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Some of you are going to have to start wearing real clothes on Sunday morning again. Some of you kids are going to have to wear a shirt again. Adults, you will now need a lid on your coffee.

I’m excited to share that our elders have decided that we will begin gathering again as a church starting this Lord’s Day, May 17. We know that not everyone will be able to join us. Those who do will have a bit of a different experience than normal. But we’re excited, nonetheless.

We’ve brought you into our thinking at critical points before, and that’s what I want to do for you here. If you want to cut-to-the-chase as it concerns plans for this Sunday, visit Heritage Resume. Here in this post you’ll find our thinking and some more detail on those plans.

Our Intentions During the Pandemic

This pandemic presented us with decisions that we haven’t had to make before. When did we ever think we’d be asking ourselves, “when should we begin gathering again as a church?” The decision to discontinue our public gathering was not easy, but it was straightforward. The decision to begin gathering again is also not easy, but it is also less straightforward. There are good reasons to wait, and there are good reasons to get back at it.

Among a host of considerations, here is an outline of our intentions as we approached the question of when to regather.

  • We intend to prioritize gathering as a church. We accept that there will be extraordinary circumstances in which gathering is not possible, and that a pandemic is one of those circumstances. Nevertheless, we intend to pray and work against protracted time apart, as this is detrimental to our spiritual health (Heb. 10:25). We do not believe that a livestream allows us to fulfill most of our basic responsibilities to one another as those who have covenanted together in membership. We also do not see our various auxiliary ministries as on par with the Lord’s Day gathering of the church. We are eager to meet and okay with some awkwardness, some inconvenience, and not being able to do everything we might do under normal circumstances.
  • We intend to honor our governing authorities within Scriptural bounds. We give thanks to God for our governing authorities and pray for their faithful service (1Tim. 2:1–3). We are grateful for our governor in particular, and do not believe he has overreached in his authority, singling out the church or choosing unnecessarily intrusive means. We believe our governor’s requests to this point have been reasonable and good for the protection of life and we have and intend to happily comply. It also needs to be said that our elders are not epidemiologists. There are certain health considerations that are beyond our expertise. So, our compliance isn’t just a matter of duty, but of glad-hearted cooperation. Of course, we have a category for civil disobedience, and we could always find ourselves in that undesirable situation (Acts 4:18–20). We are grateful that our governor welcomes us to gather with the request that we do so while maintaining social distance guidelines—just like various other establishments in our community.
  • We intend to do as much as we can as together as we can. As we’ve looked to the time we can resume meeting, we’ve planned for this to happen in phases. There are a variety of ways that churches may legitimately handle this moment: with no adapted version of a service, with a pre-recorded service, or with a livestream. While the livestream comes with downsides, we have preferred this option to this point as it helps hold us together in the habit of coming around the Word at the same time. As we have considered meeting again, our intention has been the same: to do as much together as we can.
  • We intend to love our neighbors and maintain a vital witness to Jesus in our community. With such a wide range of opinions and perspectives in this pandemic, it will be impossible to satisfy every onlooker. Love for neighbor, we believe, meant discounting our public gatherings back in March. We resonated with the governor’s concern to “flatten the curve” in order not to overwhelm our healthcare system. Now, in love for our neighbor, we mean to meet again with certain accommodations, and to do so in a way that promotes the name of Jesus (Gal. 6:10).
  • We intend to get as much wisdom as we can, especially from likeminded churches. We are in some level of conversation with multiple churches across the nation and within our region, and this has proven helpful. We will consider carefully what other churches are doing in our own community, while recognizing that every church has a unique set of considerations: the size of the church, facilities, resources, theology, and age demographics being important factors.
  • We intend to make room for different situations and opinions among our members. Among our members are different health considerations, but also responsibilities. Some are in a high-risk category, and some live with someone who is. Others will have a range of difficulty with the idea of gathering for any number of reasons. We are not going to bind anyone’s conscience with a particular angle on health statistics, though we may each have our own perspectives. Whereas in normal circumstances we would exhort members to gather, in this case, we want to make room for people to stay home if they believe that’s best for now. We will encourage our members to assume the best of one another, and to allow space for varying opinions and practices (Ro. 15:2–7).

