By Pastor Sean
Dear New Life in Christ Church Family,
One year ago today I wrote my first newsletter about the COVID-19 pandemic and our church’s response to it.
On March 15, 2020 we had our normal morning service, but the first signs of the pandemic concern were reflected in our low attendance. The week after that, the state was on a lockdown and we were limited to 10 people at our worship services until May. By God’s grace, we met every week at the church with many other participating by our livestream each week.
Since this started, we’ve learned a lot. I wanted to spend this newsletter reflecting on four things that I’ve learned during this pandemic and where I am now.
First, I’ve learned that meeting in person is very important.
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)
I don’t have time to comment on all the things the early church was dealing with, but one reason they had to not to meet together was persecution. They risked their lives and reputation to meet.
The passage in Hebrews touches on something that we have seen during this pandemic — it is very important for Christians to gather together. We are called to worship together, to pray together, to grieve together and to encourage one another. While there is a lot to pray about in terms of the loss of life, health, and livelihood in our nation and world, I want to focus on the loss of worship.
During this time, we have seen a rise of depression among the people of our nation. This is certainly true of our teens and singles. They’re probably more affected by this than others, as their primary social outlets are school, sports, work and church. But it is also true of all of us. Social distancing makes us depressed, and it is not healthy to wonder if everybody around us as a potential health risk. The Bible is also clear that it is not good for any of us to be alone (Genesis 2:18), and this is speaking of more than just marriage, it speaks to the basic human need to be around other people. Not having that affects us in a number of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual ways. We see it in the headlines, and we see it among the lives of the people at our church.
Just coming back to church has been a sigh of relief to many. There is a great joy when we can be together again after a long separation. This palpable joy is one of my great delights as I see people come back to church.
The need to meet in person is also important because of the spiritual dangers that we face. The simple pattern of gathering together is critical in becoming disciples of Jesus. He forms us by our habits. The pull of the world is strong. It tells us to invest everything that we have into ourselves, into our security, into our acceptance, into our power and control. God tells us to love him and to love our neighbor and to give ourselves to Him as living sacrifices (Romans 12:2).
While we are very happy for our online streaming, we believe that it is only a temporary measure to get us through this pandemic. It should not be a long-term strategy for personal discipleship, or the discipleship of our families. One of the things that church forces us to consider on a weekly basis is, “What does it mean to be part of God’s people? What does it mean to be part of the body of Christ?” We see now how physical fellowship with one another is very important.
There is also the practical aspect of the medium by which we learn. While we are so happy that the service can be streamed into our living rooms and on to our computers, we also realize that our screens contain many messages. With a television or a computer that streams Netflix before service and football games after, we may wonder if the message gets drowned out. Physical presence is one of those things that lifts up the message of the Christian gospel from these other messages, especially in the minds and hearts of our children.
Again, each person needs to make their own health decisions about attending church. I have just been ever mindful of the importance of meeting together. I knew Hebrews 10: 25 was accurate before COVID-19, but I didn’t catch the weightiness of it until we were told that we shouldn’t meet, and time and distance has had its play. I believe that comfort with staying home for worship will be the weeds that choke the seed of the gospel in many hearts, both adults and children. I ask, in love, that you remain uncomfortable with home worship and see that, even if we need it for a while, it is not God’s long-plan for any of His church. And pray to the Lord Jesus for the end of this pandemic so that God’s people can fully and confidently gather together again.
Second, I have learned that we can meet together for worship safely.
Once the parameters for meeting changed in May, we immediately opened more seats for in-person worship. And we thought of ways to do that safely. We went to two services, we spread out our chairs, and we asked people to social distance between families. We believe Lord’s Day worship is a specific command, so we focused our attention on that and let the other ministries wait for a few months.
Well, you never know how things are going to work until it is tested, and after 10 months of meeting together, we know that we can meet together safely. The simple practice of social spacing of at least 6 feet has kept any spread from taking place.
Part of meeting together safely has been accommodating different needs. We have one room dedicated to the highest of safety measures, and another room that requires mask wearing. I am grateful for our space, and our leaders who made this a possibility, and I have heard many words of appreciation that the church could make these accommodations available.
While I cannot make any guarantees (and I am a pastor, not a doctor or epidemiologist) I believe we have proven that the primary worship service is safe, and with alternative worship options available, people can be confident in gathering together for worship.
Third, I’ve learned that we need to keep our eyes on Jesus.
Something like the pandemic can bring us together or tear us apart. Across the nation and world, I believe most people have asked this question, “How can people thrive best through and beyond this pandemic?” Despite the fact that we might ponder the same question, we come up with many different answers. And so our nation is polarized.
We have learned over the last year that Jesus Christ is the only One who can truly unite us. We also realize that we don’t have to agree on everything together to have true fellowship. We don’t have to associate only with people who agree with us on everything. That is because only in Jesus Christ will we find our unity.
We knew at the beginning, and we continued to see that different people are going to have different responses to things like the pandemic. That’s OK. It doesn’t severe or endanger the fellowship that we have in Christ, unless we let it severe that connection through our words and actions.
I have learned that I will be happier and enjoy closer fellowship with God and each other when we are able to agree on the main things and keep those in focus in our worship, let other things of lesser importance go, and serve one another. Sure, it’s OK to talk about differences we have, it’s even good . But we don’t have to convince everyone that we are right and they are wrong . We don’t have to belittle people for their situation or their different opinions. We may even learn and grow from each other as we listen and learn.
Fourth, I have learned how God’s people love his church.
I have been so encouraged by the faithfulness of this congregation to continue to participate in the worship of God. Even when you haven’t been able to attend in person, they continued to go online to participate there. I am encouraged by those who have been attending care groups and continuing to fellowship with each other. Stories of your faithfulness have been a great encouragement to me. When we calculate our attendance, whether in person, or registering online, we see that we are about 80% of our pre-COVID attendance in person, and we have a higher attendance when we combine both of the mediums.
I have also been encouraged by the giving of the church. Just think about it, one year ago we stopped passing a plate. And yet our giving has continued to go up this year and is even higher than it was last year by this point. It is the heart of God building generosity in God’s people which has enabled us to continue this ministry and our outreach to the community. Last year, when many received stimulus checks, they made extra contributions to our Deacons Fund. Through this, our deacons have been able to assist people struggling from this pandemic locally and around the world. This generosity has made difference in the ministry of the gospel.
I have been encouraged by people speaking with one another about places of conflict, and people having humble hearts to apologize.
Finally, I just want to mention the volunteer hours that have gone into the continuing ministry of the church. As you know, COVID makes everything harder. It is harder to have two services than one, and adding a Sunday school class in the middle makes it little bit more difficult. We have less people attending each week, and a little more work to do. Despite this, many people have stepped into the gap to volunteer, and we appreciate you. Our elders in working harder to connect with people, our youth and children’s leaders have had to flex to keep these ministries going, other ministry leaders have suffered and set aside their life work for the past 10 months, and our deacons who gone the extra mile to meet some of our mercy needs. We are so grateful.
I’m sure I could go on beyond those four, but this has been long enough already. What have you learned during this pandemic? What is God taught you? I’d be curious to know, email me and let me know.
Thanks for your faithfulness and love.