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Monday, May 25, 2020

A Pastor's Reasoned Response to COVID-19 (edited)




***EDITED***

As a matter of clarity and full disclosure, I did publish an article in mid-March on why I believe churches should not close their doors.  That article can be found here:

http://surrenderdaily.blogspot.com/2020/03/to-assemble-or-not-to-assemble-response.html

And for absolute full disclosure, while I never closed the doors to the church I pastor, I did strongly encourage my congregants to be safe and stay home as much as possible.  We did utilize live streaming and video conferencing for Bible Study.  Most, but not all, of them took advantage of that opportunity.  Now that restrictions are being partially lifted, most of them are beginning to come back to in-person worship.

***ORIGINAL POST***

Up to this point, I have been very cautious about what I have said concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a pastor, it is my obligation to lead my flock responsibly.  That means I need to be knowledgeable of the truth and careful not to mislead.  The problem with this pandemic has been that truth – the real truth – appears to be elusive.  There are many who say they have the truth, and many others who say the they also have the truth – but the two truths contradict one another.  As believers, we are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves as we venture out into the big bad world of the wolves (Matthew 10:16).  My general silence to this point has been an effort to gain the proper wisdom without reacting quickly and losing innocence. As we enter into the fourth month of the pandemic, however, I feel more confident in my understanding and am ready to share some pastoral advice on the matter.  There are many theories, presumptions, and outright accusations out there, so allow me to share with you a few cautions followed by some encouratement - as we navigate these waters together.

Caution #1.  Don’t Underestimate the Severity of the Virus

This is a very serious virus.  Despite what I might think about the actions that have been taken by our national and local leaders, many of those actions have significantly mitigated the danger.  The fact that the numbers may not be as serious as originally projected does not mean the virus is not deadly. Until a vaccine is found, the virus is not going away any time soon. As we open up, there will be people exposed, and while many will be asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, there are still countless many (myself included) who have underlying conditions that may exacerbate the severity of the situation should we contract the virus.  If you get it and it becomes life-threatening to you, then it makes no matter at that point what you thought before.

Caution #2. Don’t Underestimate the Seriousness of the Political Posturing

There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there, but not all theories are birthed in paranoid schizophrenia. Some are birthed in observations of true situations. Do I believe our constitution is being shredded in the name of safety?  Absolutely.  Do I believe it is some nefarious attempt at permanently destroying that constitution and ushering in a New World Order?  Well that depends – thus the political posturing.  Our leaders, some of which have had the best intentions in mind, have taken away freedoms properly granted in the constitution.  Some are beginning to see the danger of that and are trying to reinstate those freedoms, but there are others whom I believe want nothing less than to use this pandemic to initiate sweeping and permanent socialist change - perhaps even outright totalitarianism.  No – I’m not being paranoid about that because if you watch and read carefully, an elite few out there are not even trying to hide that fact.  Even more so, I think we need to be very watchful and careful about how certain other things develop as a result of this pandemic.  If we are not careful, we have society that consists of US and THEM (as if that is not already happening).  Bill Gates may not be the Anti-Christ as some are saying, but he sure is doing things and promoting things that sound very anti-christ-like.  And whatever else may happen – DON’T GET CHIPPED!  Just sayin’.

Caution #3. Don’t Underestimate the Spiritual Warfare Raging Below the Surface

You are never going to hear me say “God caused this virus as a punishment”.  Nor will you hear me say “This virus is from Satan.”  It’s not that black and white.  On the one hand, God is sovereign.  He wasn’t surprised by the virus and indeed it would not have happened without his “by your liege”, so I firmly believe that His plan somehow involves this virus.  On the other hand, if a politician will say “never let a good crisis go to waste” then you can bet Satan said it first (not that I was trying to imply a nexus between politicians and Satan… but if the shoe fits – maybe I should take that back).  Satan knows better than anyone how to divide and defeat Christians who are not fully dependent upon God.  Like any good predator, he will work to separate his prey from the safety of the herd.  No matter how strong you are, you are no match for Satan on your own – and while you and God are always stronger than Satan, when you are separated from the herd (i.e., the fellowship of other believers), you sometimes forget that God is with you or worse – you wander away from Him too.  That is when the lion attacks – and you are no match for that.  Listen carefully.  Watching church on TV, online, or even in a car is NOT the same thing as gathered, corporate worship.  It will NOT provide you with the spiritual strength and encouragement that is found supernaturally within the gathered body of Christ.  There is a reason why the writer of Hebrews said “forsake not the assembling together”.  Now listen even more carefully. Good intentions or bad notwithstanding, gathered worship of Christians is under direct assault in our country right now. I am amazed at how quickly we gave that up, touting (incorrectly in my opinion) principles from Romans 14.  Now that we are starting to regather, Christians are being shamed for putting themselves and others in danger.  The precedent has now been set and mark my words, it will be used again to try to shut us down – and I believe it will happen sooner than we think.  And don’t give me the whole “the church is the people, not the building”.  I’m not talking about the building – I’m talking precisely about the people – GATHERED AS ONE IN CHRIST.  We don’t need a building to do that, but we do need to be together.

