Returning to Church 4.0

The pandemic is not over, particularly for those who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or living with disabilities.

Returning to Church 4.0
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

As part of our COVID Community Outreach Project, the Wisconsin Council of Churches offered advice to religious communities on how to mitigate COVID risk. They were used around the U.S., and as far away as England. These documents could be quite extensive, and were always a team effort. This is an excerpt from our fourth edition, from a section in which I was the lead writer. I include as an example of breaking down a complex topic in order to guide the work of decision-makers on all levels.

Theology, Ethics & Values

The recommendations in Returning to Church 4.0 are guided by the following values:

  • Community: It is a time to renew commitment to the common good
  • Hospitality: See God in the “stranger” (even the newly unfamiliar to us)
  • Care and Concern for the Vulnerable: We must center equity and accommodations in our ministry

Christians are Easter people. Especially in this Lenten season pointing us toward the celebration of Christ's victory over death, we recognize the reality of pandemic exhaustion and the desire for new life. Two years of isolation, anxiety and grief are enough for anyone. We look forward to a time of new energy among God's people. As we move toward that point, we want to ground the transition in the traditional Christian values of community, hospitality, and care and concern for the vulnerable.


I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me .... Then they said, "Let us start building!"
So they committed themselves to the common good. —Nehemiah 2:18

Pandemics are by nature social, and thus require social responses. That is to say, individuals must commit themselves to building up the common good through collective action. This in turn often requires taking steps such as masking, social distancing, or physically-distanced ministry that benefit the community with little or no discernible reward for the individual. Over time, the commitment to such work may weaken as the perceived burden increases and the perceived benefits decrease.

While it may be time to reassess COVID-safe practices in faith communities, we suggest that it is also a time to renew commitment to the common good. The pandemic is not over, particularly for those who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or living with disabilities. There will likely be future waves of COVID, or other emergent diseases that require public health measures. Leaders will want to help their people think carefully about ongoing responsibility to the body of Christ, and what the future may require of them.

In doing so, leaders and communities should work with consideration of the mutual and equitable nature of community. This means recognizing the needs of all members while deliberately prioritizing the voices of those on the margins.

The renewal of commitment to the common good is well-rooted in the grace of God in blessing, consoling, protecting and healing the community in the midst of a terrible season. It is important to claim not just the costs of discipleship, but also its joys.


Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. —Romans 12:13

The ancient Christian practice of welcoming takes many - sometimes surprising - forms in the COVID era. There is the grace of forgiveness when the congregation or its members make choices other than what one as an individual would do, the generosity of diversity in feelings about, and approaches to, COVID-safe practices, and the practices themselves.

Navigating the pandemic has been difficult for many, sometimes in not very obvious ways. Each person has a different tolerance for risk affected by personal circumstances, family make-up and relationships, local context, and more. Each person also has ideals and theology that pull towards certain values, yet lived reality may not correspond to this vision. It is important to avoid as much as possible causing moral injury by asking individuals to violate their sense of right and wrong for the sake of accommodating the community.

Members of the community will also need to cultivate flexibility in their responses to the pandemic, and charity for those who disagree with them. God’s grace and call to love their neighbor invites Christians to see them through God’s eyes, even when they choose different ways to navigate the pandemic. This might mean letting go of thoughts that our neighbor is "too strict" or "reckless" in favor of seeing them and ourselves surrounded with God’s grace in all of life's mess and complication.

When we find ourselves being judgmental or angry of others, it may be best to shift our stance to one of loving curiosity. We may discover that "strangers" include not just those we don't know, but familiar faces whose thoughts and commitments we have not considered deeply. Welcoming can mean making new friends, or making new room in our hearts for the ones we currently have. Jesus often asked questions when confronted with difficult situations. Non-leading questions may help individuals or the community move from a space of hurt or judgment towards a space of better understanding and grace, even if disagreement persists.

