Last week I wrote that while we face some unique challenges during this COVID-19 season, these are not completely unprecedented times. We are given precedents that are needed navigating tools. The Scriptures teach us the precedent of God's ways with His people during crisis, and also the precedent of people's responses to crisis. Specifically, when we learn from the precedent of pandemic history, the most recent being the Spanish flu from 1918-1919, we find that there is nothing new under the sun, as King Solomon said. Here are some of things we learned.
One of the characteristics of the Church's response to the Spanish flu was innovation. Pastors and congregations used new technologies like the telephone as a pastoral tool and published sermons in newspapers to maintain contact with their congregants. Many churches, like Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh above, embraced medical technology to convert to make-shift hospitals to serve their cities. (It has been wonderful for Southlands to host multiple blood drives with the Red Cross these last few months too. We have a great opportunity to innovate, not only to care for our churches, but to care for our cities.
The other precedent was the Church's protest against the governments' limitations placed on worship amidst the perception of double standards, as some states kept saloons and gambling houses open while schools and churches were closed. Many church leaders went to court to argue that the First Amendment right to ‘peacefully assemble’ was violated. Research suggests that courts by-in-large upheld the government’s right to ban public gatherings for health reasons to reasonably enforce those bans. While we have had a moment of civil disobedience as we took the decision to sing from behind our masks as a reasonable defense of our freedom to worship, we do not want to expend all our energy on protest when there are still many ways in which we can still worship as the Church.
Both the use of technology and protest over the freedom of worship have become dominant themes in our pandemic of course, and I wrote the following letter to our church yesterday to try and speak to both of these issues. Perhaps it may be of help to you in your church context?
Dear Southlands Brea,
The stunning Psalm 84 was my devotional reading this morning. “Blessed are those who dwell in your house, they are ever praising You. As they go through the valley of tears they make it a place of springs…they go from strength to strength.” What a promise for us today. God gives us an oasis in the valley of tears. More pointedly, the Psalmist was reminding God’s people that dwelling in God’s temple came with the blessing of strength and comfort in a season of sadness. Of course, we know that in the New Covenant, God’s people are the temple and that God dwells in each of us by His Spirit. It’s so wonderful that God’s presence is not limited to one physical place.
Still, the New Testament exhorts God’s people repeatedly to gather together regularly in different places to encounter Him in special ways. “You yourselves are being built together into God’s temple in which God dwells by His Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:21-22) Here the emphasis is not on a certain place, but rather on the togetherness of a people. In other words, while the Spirit dwells in us as individuals, there is an aspect of God that we only experience as we allow ourselves to be built together. There is much-needed strength and comfort from being built together. I must say that our expressions of togetherness have been greatly enlarged these past five months. Exploring being the church in back yards, on curbsides and on Zoom calls has been challenging, but fantastic. We continue to acknowledge that many who are elderly, immuno-compromised, pregnant, working in the medical fraternity or serving as caregivers will continue to express togetherness online from their homes. If you are in this group, please be assured that you are not a B-class member of Southlands! However, I have seen that the longer people remain physically separate from others in the church, the harder it is to feel like you are better together. Loneliness, apathy and offense can so easily creep in.
To combat this, we are looking at new ways of helping you to feel built together, but we need you to help us serve you by leaning in. This Sunday at 9:45am, before our live stream, Bulus and Rose Galadima who are on our deacon team, will be leading an online pre-service prayer time. This will help you to prepare your hearts and pray for others to encounter Jesus during the service. Brett McCracken, one of our elders, will also be hosting the live chat during the sermon and then leading a Zoom discussion after the sermon. I encourage you to lean into this growing online community by joining us at 10am at live.southlands.net or youtube.com/southlandschurch.
On the other hand, there are those who need no convincing that gathering together in-person to worship is important. In fact, I have had numerous people who have asked why we are not defying the governor's limitations on worship and simply meeting together on Sundays inside and in-person as normal. I appreciate these sentiments and can understand the frustration at what can appear as double-standards at times. As you know, we have been willing and are still willing, to have moments of civil disobedience should they seem necessary, but we want civil disobedience to be a last resort rather than a first response.
So, we have 4 Biblical lenses through which we make decisions about gathering:
1. The importance of Worship (Hebrews 10:25)
2. Love for our Neighbors (Mark 12:31)
3. Obedience to Government (Romans 13:1-7)
4. Maintaining a Good witness (Col 4:5-6)
These are tensions we must be able to hold as God’s people. While we place a high value on the importance of gathered worship, many seem to pursue value 1 while ignoring values 2,3 and 4! We cannot do that! At this stage, we feel that gathering in-person, outside on our patio is actually preferable to gathering inside, because it enables families to gather safely, is still within the government’s guidelines and is actually proclaiming the gospel to our city in a fun, family carnival atmosphere. We’ve loved seeing this patio gathering grow every week, and we encourage you to join us at 8:30am tomorrow by signing up here.
As ever, I am so grateful to God for your flexible faithfulness for Jesus’ sake.
Onwards and Upwards,