Coronavirus: Pick a side.

Truth is, most of us already have. We either think this is the greatest threat in humanity’s history or feel we’re long overdue to get our businesses, activities and lives back from quarantine restrictions. And for most of us, our opinion has been largely crafted by the biased coverage from whatever our source of “news” is. Want proof? Log on to social media and ask, “Should we be wearing masks?” then watch the battle.

We’ve also been reminded (frequently) about the death toll related to the virus, and what we must do to prevent its spread. We’ve also heard of businesses closing, struggling airlines and tourism industries, the difficulty resurrecting amateur sports safely, and controversy about sending our kids back to school.

But where do places of worship fall? If you’re in Canada, don’t count on them coming back like they used to, if they come back at all.

Like the majority of provinces and territories in Canada, British Columbia’s hospitals have been virtually empty with people suffering from life-threatening side effects related to COVID-19. In fact, an “outbreak” of 20 people is considered around-the-clock news.

Given the panic our press created when people began getting infected in Western nations, our governments were forced to address the fear from a virus nobody seemed to know how to interpret.

Therefore, the initial restrictions, though harsh, were accepted by a willing public as we trusted our government-appointed health officials to make the best decisions for our well-being despite shaky data.

And we accepted those restrictions based on our blind trust they would be lifted once our society could flatten the curve. Of course, we now know the “flatten the curve” model was temporary, and probably implemented to prevent hysteria. What our governments continue to advocate and where we emerge in the future is still undetermined, although most of us often talk optimistically about the end game.

If you reviewed the BC government’s initial web page detailing its COVID response protocol and phase-in stages, you would have read about the restrictions placed on different areas of our economy, entertainment, and so forth. Phase four, the final stage in the recovery, was only attainable once a vaccine becomes available or some other form of unspecified broad treatment can be implemented. And if the public agrees to be, or is mandated to get inoculated, or agrees to the remedy. This, of course, could mean phase four is never reached.

Initially, the government had nothing in its protocol to refer to places of worship, and I reached out to ask why and whether churches, temples, and those offering spiritual services would fit into one of the other categories. The response didn’t surprise me.

First, the Ministry of Health staffer who returned my letter applauded the government this past summer for giving places of worship the option to have gatherings. With a cap of no more than 50 people in the building, a church or a temple can still meet provided its attendees adhere to the additional rules the government had instituted to prevent the spread of COVID. I believe he was saying we should be thankful?

Further, while they acknowledged they had the right and the duty to shut down different areas of the province, reopening places of worship was outside the government’s responsibility. Except providing the guidelines and restrictions which shut most of them down initially, any further guidance on reopening places of worship is not in the Ministry’s purview, which means they won’t take any action while the political consequences don’t look damaging. No mention, unsurprisingly, where the responsibility would lie to reopen.

And the letter closed by telling me I couldn’t share this information with anyone.

Since the letter, the BC government updated its response website to include a small section on places of worship with additional, prohibitive guidelines relating to baptism, communion, gatherings and tithing. Phase four talks about large gatherings for sports, concerts and conventions, but ignores places of worship. Not in their “purview,” remember.

And is the Christian community outraged, or even a little concerned? Apparently not.

One pastor I spoke with agreed with the restrictions and told me they didn’t envision resuming in-person services for at least a year and a half. Another pastor told me their staff would re-evaluate their position sometime in the fall.

A survey conducted during the summer by one church in Surrey about the comfort of the congregation returning to meeting in person had some startling feedback. According to the senior pastor who relayed his findings to me, most responses were radically opposed to coming back unless everybody wore masks, would never sing, and had proof of being vaccinated. Even more alarming, among the community of pastors he spoke with regularly, not one had any interest in bringing in-person services back, at least for the time being.

In the United States, several examples of congregations defying lockdown orders have emerged including lawsuits against state governors, protecting worshippers from protesters, and creative methods to meet on beaches, in hardware stores, and even casinos.

And Canada?

We are almost entirely sitting politely on our hands thinking our government knows best and will honestly open us up when our safety is securely taken care of.

If you hadn’t thought about this so far, ask your pastor how many baptisms your church has performed in the past year. Probably zero. And how many new Christians has your church been involved in leading to Christ during that same period? Again, likely zero. And these are just two of dozens of examples where our governments have succeeded in “flattening the curve,” except they’ve done it in Christian growth and outreach, in addition to COVID infections and deaths. Yet we tolerate it. Why?

During my correspondence with our health authority, they told me the biggest complaint, right now, given to Fraser Health (British Columbia) involves how the Ministry has barred parents from joining their 17-year old children in the hospital. Yes, the state has decided the child or itself has the right to decide care and treatment for your child, who almost certainly doesn’t know his/her medical history or medical allergies. However, pimps still have the freedom to bring 14-year old runaways in for emergency abortions, and be present to ensure the child doesn’t answer any questions regarding their safety.