We have heard many stories over the course of the pandemic of individuals who felt hurt and rejected by faith communities that refused to take steps to adequately protect them from the risk of COVID infection. These include people such as pregnant mothers or young families with unvaccinated children. Some of the most painful involve individuals with chronic conditions affecting their immune systems, who feel cast aside or devalued by society under the best of circumstances, only to experience it even more keenly during the pandemic. Without minimizing these experiences, we also know that some who have higher risk budgets feel alienated from their more cautious siblings and struggle to understand their choices to remain apart. We know that those who struggle with COVID precautions sometimes express mental health concerns arising from isolation, and experience other barriers due to geography, finances, and life circumstances.

At the same time as we hold these places of compassion, we have also heard of communities that have found new ways to flourish and even grow amid COVID. Some of these, such as a children's ministry conducted by video, involved groundwork that had been laid in person before the pandemic. Others arose directly from the circumstances of COVID. While in-person worship services were difficult for them even before the pandemic, some immunocompromised individuals have found new ways to be connected with their church through online meetings, as have some individuals with dementia. A congregation in an isolated area has used the same technology to care for homebound members; other communities are able to include members snowbirding in other states, or even individuals living on another continent. Still others have taken to streaming worship online, broadcasting it to cars in their parking lot, or over the local radio station.

This should not be taken as a commandment to remain physically distant, or to hold up Zoom church as the model for gathering. Each community will have to discern for itself the best way of gathering. Whether in-person or remotely, this should include asking what implications COVID-safer practices, or their absence, have for how welcome members of the church and its neighbors and friends feel in the community. We invite congregations to rediscover the joy of serving members who are not able to be physically present, and welcoming the wider world into the community.

Care and concern for the vulnerable

"Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;
but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed." —Matthew 8:8

Christians are often reminded, and rightfully proud of their call to minister to widows, orphans, the poor, sick, imprisoned, and other individuals needing special care. As with so many aspects of life together, this calling has taken on new dimensions in light of COVID-19.

The first and most obvious concern is to provide for the physical safety of such individuals. It is important to recognize that their needs - and sensitivity - may last long after the bulk of the community is ready to return to familiar ways of life. To the extent possible, congregations should continue to provide for those needs in ways that do not place the burden on vulnerable individuals to protect themselves. Consider ways to mitigate or offset risk, such as requiring children and adults to mask in Sunday School classrooms, by improving airflow in the sanctuary, or continuing to hold business meetings over Zoom. Again, it is best to seek both-and solutions, rather than all-or-nothing.

In the same way, it is also important to recognize and accept the perspectives of especially vulnerable people. In particular, the feelings and ideas of the disabled are often discounted in our society. The pandemic has reinforced the idea with many that their voices are not heard and their lives are not valued. The church must recover an active sense of how people living with disabilities bear the image of God, and so deserve a central place in the conversations of the faith community.

By doing so, we may discover that the umbrella of disability is much wider than expected. An estimated one-in-four Americans live with some form of disability, whether physical, cognitive, or emotional, including people we may not think of. For example, individuals with compromised immune systems include those with rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, diabetes, heart, lung or kidney ailments, or who have received a transplant. Autism, mental health concerns, and other “invisible” disabilities are also considerations. Six out of ten Americans have an underlying condition that puts them at higher risk for severe illness if they contract COVID19. COVID itself is now being considered a mass disabling event, with many people receiving new diagnoses for chronic conditions after their initial recovery. COVID can complicate or prevent treatment for many of these conditions.

Christians may accept their own mortality, but they can never give up the responsibility to protect vulnerable individuals such as children under the age of 5, others who are unable to be vaccinated, or for whom vaccination may be less effective. There is an inescapable need to advocate for equity within faith communities and in the broader world, where many do not have equal access to vaccines, testing, or medical care to treat infections.

This is also a matter of self-concern, as recent evidence suggests that it is not just our own neighborhoods that determine COVID outcomes, but the communities those neighborhoods are connected to. Because pandemics take place in communities, caring for the vulnerable protects all. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane." We remember also Dr. King’s cry of interdependence in Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects on directly affects all indirectly.”

As the church seeks new life in a time beyond the COVID crisis, it will need to do so with a sense of the grace and goodness of Jesus Christ, who took initiative for the healing of all humanity.