Update: On Sunday, March 15, our governor asked us to cease all gatherings of over 50 people. We’re glad to comply. See Coronavirus updates here.
Dear Heritage Bible Church,
Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. May the peace of Christ rule in our hearts even as the coronavirus rules the airwaves and, to a good extent, our lives for a season.
Yesterday evening we sent you a simple communication regarding our plans for services and ministry programming at Heritage in light of the COVID-19 virus National Emergency. Keep up with updates here. Here’s what we shared:
The COVID-19 (coronavirus) circumstances continue to evolve each day. Trent and I watched the President declare a national emergency this afternoon. He reiterated several personal precautions. Such news stories add to public concern about group interactions. Out of love for others, we have to err on the side of reasonable caution.
So for an indefinite period of time, we are cancelling all church programming except our weekly Lord’s Day gathering at 9:30 a.m.
Nursery, Pre-School, and Children’s Church will function as normal for this Sunday. However, we ask that no volunteers over 60 serve in these areas. If you are scheduled to work this Sunday, your ministry leader will be in touch with you. Parents: We ask you be extra careful that no child with a fever, cough, runny nose, etc. is brought to church.
While we will have the service, there is no judgment on you if you do not attend for personal safety reasons. Each of us needs to pray, keep monitoring CDC and SC DEHC updates, and consider how we serve others. Let’s be creative in staying connected and loving one another.
Several on the elder team are in frequent communication. We are getting input from a small group of HBC healthcare professionals. We would all appreciate your prayers.
We wanted to get that to you in a timely fashion. In this post I want to elaborate a bit and offer some of our thinking on this decision and other decisions we may have to make in shepherding in the coming weeks to months. In as much as we are able, we want to be in this together.
I’m not worried about grumbling about our leadership on these points, even though I know there will be different and evolving individual perspectives among us. You are a loving church and it is a joy to shepherd here. Praise God! I’m just eager to bring you in on the thoughtful and principled way we mean to go about this. We’ll all be better for owning these decisions as a church. Where we do make a decision that strikes you wrong—or where we may unwittingly over or under react—I hope this post will help us along together.
There are several priorities we’re pursuing. Here are the two big ones, and then some related considerations.
In terms of ministry programming, our first priority is that of our weekly Lord’s Day gathering.
It might at first seem backwards to cancel meetings in smaller settings but keep our weekly large gathering. This challenge of the coronavirus is something like a test question on a theology exam: how much can you take away from the church and still have the church? You can take away Bible Studies, as fruitful as those are. A collection of Bible studies may strengthen a church, but they do not make a church. Same with ministries to students and senior adults, and even Shepherding Groups, the main way we plan for discipleship.
But there’s only one occasion when we “come together as a church,” and that is on the Lord’s Day (1Cor. 11:18). That’s the one place where the reconciling power of the gospel is uniquely visible in the people the gospel creates. It’s the one occasion in which Jesus’ presence is with us in a uniquely powerful way (Matt. 18:15–20; 1Cor. 5:4, 5). It’s the context for our practice of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (1Cor. 11). It’s the one program, for lack of a better term, for which we have both a pattern and prescription in the New Testament: it’s the day Jesus rose, the day the church met, and the day our lives depend on until the Day Christ returns (Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1Cor. 16:2; Heb. 10:24, 25; Rev. 1:10). There are many important things we’re about doing here. But for all these reasons, the Lord’s Day service is our priority.
Another priority is that of love for neighbor.
We’re socially embedded creatures. That’s how God made us. We live together and we make societies. The reason we have the command to love our neighbor is because we owe them love as those made by God in the image of God. We don’t have to love every neighbor in the same way or to the same extent. There are things we know about and things we don’t; things we should know about and things we reasonably can’t. The Good Samaritan would not have become so famous if he hadn’t happened to walk by. Neither would he have been guilty of neglect. There are also things we have more and less power to do something about, and we should use what power we have to do what things we can (Gal. 6:10). Christians in Rome didn’t have the same civic responsibilities as we do in a democratic republic. Then there are ways we must act individually for an individual neighbor, and there are ways we act together for the sake of our neighborhoods and our nation. All of this requires much wisdom.
