Listening to the discussion surrounding the reopening of churches, Steve Bezner could see much of it revolved around a dichotomy of faith versus fear. As Bezner, pastor of Houston Northwest Church, and other church leaders studied the issue from a variety of angles, they began to see it differently.
“The more that we studied them, we began to see masks as love of neighbor or pride,” Bezner said. “So we decided that we would focus on love of neighbor and humility. Instead of framing the conversation in fear versus faith, we wanted to frame the conversation in terms of serving our neighbor.”
Because of this, the church decided when in-person worship services resume in early June, masks will be required.
As Texas churches make plans to gather once again, pastors across the state are wrestling with issues that have become controversial and mired in politics. The question of when and where to wear a mask is top on that list. While a Democracy Fund UCLA Nationscape Project poll earlier this week showed that 84 percent of Americans have worn a mask in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the issue has become a talking point by political leaders on the both sides of the spectrum.
Bezner says the decision to require worshipers to wear masks stems from research he and other leaders did on the virus itself. He communicated the decision and described the reasoning in a blog post last week.
“We know that right now the virus and responses to the virus are being politicized,” Bezner said. “We wanted to transcend political connotations. Instead, we wanted to try and access scientific data. So we used CDC primary documents. We read the studies that those CDC documents cited. Then we accessed more popular articles that distilled those CDC studies to a level that we could understand in laymen’s terms. Then, using that scientific data, we realized that the virus does indeed transmit through respiratory droplets. Consequently, we needed to use masks as a precautionary measure.”
Bezner and his team also took into consideration outbreaks that had occurred in other churches. He noted it appeared that those churches practiced social distancing, hand-washing, hand sanitizing and other preventive measures, but did not require attendees to wear masks.
Bezner said the church plans to open back up on June 7 with a limited “beta” test service, with limited attendance. If guests don’t have a facemask, the church will provide one. If guests do not want to wear a facemask, they will not be allowed to attend.
During the beta service, Bezner says the church will evaluate logistics of how to host a worship service with social distancing techniques and masks. He says the church will wear masks regardless. They simply want to test out some of the best practices of how to do so. He notes the church is still talking with doctors and trying to determine whether he and the church’s worship leaders will need a mask while on stage.
“Is that an experience that people want?” Bezner asked. “Is that an experience that is worshipful? Is that an experience that is tenable over the long haul? If so, we’ll continue. If not, then we can simply go back into our online worship platform.”
Bezner acknowledges that his own health issues (he has had heart failure since age 24) have likely helped to shape his views. But he says while people may be able to make an argument about personal rights when it comes to wearing masks in commercial locations, he believes they make little sense in a church environment.
“[Big corporations] do not care if I live or die. They only want my money,” Bezner said. “As a pastor, I care immensely about the people in my congregation, and I want them to live. It’s one thing for me to say that I want their business; it’s an entirely different matter for me to invite them into worship, put their lives in danger and then preach their funeral a month later. I take that matter very seriously.”
David Fannin, the pastor of Nassau Bay Baptist Church in Houston, also wanted to show care for the vulnerable in the congregation as he planned the church’s regathering. The church started meeting at 25 percent capacity the Sunday before Mother’s Day. They taped off every other pew. The church trained their ushers to seat people in ways where they wouldn’t need to walk or sit within six feet of others. Families could sit together.
The church is asking every person who comes in the building to wear a face mask, but once in the sanctuary there are two seating options: one area for those who want to wear masks, and another for those who don’t.
“Like most churches in Texas, we have people who think everybody should wear a mask because they have some autoimmune disease or something or just feel everybody should,” Fannin said. “And then we have others who think it’s ridiculous that anyone would wear a mask.”
Fannin notes that when the COVID-19 outbreak started, he was preaching through 1 Corinthians. During this period, he has switched and done some topical messages. This week, as the church moves up to about 175 in attendance, he’ll be preaching on 1 Corinthians 10 and specifically addressing Paul’s teaching about engaging with stumbling blocks for “weaker” believers.
“I’m preaching about fellowship and freedom, to do what you do out of love for your brothers,” Fannin said. “People occasionally ask me, ‘How do you know whether you’re preaching what the Lord wants you to preach?’ It’s this kind of stuff — you know, when you’ve been out of your normal sermon series preaching these topical sermons and you get back in and it’s exactly what the church needs to be able to deal with people in love. What’s fascinating about this is that if you ask people who want to wear a mask and the people who don’t want to wear a mask, both of them will tell you the other one is the weaker brother.”
Tobin Perry is a writer in Evansville, Ind.