It is evident that the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has affected the economic, social and religious lives of many people. Global life and activity have been virtually halted as medical experts work around the clock to treat the afflicted and also find a vaccine to cure the ailment and to prevent it from spreading. The number of casualties has been unimaginably high as people continue to live in a state of apprehension.
Lockdown and social distancing
The ban on public gatherings and the practice of social distancing are among some of the strategies put in place by several countries to help prevent the spread of the disease. Medical experts say the virus spread fast in large crowds or gatherings. This is the reason people are asked to self-quarantine or stay at home for some time. Churches have been closed for weeks now, and members worship as individuals or families in their homes or join the service via social media platforms such as Zoom, WhatsApp, YouTube or Facebook. Others who have access to only the television make use of that medium and watch church services via the many religious channels.
Anticipation of lifting of ban
Although the Christian community in Ghana and other parts of the world is expecting the ban on public gathering to be lifted soon, others are doubtful considering the fact that cases of infection with the coronavirus continue to rise. Some religious groups in planning ahead have held stakeholder forums and have issued directives as to what their members and churches should do in preparation toward the anticipated lifting of the ban.
Evaluating the measures and some challenges
While some of the measures put in place by some religious groups in the event of re-opening churches are laudable and conform to the protocols on hygiene, others appear to pose a great challenge as far as ecclesia-liturgical service is concerned. For instance, with respect to the freedom and spontaneity with which worship is supposed to be conducted, patrons might disregard the protocols, albeit unwittingly, when they become overly immersed in worship. Some measures that can be adopted to ensure adherence to the hygiene protocols include placing Veronica buckets or fixing taps at church entry points for worshippers to wash their hands thoroughly before entering the church house, making sanitizers available for members to apply on their hands, sanitizing door handles, rails, doors and pillars, not using air conditioners but rather opening windows to allow natural ventilation in meeting places, constantly disinfecting microphones and keeping washrooms thoroughly clean, etc.
Some measures and their challenges
Although some of the measures put in place by the leadership of some religious groups are commendable as they fall in line with the protocols health experts recommend, an evaluation of others show that they could pose a great challenge within the ambience of liturgical service and worship.
- The challenge of wearing facemask in church. The wearing of facemask for preaching, singing and praying can create uneasiness and distort the worshipful atmosphere of the service. Also, it can be discomforting trying to express yourself freely with your nose mask on, while facial gesticulation and expression are obstructed.
- The challenge of social/physical distancing in church. Social/physical distancing is supposed to be practised in church by ensuring that seats are spaced out where contiguous seats are placed two (2) metres apart. This arrangement ensures that droplets from an asymptomatic carrier during coughing, sneezing and talking do not get to the next worshipper. While this seating arrangement is possible in some churches, other church auditoriums are structured in a manner that will not make such remodelling possible. It is also recommended that special seats be arranged for the aged and their families. I can envisage the trouble teachers and handlers will go through in enforcing social/ physical distancing in the children’s class!
- The challenge of restricting service. Organizing services in sessions is already a practice in some churches which is mostly due to the size of the church house and the language used for service. For others who are yet to experience this, the challenge will be planning and arranging who attends the first or fourth service and whether more members want to attend the second service. Providing personal and logistical support for this will also be challenging.
- The challenge of not greeting one another in church. A key component of worship is fellowship. Avoiding handshakes or avoiding each other because we are all not sure who is carrying the virus can mutilate our fellowship, acceptance, and love for one another if not handled intelligently. Again, this could be wrongly interpreted, sowing seeds of disunity in the church.
Five (5) Key preparations
- Preparing the church building.
In several places we find church buildings crying for paint for years, or some structures in deplorable and dilapidated conditions. This is the time to carry out proper maintenance activities. This is the time to mob, sweep, weed, remove cobwebs, paint and replace obsolete fittings. This will increase the life span of the facility and also send a positive signal that we are stewards of God’s property. Joe D. Marlow remarked, “We need church buildings to help us accomplish our mission: and church buildings will be kept in proper perspective if community is created and nurtured by the people who construct and maintain these structures”. This is the moment to take a critical look at the architecture of our buildings, to ensure that they conform to health and safety standards. The health of worshippers must not be compromised.
- Preparing for surprises (safety and security).
Safety and Security in worship centres have now become topical issues for discussion because terrorists are now targeting churches. The event of September 11 and a myriad others in our West African sub region have not only heightened global security consciousness but also brought to the fore the urgent need to ensure the safety and security of users of public buildings, including church buildings due to their high risk and vulnerability. In the past, church buildings were open sanctuaries of peace and safety for the community and cases of theft, robbery, vandalism, shooting and terrorist attacks resulting in deaths and injuries were uncommon. As we prepare to go back to church, with members and visitors wearing face masks, we should be security conscious, for we cannot easily make people out when they wear face masks.
- Preparing for low turnout.
People are in a state of fear and anxiety and will prefer to continue to worship in their homes and with their families for some time after the lifting of the ban. This will affect turn out in churches.
- Preparing against stigmatization.
How to treat each other with genuine love and acceptance, and especially those who have had the disease and have recovered, remains one of the greatest challenges in fighting the pandemic. Will we be comfortable to seat next to a member who spent days in an isolation centre? Will we allow our children to go near other families when we know they are coming from an area where the virus is prevalent?
- Preparing our hearts and minds.
The temple or the church building is recognized as both the spiritual and physical home of the congregation. It is also the abode of God and a place of assemblage for worship ((I Kings 8:29). Going back to church promises to be nostalgic. Our mind and hearts must be prepared and ready to be consecrated in His Holy temple.
As we continue to pray for the Almighty God to move sovereignly in an outpouring of His healing power and grace over our land, the church continues to put measures in place ahead of the anticipated re-opening of churches for worship. Some denominations have decided that even when the ban on public gathering is lifted, their churches should use two weeks to prepare and put in place all the proposed measures before opening for worship. The greatest challenge is how to handle the issue of stigmatization and fear in worship after COVID-19. My interactions and conversations show that people will be petrified and apprehensive about going to church even if the restriction is lifted. How can people worship in a right mind-set when we know that the pandemic is still around us? We are missing church. We are missing the fellowship and friends. We are missing congregational worship. We want the restrictions to be lifted, but we are not too sure if this is the right time.
About the writer:
Pastor Alexander Agyapong lives with his family in Techiman, Ghana. He teaches Church Estate Management at the School of Theology and Missions at Ghana’s premier private university, Valley View University. He is a member of the Ghana Real Estate Professional Association (GREPA) and was part of the team that developed the International Property Market Scorecard for Ghana