It’s that last consideration that led us to close our non-essential ministry programming for an indefinite period of time.
How does that love our neighbor exactly? Why, for example, couldn’t we just advise our more vulnerable members to stay back from things like Women’s Bible Study or a Shepherding Group? The issue is not in the first place the vulnerability of specific individuals who might come to a meeting. Rather, it’s the cumulative effect of meetings like these in our community on the pace of the spread of the virus, and its potential to overwhelm our healthcare system.
Andy Crouch has invested considerable time in understanding the matter. You should read his entire piece, “Love in the Time of Coronavirus.” He puts it this way:
COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is considerably more deadly than ordinary flu, especially for vulnerable populations: the elderly and those with existing medical conditions. They are generally dying of bilateral interstitial pneumonia, the signature worst-case outcome of COVID-19. Support of patients with this late-stage disease requires immense amounts of specialized equipment and medical expertise. At the same time, the disease can be mild in many people, even unnoticed. But this actually increases the risk to others, as “asymptomatic” carriers can transmit the virus to the highly vulnerable without realizing they are infectious.
Therefore there is a serious risk beyond the virus’s simple fatality rate: its potential to overwhelm our health care system, leading to many more otherwise preventable deaths from COVID-19 and other causes. In northern Italy, a region very much like the US in many ways (wealthy and culturally just as Teutonic as Latin), the health system, roughly comparable in resources to our own, is utterly overwhelmed. This is in spite of unprecedented quarantines, first at the city level, then at the regional, and now (with the results yet to be seen) the national level. Doctors in northern Italy report this week that they are resorting to wartime-style triage — simply not treating many who come to the hospital because they are too sick. This also means that people with “ordinary” medical issues, including critical ones, not related to the virus, may not receive even the most basic care.
Italy and the US are not apples to apples. Their population over 65 is 25%. But our 16% is still high. Let’s prevent what happened there and help our health care workers to help our vulnerable. Out of an abundance of reasonable caution, the community around us is accepting many burdens. In solidarity with our community, we joyfully sacrifice some of our normal graces for the common good.
In due time, once this has cleared or once we learn how to do this together, we’ll start Shepherding Groups back up. But for now, we don’t want our many leaders and members to have to negotiate the questions of whether to meet or not; or to have to navigate the socially sticky questions of food and hygiene. If you want to get your friends together who are in your Shepherding Group, by all means, wash your hands and have them over. Let’s keep loving one another, and let’s be creative and intentional about that. Let’s just not meet together as groups.
In what circumstances might we cancel our Lord’s Day service?
We are asking ourselves that question, so let me get ahead of it. It’s helpful to make a distinction between circumstances that are ordinary and those that are extraordinary.
Let’s start with each of us individually. In extraordinary circumstances, it’s okay for a person to miss church. Not everyone who misses church misses for the reasons threatening the Hebrew Christians, who were tempted to socially distance themselves, shall we say, from Jesus (Heb. 10:24, 25). In fact, sometimes we should miss church. If you’re throwing up, you should stay home. If you’re in law enforcement, we’re glad you’ll be on the streets on your rotation while we’re worshiping. If you’re trading off with your spouse to care for your elderly and immobilized parent, don’t let that bother your conscience. The Lord smiles on you. Every Sunday we have people who do not gather with us because they are doing acts of mercy at the hospital or in their home with a child.
When it comes to cancelling church for all of us, there are a few scenarios where we might do this. Certain kinds of danger, for example. If there is a blizzard and we have fourteen inches of snow overnight, sure, we could ask people to come if the roads are clear where they are, but we know many will come that shouldn’t. Better in some cases to just cancel church. If the church was on fire, you and I don’t need to feel guilty about getting out of there. None of this is in contradiction with trusting in our Lord and his resurrection. Neither, I would submit, is cancelling church when the President calls a National Emergency (which he has) and when state officials make a strong request for us to forego our meetings for a time (which they could). Though our situation is not as severe, the Spanish Flu of 1918 presented churches with this very decision. It’s an extraordinary situation.