Resuming Ministry in Three Phases

Given those intentions, we have identified three phases for resuming ministry:

  • Phase 1. Resume the Lord’s Day gathering with various accommodations and without auxiliary ministries. Our corporate worship gathering is not only our priority as a church, but public worship gatherings are also recognized by our governor as essential for our community. During this phase (and phase 2), we will continue utilizing Zoom for a Thursday evening prayer time, Shepherding Groups, and our other efforts, including student and children’s ministry resources and meetings.  
  • Phase 2. Shepherding Groups begin meeting in person again for those comfortable participating. Some groups may decide to continue meeting on Zoom for a time. The date for this phase is yet to be determined.
  • Phase 3. Electives, children and student ministry, men’s and women’s ministry, etc. begin again. The date is yet to be determined and may involve some adjustments to the overall shape of our ministry.

Plans for Sunday Morning

Getting together on Sunday is usually pretty simple. We want it to stay as simple as possible, but of course it will need to change a bit for a season. Here’s our plan going into Sunday.

  • We will meet at our normal time of 9:30 a.m. and stagger seating to accommodate the 6’ social distancing rule between individuals or families. You’ll find some rows marked “available” and others marked “unavailable.” Seating hosts can help you find a seat, and they may kindly ask you to move if that’s needed. We will offer overflow seating in the Fellowship Hall and utilize video. We will ask one or two Elder Communities each week to serve the broader church family by routing to the Fellowship Hall. We’ll indicate these assignments in a Friday email, but please consider these suggestive. Some of you will need to be in one place or the other for your own reasons, and that’s fine. For now, we will continue to offer a livestream of the service
  • We will not offer electives, children’s ministry, or nursery for the time being. This means we will welcome the presence of little ones with us. Wiggling and whispering are welcome, but let’s maintain a no screaming or squawking rule, for lack of a better term. If your little one starts to go nuts, that’s how God made them. Please step out, and know that we love and esteem you as a parent. For some families, the Fellowship Hall will be a better space, and we will have a T.V. screen available in the South Lobby as well.
  • We will disinfect the church between Sundays. This includes door handles, light switches, handrails, etc.  
  • We will modify our service in several ways. We will not pass the plate, but we remain partners, so plan to give online or through one of the giving boxes on site. We will suspend the ordinances of baptism and communion for a period of time. That is, until we are able to share in these in a way that honors the symbols without overly strained preparation (as in the case of baptism) or distribution (as in the case of the Lord’s Supper). We hope this bugs you for the best biblical reasons. The ordinances are essential for our faith personally, but also our faith corporately. Neither we nor the world knows who the church is simply by who shows up to the property on Sunday, but by the signs of the covenant. We intend to get back to these, but give us some time. 

Here are some other things we’re doing: Orders of worship, sermon notes pages, and kids’ handouts will be provided on stands upon entry to the auditorium, but not handed out. All songs and readings will be projected as usual. Hymnals and Bibles will be removed for the time being. Free paper Bibles will be available in the lobby. We will not host a coffee table, but you are welcome to bring a drink with a lid. The water fountains will not be available except in the event of an emergency. We will provide hand sanitizer in multiple locations.

What we’re asking you to do

  • Stay home if that’s best. If you are in a high-risk category, we encourage you to remain home. If you are sick, you should also stay home. No one should feel guilty about missing church due to medical considerations. If you are a volunteer in a ministry, you are invited to opt-out for a season. 
  • Tell us your plan for Sundays by noon on Friday. This is for all of our members, and for anyone who plans to join us on site. Update us when your plan changes. This will help us prepare adequately for Sunday morning and help us care for one another. It could be easy for us to assume you aren’t with us of medical necessity when in fact you are suffering and discouraged or straying. Once we get our bearings, we may discontinue this. 
  • Observe social distancing practices. Our governor has asked this of us, and we think it’s reasonable and easy enough to honor. We’re making arrangements for this in some planned ways, but please do your best to honor this in your unplanned interactions. For, example, brief greetings are okay, but let’s avoid hugs and huddles around the property. By all means, wear a face covering if you prefer. We imagine that it will be a mixed bag on Sundays as it is in the grocery stores in town. There are good reasons to wear a mask, for your sake and the sake of others. And there are fine reasons not to.
  • Be easy on one another and easy to lead. Who would have thought “masks” would be a point of contention between Americans in 2020? Let’s make sure that it’s not for us. Let’s bear with one another, believe the best, and be easy to lead as we head into a new season. Use the same spiritual and relational muscles you use all the time as the church in loving one another. We love you.

You’ve been looking at me a lot for the last eight weeks. I’m looking forward to seeing many of you this Lord’s Day.