Which is Riskier: Joining Protest Marches or Attending Physical Worship Services?

Written by Ryun Chang
Disclaimer: My view expressed here does not necessarily represent the respective views of other AMI pastors.  

On May 4, when a friend showed up for a walk without wearing a mask, I was a bit taken aback. At a time when the fear of COVID-19 was exacerbated by a vastly exaggerated death rate, I wasn’t quite ready for it. And since the theory behind how coronavirus is transmitted was still fluctuating, wearing a mask, even outdoors, appeared prudent. But on June 2, a day after I flew to Houston to help my son move back home, an unexpected involvement allayed any doubts I had about attending indoor worship services.
Soon after arriving, my son told me that the family of George Floyd, originally from Houston, was slated to make a speech at an outdoor gathering the next day. He then asked whether I wanted to attend. Interested to hear what Floyd’s family had to say and concerned for my son’s safety (protests turned into rioting days earlier), I went.
What I naively didn’t anticipate was a big march that would precede the rally. Everyone wore a mask, it seemed, but social distancing was impossible amid 60,000 marchers walking shoulder to shoulder, many of whom repeatedly shouting their grievances.
The thought certainly occurred to me that my son and I could contract coronavirus—no matter how carefully we behaved—but it was too late to reconsider. (Thank God we apparently didn’t.) Instead, having decided to make the most of it by paying attention to what the impassioned crowd was saying, the march became an opportunity to claim solidarity with other citizens who voiced their outrage at the dehumanization of Floyd by a brutal cop.
Soon after the march I realized something else: once the church could reopen, I effectively lost any excuse not to attend physical worship services. Now, I am aware that several advocates of protest marches are offering reasons “why protests aren’t as dangerous for spreading coronavirus as you might think.”
However, an opinion piece by that title posted in “The Guardian” on June 18 must have been written by someone who never walked in these marches. After correctly pointing out that coronavirus is likely to spread more widely in indoors than outdoors, the writer said incredulously, “The risk of infection from outdoor protests is further reduced by the striking consistency with which demonstrators wear masks, and often make efforts of maintain personal distance.” Really?
If “a picture is indeed worth a thousand words,” then what question would arise from seeing a pair of pictures taken of my son and me—one taken at the Houston march and the other, at a Sunday service held inside of Canvas City Church in Philadelphia this past Sunday?
Would you have felt safer at the protest march where, in contrast to the Guardian writer, the distance among people around me was so nonexistent that my ears vibrated every time they screamed at the top of their lungs (not to mention what seeped out of their masks) than in this indoor church service where social distancing (of 10+ feet) was assiduously followed? Unless one is an ideologue, the answer is NO, particularly since the U.S. Surgeon General prefers staying 6 feet part over wearing masks “at the expense of social distancing.”
My point? If you, as a believer, think that going to these protests in the name of justice is imperative, then, please refrain from criticizing those who, while donning a mask and maintaining social distancing, attend physical services to worship God.
Furthermore, if you are a believer who went to one of these protests, then, you, like me, have run out of excuses to stay at your home on Sundays. I would venture to say this includes those believers who don’t mind socializing in person on a Saturday evening but will stay home the next day.
Instead of getting upset for feeling judged, consider this possibility: because we, in our comfort, don’t stand up for our core spiritual values, civil authorities, including the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, consider churches—unlike casinos and liquor stores—nonessential.
And don’t feign surprise because many individuals occupying important institutions in America, including civil authorities, will not lose an-iota-of-sleep over closed church doors. They are mostly secular liberals (i.e., not Left, yet) who have long disdained churches and disparaged those who attend them.  I am certain today’s mainstream media still agrees with Michael Weisskopf, former senior writer for the “Time Magazine”, who said in a 1993 front-page article in “The Washington Post” that Christian conservatives are “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.”
Most academics would agree with P. Z. Myers, professor of biology at University of Minnesota, who described the nonessentiality of the church like this: “Religion . . . is like knitting. People like to knit. We are not going to take the knitting needles away. But . . . religion [should be] treated at the level it should be treated, that is, something fun that people get together and do on the weekends and really doesn’t affect their lives.”
And the intrusive way some governors and mayors have handled the church of the living God (e.g., you can gather but “discontinue singing and chanting activities”) isn’t too far from what Bill Maher once suggested: “If you are going to regulate anything that has the most potential to cause death and destruction, [it’s] religion.”
Wake up, church! Amid social justice messages gaining a considerable traction in many pulpits in America, recognize that that is not the first thing. Recall that one day Jesus’ disciples got upset when they saw a woman pouring expensive ointment to anoint his feet. Seeing that act as a waste, they said, “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor” (Mt. 26:9).
Not that Jesus disagreed with such a suggestion stressing social justice (Mt. 25:31-46), he, nevertheless, said, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Mt. 26:10-11). That beautiful thing, of course, is the worshipping of the Lord in a total surrender, which should always come first.
Of course, worshiping God privately in front of a screen at the convenience of our homes, particularly in submission to the directives of civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-7), counts. But, as long as we prefer that expedient alternative over worshiping God in our place of corporate worship—as it was modelled for us in the Early Church—and remain deathly silent over not being able to do so, secular liberals who run our civil authorities will continue to classify the church as nonessential.
Perhaps, it is a time for the church to call out the excess of the state in the tradition of John the Baptist who told King Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mk. 6:18).
“Dear governor, to the followers of Christ worshiping God is more important than joining protest marches. Since you are eager to allow the latter (shouting and all), disallowing the former (singing and all) is unequal application of the law. The spread of coronavirus cuts both ways. Therefore, allow places of worship to open so that God is worshiped, and prayers are offered for the healing of our broken nation.”