I should clarify that it would be our prerogative to comply, a matter of honoring our governing authorities; not a decision from fear or coercion, or a matter of unqualified obedience (Ro. 13:1–7). The state does not give us our freedom to meet; the state acknowledges and protects our freedom to meet. Certainly, if the request is ideologically motivated to restrict of our religious liberty, our response must be different. Under God, no one has the authority to tell the Church she can’t meet (Acts 4:19). Ours is heaven’s king, and our meetings are heaven’s assemblies. But that is not the situation we’re in.
If we canceled our Lord’s Day gathering, what would we do instead?
I don’t know yet. One option is nothing. You can’t truly do church—a word that means assembly—apart. We’re a covenanted community and there are many means of grace involved in gathering that simply can’t happen when we’re in our homes. So, one option is to accept our circumstances as an unusual providence, and embrace the trial of missing one another. Then we come together again as soon as possible. If that sounds absurd, consider an illustration. You can watch a basketball game from the stands or your couch. But you can only play the game by being there. We don’t watch church, we participate. It’s why we don’t livestream our services—for what it teaches about what church is. Yes, there are some benefits, but it’s a net-loss as a normative practice. So, that’s one option: embrace the trial for what it is.
As another option, we could bend for this extraordinary circumstance and livestream a service, led from one of our living rooms. I suppose we’d call it, our unassembled gathering! It’s not church, but it is the church doing its best under the circumstances to taste what it means to be together. And it sure would be encouraging. We’ll let you know our plan if and when the time comes.
Finally, and importantly: how can we love our neighbors next door?
We’ve considered our place in the community, but how about our places as Christians in our neighborhoods? Here are some suggestions.
- Point people to Jesus in the midst of this uncertainty. There’s a palpable aura of trouble out there. That’s not a bad feeling. It’s a true feeling. We are dust and it is good to be sensitive to the dust. For those that don’t get sick, they may lose their job, or their business, or their senior year. Let us speak of Christ, this world’s only certainty. He has defeated death by his death, and that includes the coronavirus and a thousand other threats and thorns.
- Convert worry into hand washing, and panic into practical expressions of love for the vulnerable. Some of us will be quarantined at home. All of us should wash our hands and practice social distancing. Others might watch someone’s children so a single mother can work. All of us should run to the sick when they need us. That’s what Christians have always done.
- Read up and keep reading. Reading is better than watching, by the way. The best place for information on COVID–19 is the CDC website. Here are some pieces I found helpful: “Love in the Time of Coronavirus,” by Andy Crouch (with a summary here); “Flattening the Curve for COVID-19: What Does It Mean and How Can You Help?,” by Kara Gavin; “Should Your Church Stop Meeting to Slow COVID-19? How 3 Seattle Churches Decided,” by Daniel Chin; “The Dos and Don’ts of ‘Social Distancing’,” by Kaitlyn Tiffany. Good reading will help you live wisely, and give the right advice. Stay current, but don’t miss the old stuff: C.S. Lewis’, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” or Martin Luther on “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”
- Pray for and honor those in authority. Our public leaders are in a position to make excruciating decisions. They need our support and our cooperation. Let’s be easy to lead and protect. And let’s be filled with thanksgiving for this gift to us of God’s common grace in human government.
- Let’s watch our words, especially the ones we type. None of us are as smart as we think. Suspicion of our institutions and the media is high, and there are arguably good reasons for that. Political calculations are likely present, yes, even in the decision making and reporting on the coronavirus. But none of us are in the best position to sort it out, certainly not in real-time. So, let’s engage these things, but let’s avoid throwing dirt or digging in. Remember, be a good friend.
This virus has brought the country together in a surprising way. Today in the President’s address, it brought together the heads of Target and Walmart, and of Walgreens and CVS. The political rhetoric has cooled a touch as well. It’s a Christmas miracle!
But way more powerful than a crisis like this is the gospel of Jesus Christ which brings us to him, and brings us together every Lord’s Day to celebrate nothing less than the resurrection from the dead. Let us not forget what we have. If we get the coronavirus, brothers and sisters, let us make sure everyone knows that our Lord got us first. We aren’t afraid. We’re already better than cured.
See you Sunday, Lord willing.