Richard Davis: What social distancing has taught me about religion

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President Russell M. Nelson, in a virtually empty auditorium at the Church Office Building, watches conference proceedings on a monitor April 4, 2020.

When people I know have been social media posting recently about their experiences with “home church,” one said that she had been doing “home church” for some years and enjoyed it.

Frankly, she was admitting that she was, in the LDS vernacular, “less active.” But all Latter-day Saints are now, in a sense, “less active.” And it is quite likely those of us in my faith tradition (as well as others belonging to other churches) will remain that way for some weeks and maybe months to come.

Ironically, despite the fact that church buildings now stand empty, it is likely many church members are still being spiritually nourished by their “home church” experiences. They are partaking of the sacrament or communion at home, studying the scriptures with their families, and instructing their children in Gospel principles.

When this pandemic has run its course and social distancing is a thing of the past, many people may wonder about the necessity of going to church — any church — to be spiritually uplifted when that task has been performed more simply in the home. Indeed, some may feel they have been better nourished in the “home church” than in a church building.

There are some lessons I have learned that others may have learned as well. These might predict how our church life could be in the future, particularly in light of the experiences of “home church.”

One is the purpose of worship. Too often we can be distracted from using church for personal spiritual growth by a preoccupation with social interaction, including who is in attendance (or not), what they are doing while in church, and so on. Also, there is an emphasis on dressing a certain way — such as suits, white shirts, and ties for men and dresses for women — to fit a particular expected outward appearance.

“Home church” lacks those distractions. There is no social component. No one’s behavior concerns us. Nor do we have to impress anyone else with how we dress or act. We all may become accustomed to that lack of pretense.

When we return, will we become less concerned with what outward appearance we (and others) are supposed to maintain? Will there be more of a “come as you are” approach — both spiritual and physical?

Another lesson regards the role of process. Traditional church becomes adherence to certain routines. Only prescribed hymns can be sung. Prayers are offered a certain way. The schedule and curriculum for meetings and classes is pre-determined.

“Home church” can depart from that process. Members can sing what they want, pray the way they want, and follow what order they want in worship. They can study whatever inspirational messages they want and when they want to do so. Frankly, to many members, that flexibility will seem liberating.

Once again, to attract back to traditional church those who now may prefer the flexibility of “home church,” will there be more adaptability? Will general church control over local worship services be relaxed in terms of the order of meetings, what hymns can be sung, uniform reading schedules and what members discuss in church classes?

Another lesson regards trust of members. In the traditional church, members’ behavior often is counted and monitored. Records are kept of their attendance at classes.

In the “home church,” church leaders do not know how many people are holding “home church,” or using the curriculum of the church. No counts are taken. No names are recorded. No interviews for worthiness are conducted.

In the “home church,” members apply “correct principles” and then govern themselves rather than having to be counted and monitored. When we return to traditional church, will there be less concern about monitoring members’ behavior and more trust that members will do the right thing without counting or recording?

This pandemic will change the world for some time to come. But, will it change religious adherents’ attitudes about religiosity? And will it alter churches’ approaches to their own members given their experience with “home church” for even just a few months?

Richard Davis

Richard Davis, Orem, is author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics.”