Social Distancing Is in Our Faith’s DNA

Like many pastors, I lead a faith community that is beginning to think carefully on how we will gather again physically during this pandemic in a way that is safe. Guidance continues to suggest some of the things we take for granted in our worship, like singing, should be avoided. The closeness we feel through handshakes, hugs, laughter, and deep conversation become vectors for the transmission of this disease which can harm so many.

I know the question for many Christians will be – is it church if we gather without hugs? Is it church if we cannot lift our voices together in praise and lament from the depths of our hearts? Is it church if we must maintain six feet of physical distance and minimize our time together for one another’s safety? Is it church if our practice at the communion table focuses more on sanitization than celebration? All of these realities make these decisions so difficult because we know, from previous pandemics and the nearly 100,000 lives already lost, life and death is at stake. When we do gather, it may not feel like the church we once knew.

And yet I recognize somehow that social distancing is woven into the very DNA of the church’s story.

Jesus regularly distanced himself, going out to pray to renew and recharge, and often invited his disciples to the wilderness or mountaintop or middle of the lake to wait upon God’s presence, away from the commotion of crowds and expectations.

The early church sustained itself and passed on stories and wisdom through the writing of letters, which we call the Epistles, instructing and encouraging early communities of disciples in how to live faithfully in anxious, oppressive times. Some of these letters were even crafted from prison cells.

The desert fathers and mothers fled the Roman Empire into the wilderness to wrestle with their inadequacies, pray in community, and pursue Jesus away from distraction and corruption. Generations of monastic orders continued that practice to this day, some even around the corner from where you might be reading this.

And there have always been those who have been turned away by church structures and leaders and had to form their own socially distant networks, resources, and communities to foster alternate narratives and ways of holy living, speaking words of affirmation and justice to those marginalized and wounded by systems of power.

Perhaps social distance for people of faith provides an opportunity to save lives not just from a pandemic but also from systemic evils that take lives everyday by providing us a time to look at what exists, critique it, and reimagine what might be. Reimagine a church where no one is socially distanced by the misuse of power. Reimagine a church where the care of the most vulnerable is at the core of who we are. And live into that imagination.