Saturday, July 4, 2020

Believers find way around regulation that limits church attendance numbers

First it was imbibers being creative around the temporary ban on alcohol, now it is blood-washed believers being creative around a regulation that limits public gatherings to 50 people. Whereas the former home-brewed moonshine, the latter are quenching their thirst for worship by expanding a worship service called “home cell.”

The COVID-19 regulations limit the number of congregants attending a worship service to 50 – which in some cases represents less than 10 percent of the entire flock. This is causing a great deal of consternation in a society where believers had become accustomed to attending church twice or thrice during weekdays and hardly ever miss the main service on a weekend. In order to accommodate everyone, churches have developed rosters of which congregants should attend services when but this is not good enough for some.

The solution has come in the form of expanding home cells – small-group worship services hosted by congregants at their houses on a rotational basis. Whereas in the past home cells would be made up of small numbers of friends and last for a short period of time, the numbers are growing, the services are getting longer and enforcement of the COVID-19 public health regulations at some services is not stringent enough. Sunday Standard has direct knowledge of a home cell that meets every Sunday, lasts for some five hours and some of the people who attend don’t always wear cloth face masks.

While a home cell may provide spiritual sustenance, it certainly doesn’t equate to the properly structured worship service at a church, not least because the service is not led by pastors – who are star attractions at some churches. To revert to the alcohol analogy, the home cell deficiencies in liturgy and live music means that it is no different from St Louis 24, the alcohol-free “beer” that the Kgalagadi Breweries Limited may have tired of hustling.

If home cells grow any larger and don’t observe the COVID-19 public health regulations, they could become a very serious public health problem. Ironically, the government is itself directly responsible for the expanding home cell because of amendments to the Societies Act that were brought by the former Minister of Nationality, Immigration and Gender Affairs, Edwin Batshu. Worried about the mushrooming of sometimes exploitative churches, the government decided to amend the Act such that the number of people required to form a religious organisation increased from 10 to 150. Small congregations would have mitigated the spread of coronavirus but in fairness to Batshu, he had no way of knowing that three years later, there would be an outbreak of a disease whose spread is aided by large gatherings.

The other irony is that while a gathering of 50 believers is considered low, the government had originally proposed a limit of 10. However, a special parliament session increased the number to 50 – which represented a 400 percent increase.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.