward to.” I’m thankful we now have Sundays to look forward to.

Our first outdoor service was held on June 14. Though we were in an uncommon field of a gracious church in Virginia, wearing masks and socially distanced, the service began with the common greeting of our senior pastor, “Welcome to this gathering of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church.” After applause, another unusual experience at this point in our service, our pastor continued speaking over the chatter of children and creaks of camp chairs, “This gathering will not be like the gatherings we’ve been accustomed to, but it will be a lot better than what we’ve had the last three months.” Two and a half months later, the gatherings keep getting better.

In his pastoral prayer that first Sunday back, our pastor led us to pray for Mayor Bowser of Washington, Gov. Northam of Virginia, Gov. Hogan of Maryland, and President Trump. We also prayed for the doctors, nurses, and medical researchers combatting COVID-19, and those grieving the loss of family and friends. He then prayed for the Lord to humble us. He prayed for law enforcement, local police, the Secret Service, and the FBI who were at the time investigating the horrific killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. And he prayed for our members of color who were feeling especially vulnerable remembering incidences of their past.

This was a hard summer, for so many reasons, and it was good for my soul to be with my church family.

Disruptions as opportunities

Over the Sundays since, we’ve made memories. One of my personal favorites has been seeing how much each other’s kids have grown up. Our son turned one while we were cooped up at home, so you can imagine the fun comments from friends seeing this once-baby from the nursery now toddle around in shoes. Gathering regularly is how we share our lives.

Another memory was the night it rained. We weren’t halfway through our first song when, after a clap of thunder, we were dismissed. The rain came and quickly became a downpour. We packed up and ran to our cars, but we were all already soaked. I couldn’t stop laughing.

On Monday, the same pastor who spoke to us in March at the beginning of the pandemic, emailed, “we anticipated celebrating the Lord’s Supper together but received something more akin to baptism. I have to assume this was the shortest service in 142 years of CHBC services!” He then turned to encouragement, “Yesterday’s service is a little picture of what life is like for so many right now. We planned on church, we got a rainstorm instead. In all that we trust the goodness of God’s sovereign plans. He is loving us through good weather and bad and is working all things for our good, to conform us to the image of his dear son (Rom. 8:28).”

Yes, there are problems with meeting outdoors. It’s hot, it rains, and distractions abound. One Sunday, during a prayer, a fire truck sped by siren blaring. The church member who was praying, paused and prayed also for the emergency that truck was called to. I’ve learned these disruptions to our rhythms are also opportunities.

Enduring a difficult season together is an experience that deepens relationships. We have these new family memories of laughter and of tears, of begging God to end the pandemic and thanking him for his faithfulness through the swirling storms.

When I think back to my birthday weekend in March, it’s remarkable what momentous days those were. On Saturday, we had a party with our friends at my favorite barbeque joint downtown. On Sunday, my wife took me out to lunch, we walked to a museum, and then to a coffee shop. Six months later, some of those friends have moved away, we haven’t been back to dine in at a restaurant or coffee shop, and the Smithsonian’s doors remain shut.

These are strange times. We are gathering as we can, safely and with wisdom. Even when everything is confusing, we know God is still on his throne. His kingdom is still on the move. And he is kind enough to remind us that he is not yet finished with us as he did for our congregation one service in August. Two recent immigrants from Afghanistan walked by and were intrigued enough at the sight of a couple hundred people sitting in a field that they decided to stay and listen. “Faith Comes by Hearing,” reads our church sign outside our building at 6th and A. Yes, even when we’re outside our building, faith still comes by hearing.

Jeff Pickering

Jeff Pickering is the director of the Initiative on Faith & Public Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute. AEI is a leading public policy think tank in Washington, DC and the initiative exists to equip Christian college students for faithful engagement in public life. Jeff moved to Washington … 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