For nearly five months we’ve been debating what it means for the church to submit to governing officials, but that debate has certainly intensified in recent weeks. On July 13, California governor Gavin Newsome announced a new round of restrictions for his state, prompting some California churches to openly defy orders to limit gatherings. Then, on July 29, the Supreme Court denied a request from a Nevada church to block enforcement of a state order to limit worship services to fifty people, despite Nevada casinos being permitted to exceed fifty people. Hey, at least Nevada can’t be accused of being unclear on their priorities.
But all this brings up questions about how we, as Summitview’s pastors, are viewing government-imposed restrictions. After all, we’re currently only meeting once a month, which is less than what we could be. Does that mean we’re seeing state guidelines as appropriate, and to even give some room between ourselves and the line they’ve drawn? Is that acquiescing to government overreach? Should we instead join with those California churches who are defying state orders? Well, let us try to explain how we’re seeing things, and hopefully provide a little clarity for any of you who are confused about our position.
Perhaps the first thing to understand is that our current decision-making is not primarily guided by government-imposed restrictions. That is, we haven’t been first asking, “What can we do?” Rather, we’ve been asking, “What’s best for our church in this current situation?” Let’s unpack that, beginning with a summary of our general attitude towards government at the moment.
How should we respond to government right now?
To sum up, we don’t currently think it’s appropriate to openly defy local restrictions. That may change at some point, but right now, we could put forward at least four reasons why we think it’s reasonable to adhere to the guidelines we’ve been given.
First, we do not believe our local restrictions are excessively stringent, and local government has shown willingness to work with churches. Larimer County is currently operating under a variance that allows houses of worship to meet in groups of up to 175 people. That variance could have even been rescinded by now. Originally, the variance was to be removed if the county recorded three days of 25+ new COVID cases within a 14-day period. We have already exceeded those three days several times over, but the variance is still in place. This demonstrates a willingness on the part of the state government to make efforts of accommodation.
Second, we don’t think that the state is currently targeting churches uniquely. As we have mentioned in recent sermons, we believe the New Testament provides a general encouragement to submit to governing authorities (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2, Titus 3), unless there is clear and concentrated discrimination that results in the prohibition of core church functions. Although there are questionable decisions to keep our eye on (e.g. leniency towards liquor stores, dispensaries, casinos, etc.), in general we do not believe that churches are being singled out here in Larimer County. We may be able to describe current government activity as an overreaction, but we have not yet been convinced that the state has crossed the line into a form of direct persecution that necessitates disobedience. What’s more, we do believe that we are still able to carry out the core functions of our church, either through larger meetings of 175, smaller house church meetings, or through a variety of other means. Also, we are in ongoing conversations with churches in the Fort Collins Church Network, and this view has been the general consensus.
Third, we seek to wisely pick our battles, based on if/when the government would require us to clearly disobey God and the Bible. Honestly, we think there’s a reasonable likelihood that state persecution of churches could become a reality in the future. If it becomes evident that the government is specifically and intentionally restricting churches because they’re churches, then we would most certainly respond. If or when that time comes, we want to be resolute in our stance and not have it diluted by previous times of crying wolf.
Fourth, we would like to first pursue dialogue with governing officials before open defiance. Prior to being granted the variance, church leaders in Fort Collins were in contact with the governor, and considering what to do if restrictions remained for an extended period of time. Once the variance was granted, there was not as much of a pressing need to press for leniency. If restrictions became more stringent, we would first likely pursue, along with other local church leaders, an open conversation with governing officials in an effort to contribute to the shaping of policy.
So currently, we do not believe it’s appropriate to reject government guidelines. Now, could that all change at any time? Yes. Perhaps we will feel the need to cross lines that the government has drawn. We just don’t think that time has come yet. And for more in-depth discussion, you might check out the following articles to dive deeper into issues related to church and freedom: “Further Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian Freedom” by Jonathan Leeman and “Covid, Christians, & the Civil Magistrate” by Keith Mathison.
So what are we doing?
Still, you might ask if we’re being overly cautious. You can understand submitting to the government, but we’re not even meeting as much as is allowed. So what’s our rationale behind our current large group meeting schedule?
Well, for the last five months, our goal has been to try to understand what God is specifically intending to teach us through our situation. We believe that God crafts life circumstances, even the hard ones, to produce something good in his church. What might God be trying to shape in us right now?
First, we think this is a fresh opportunity to cultivate church community life in smaller, more intimate settings. After several months of house church meetings, we were somewhat surprised at much of the feedback we received that told of how much life was being found in house churches. Although it’s not the universal experience, many people discovered a depth of fellowship that they had not been previously experiencing. As we observed that, we sensed that God wanted to renew an emphasis on smaller communities. Now, that’s not to say there’s not great value in the large group meeting. We believe that a healthy church balances both a large and small group expression. We just felt that for these months, God was intending to refine some small group values and practices, and we have been excited to let him do that. Besides, as we look ahead to the future, we wonder if the Christian church in general will need to be ready to “do church” in smaller settings.
Second, we have been weighing the cost-benefit of meeting as a large group in our current situation. Meeting as a large group right now certainly requires some work on the part of pastors and staff. We’re definitely willing to put in that work, but we also have to gauge whether or not there’s a substantial return on that investment, and whether or not staff time can be used more effectively elsewhere. As we have been in discussion with other pastors whose churches reopened early, the consistent report has been that those churches have been experiencing one third or less of the attendance that they were previously experiencing. Anticipating that we could experience something similar, the main question we have been wrestling with is whether or not it’s worth it to break up our house church model, which has seemingly been very fruitful, in order to pull off a service that may still only touch a smaller portion of our church.
All that said, we don’t believe that this current arrangement is going to last forever, and it may change in the very near future. Our hope is to take what we’ve learned in recent months related to the small scale, to incorporate it into our normal practices, and then renew and bolster the large group expression as well. As for now, though, we invite you to join us in trying to receive God’s instruction in this time, and not to first ask questions of what we can or can’t do, but instead what God wants to teach us in a specific, focused way.
And if it comes down to it, maybe we’ll add some slot machines to the lobby to expand our meeting capacity 🙂
The Summitview Pastors