Speaking to the Emergency Room Manager at Peace Arch Hospital, he addressed the suggestion of allowing parents to wear the same protective gear hospital staff already wear: gowns, masks, gloves. If we’re trying to protect the parents as the protocol advises, perhaps this could bridge the divide? Not so. He said wearing this PPE would not prevent parents from contracting COVID, or from spreading the virus to others. Revealing.

And this policy remains in place despite the death of Ariis Knight, a woman with cerebral palsy who was admitted to Peace Arch Hospital and denied a support worker or family member to communicate for her.

For the misguided policy of apparently keeping COVID out, they brought the Grim Reaper in as a replacement.

At least the hospital offered the family their condolences once she died after treating her needs as irrelevant.

Of course, by now we’ve all heard about (if not experienced) care homes banning spouses, children, grandchildren and friends from visiting seniors needing support. The most lonely and vulnerable have been forced into even more isolation regardless of their input, or anybody who would advocate for them.

Another friend lost his father to cancer a couple of months ago. In fact, when diagnosed two years prior, the medical staff were bang on when they shared his likely life expectancy. Oddly, his passing was listed as a COVID death until our friend contacted his care home to complain. They told him they would respond to change the cause of death to reflect the truth.

Both the BC and federal governments have been recommending citizens download a tracking application on their cell phones under the premise of notifying everybody who has come in contact with a COVID positive person. If you don’t want it on your phone because of privacy concerns, for now, that is your right. Allegedly. However, when you read the fine print, the Ministry of Health tells you to review the phone app’s privacy policy, immediately after listing several reasons why those policies won’t tell you what data it collects or why.

If you live in Massachusetts, your child can’t go to school without a flu vaccination. Vaccinations are a contentious issue for many parents, and in the northeastern United States, the government has forced some to decide how to educate their children. Could a COVID vaccine be forced on children now, considering multiple have been developed? Apparently in Massachusetts, likely it will be.

Weddings cancelled. 2020 graduations compromised, and the class of 2021 doesn’t even know what a grad memory is. Domestic and substance abuse flourishing. CERB payments are unchecked. The special needs community devastated. Face masks filling up our landfills, oceans and waterways.

And church apathy has peaked.

So what are we doing about any of this?

Most days I have the privilege to read something from a high-profile Christian personality who uses their social media presence to praise God or discuss something which inspired them to see Jesus working beyond the shutdowns and the panic. For me, these are encouraging stories, especially when I know many of them will face backlash for their posts.

I read about the church growing in China, Iran, and India, where persecution is a fact of life for Christians in these countries. But risking their lives is worth fellowship with other Christians, of reading their Bibles, of serving God.

Most of us know of the 20 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Libya, refusing to renounce their allegiance to Christ, even setting an example to the one non-Christian who converted after the others’ brave witnessing.

And we sit at home, whine a little to a few people in our family before checking out another TV rerun or look at our phone.

If we’re hoping for leaders in our pastoral community to take charge and press our governments to reconsider the value to our society our churches provide, I argue we will be waiting forever. Even jailed Pastor James Coates with GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, Alberta is considered an enemy based on the stream of hate mail from other Christians who demonstrate a unique way of loving their neighbour.

Of course, I’m not so naive to think many Christians currently believe most of us will die if we ever open them up again, thus enforcing the argument for pastors, and more importantly, governments, to keep our churches closed.

But when we evaluate the community we served, the effort we once put in to build relationships with God and others, and the Christian growth we once experienced, we can’t honestly say having our churches closed has had a greater impact than before the lockdown.

Again, how many people do you know who have explored Christ and accepted him as saviour since March of last year? Witnessed any public declarations recently? The outreach programs your church used to initiate, how are they going these days?

Today, our churches are severely restricted because of COVID. Tomorrow, maybe influenza or the common cold will be grounds to keep them shut?

After all, people also die from complications related to those ailments.

As mentioned, BC’s Ministry of Health has decided parents are prohibited from joining their 17-year old children at the hospital. Despite the push back, the government is standing firm, insisting this policy is to protect our health. So this mentality is ripe for lowering the age where parents can’t join their children during their care. Heaven forbid, once a COVID positive person is admitted, patients are sentenced to a lonely, loveless existence until they can be released. If they get released. And tomorrow, maybe all children and people with disabilities will be left to the care of the state.

Today, BC is rolling out its vaccination program. But many are reluctant to embrace it, and others have vowed to never trust. Herd immunity is impossible when we’re being asked to avoid people and create a sterile environment, which leaves us vulnerable to other viruses and diseases. Tomorrow may include forced vaccinations. In fact, our premier, John Horgan already announced a different set of privileges for people who have been vaccinated and greater restrictions for those who aren’t.

Proof our government continues to feel more at ease entering into an arena where the match has been fixed guaranteeing them the victory against a disabled opponent.

Three Fraser Valley churches held services with the intention of challenging the government measures forcing their closure in court. And while the judge agreed their Constitutional rights were violated, BC’s Public Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, has the greater right to make any determination she chooses as long as she claims her decision is for health and safety.

Keeping our government buildings closed, our parliament and legislative assemblies virtually empty, and passing any legislation without debate or scrutiny is absolutely politically convenient. Whether we want to make our governments realize we aren’t happy with the closures is another story. Sadly, I sense they’ve done a brilliant job convincing too many of us an open church is among the biggest part of the problem.

This means the future for the church will look dramatically different from the church which has traditionally given us security and comfort in the past.

The responsibility for our growth, development and outreach is going to fall more on our own shoulders, and our gatherings will be forced to find options away from the buildings and schools we used to have the freedom to meet in. Because the government has decided church gatherings are much too dangerous for the public good. Which, by the way, is a 0.002% infection rate if you want to gauge the severity we were causing.

In 2 Kings 21, God has a chilling proclamation for Judah and their wicked king, Manasseh. “I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and hand them over to their enemies. They will be looted and plundered by all their foes, because they have done evil in my eyes and have provoked me to anger,” say verses 13-15.

And that’s only part of the disastrous messaging.

Many of us know the declaration Jonah made to Ninevah, where he said, “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned.” Of course, everybody in the city repented, and even the animals were included in the fasting and suffering, and God relented, sparing Ninevah the disaster he said he was going to bring upon them.

Unlike Ninevah, God wasn’t going to spare Judah, but when Manasseh’s grandson, Josiah, took the throne, he showed passionate leadership where the Bible records, “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with the Law of Moses,” 2 Kings 23:25.

And God noticed. “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before me and tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the LORD. Now I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place and on those who live here.”

Josiah didn’t take the warning lying down.

He actively went to the spiritual leaders in Jerusalem, gathered everybody in the country, read them the Book of the Covenant and had the people pledge to follow God’s commands with their entire hearts and souls. He beckoned his people to stop giving lip service and recognize their future was in their hands. He knew. He tried.

But people being people, when Josiah died, they went back to what seemed easiest and in the years which followed, Judah was destroyed and most of the people were deported.

Revival is happening in our world, we just don’t hear about it from our media. In fact, our media is determined to undermine the news which we need to hear. Mainstream media refuses to report scientific breakthroughs or accurate data related to COVID, instead only focusing on the broad category of how many died, or how many are infected. This is the most morbid method to relay the bad news. Social media bans all information that promotes anything positive about COVID treatment or speaks outside the gloomy, end of the world narrative the mainstream media endorses.

And according to my friend who mans the 24-hour nurse’s hotline, the media message is working when 100 percent of the calls are to deal with the fear of dying from COVID, or where to get an abortion. Nothing else.

An awakening is happening in our land. Outside of the small but noisy socialist movement occurring in our Western nations, the unchurched and the formerly churched have been re-examining their purpose and status with God. Pastor Coates, for example, (in his last sermon before being arrested) on February 14th argued his Biblical understanding of where church and government collide, and pointed his listeners to reject what our elected leaders claim is theirs when it belongs to us.

Many in the Christian community have had their hearts provoked to do something, anything, but don’t know how to respond because we don’t have our traditional leaders speaking up, giving us guidance beyond the traditional Christian approaches we’ve been used to.

We are now targets, but I’m arguing we’re still being led by the same talking points as if the church is unchanged and under no threats whatsoever.

Certainly, running a church during this time is more challenging than most of us can appreciate. And taking a risk of a COVID outbreak would be vilified in the media. I understand the caution.

But I also see Christians risking actual persecution and death in nations like China, India and Iran, and I’m sitting on my hands like a wimp doing nothing for the sake of Christ who died so we can live. Actually, Christians in China pray for people like me who haven’t had to face adversity to appreciate the sacrifice made by Christ for my benefit. No more.

I need to stand up on behalf of Christians here in Canada and on behalf of those who pray for my well-being in nations where they go to jail or worse for acknowledging God.

I’d encourage you to do the same.

Did you know Hulk Hogan was a Christian? I didn’t. But early during the COVID pandemic, he posted a cryptic message on his own social media. I’ll close with his post:

“[…]In three short months, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away everything we worship. God said, ‘you want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down Civic Centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don’t want to go to church and worship Me, I will make it where you can’t go to church.'”

“If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Maybe we don’t need a vaccine, Maybe we need to take this time of isolation from the distractions of the world and have a personal revival where we focus on the ONLY thing in the world that really matters. Jesus.”