Well enough of the caution – now for some encouragement and exhortation.

Encouragement #1. Never Forget the Sovereignty of God

This is the foundation of all we believe.  By definition, sovereignty means that God can and will accomplish the fullness of his plan without being thwarted by anything – and that includes COVID-19.  Furthermore, it means COVID-19 didn’t happen without His express say-so and therefore it actually will be used by Him to bring about his plan.  Will people die?  Yes.  But don’t lose sight of this important fact:

It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27)

Death and judgment will come to all of us.  How it comes it different for each person.  Some will live to be old; others will die young.  Some will die peacefully in their sleep; others will have tragic, painful deaths.  This is the curse of sin, but as believers, our hope is not in how long we will live or even in how we die.  Rather, our hope is in the resurrection of the dead that accompanies the imminent return of Christ.

Encouragement #2. Never Forget the Goodness of God

Related to #1, God’s plan will not be thwarted, and because we know that he is a good, good, father, we can rest assured that plan is good.  We just need to make sure we don’t presuppose what that good should be.  Too often, we decide in our own minds what “good” is supposed to look like, and when that doesn’t play out, we lose faith in the goodness of God.  Imagine standing on top of a mountain overlooking a vast horizon.  As you gaze at the horizon, you see both ends of that horizon at once.  This is how God sees all of eternity.  Imagine now holding up a thin piece of paper to that horizon so that all you see is the thin edge against the vastness of the horizon.  The thickness of that paper is essentially a horizon within a horizon and your perspective of time is locked within the thickness of that paper – not even seeing the full thickness of that paper.  In other words – you have no idea of the full picture of what God sees.

Trust Him.  He knows what he is doing.

Encouragement #3. Be Strong and Courageous (but not Stupid)

Finally, remember that as God worshippers and followers of Jesus, fear is not supposed to be part of our vocabulary.

For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.  (2 Timothy 1:7)

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)

Everything we hear about this pandemic is meant to make us afraid. But fear is not our destiny. I’m not trying to say we will never be afraid, but I am trying to encourage us to overcome that fear so that we can be strong and courageous (like Joshua – see Deuteronomy 31:6-7). Like Joshua, the early church faced the imminent threat of danger and persecution, but they thrived in the midst of that danger, overcoming their fear and living courageously.

At the same time, though, we can’t be stupid.  Don’t forget Caution #1.  I know it can be inconvenient and even irritating, but when you go out in public, don’t be so stubborn that you are not willing to wear a mask (at least sometimes).  Fear says “I’m not going out in public” even when you need to do so.  But stupid proudly proclaims its lack of fear and rushes headlong off the cliff.  Don’t be stupid.  Until we get a believable all-clear, wear a mask when you can and keep your distance when it makes sense.

In closing – I want to say something about social distancing.

I get it.  The most credible evidence we have suggests that the virus spreads person to person within a 6-foot parameter.  Unfortunately, it has been 3 plus months now with everyone holding out this large, 6-foot personal space bubble.  I think we may be underestimating the negative social consequences of that.  We are a people made and designed for close, physical, intimate contact with one another.  Depriving ourselves of that has to have horrific consequences on our psyches and I would think even our health.

As such, I want you to hear me VERY carefully – are you listening?

You know I am a hugger, but the world has changed.  I won’t come up to you anymore and force a hug on you.  But hear me.  If you come up to me and say “I need a hug” – you can bet your Aunt Fannie’s secret blackberry jam recipe that I will have one for you.

Monday, March 16, 2020

To Assemble or Not to Assemble - A Response to COVID-19 (edited)



***EDITED***

Since originally published, it has been pointed out to me that during other events such as the Spanish flu and similar hisotical situations many churches have closed.  I don't have the facts to back this up, so I am ready to stand corrected, but I do not believe churches were mandated to close, but rather were asked to close for the public good.  Furthermore, I would like to have historical evidence as to whether all churches closed, some churches closed, or only a select few in highly dense populations closed.

Reglardless.  I don't change my opinion in the matter.  Constitutionally, government does not have the authority to mandate church closures.  Whether we choose to close is a matter of conscious and in this post I am stating my arguments for why we should not close.  As churches, we can remain "open" while still encouraging distancing and even encouraging at risk people to stay at home as much as possible. We simply should never close our doors to those who need us.

And for absolute full disclosure, while I never closed the doors to the church I pastor, I did strongly encourage my congregants to be safe and stay home as much as possible.  We did utilize live streaming and video conferencing for Bible Study.


***ORIGINAL POST***

I think this blog post may be directed more towards my friends and brothers who are pastors than it is to anyone else, but whether you are a pastor, a lay member, or just someone who is looking at current events with an eye of uncertainty and confusion, I am hopeful that you will see a perspective in this article that transcends the current tide of social wisdom and trend.

If the last week has taught us anything at all, it has taught us just how fragile our perceived way of life truly has been.  Within the course of just a few days, everything we took for granted under the name of freedom has been taken away from us and we have given it away freely – our freedom to move from place to place, our freedom to go out and purchase what we want when we want it, and our freedom to assemble together willingly.  It wasn’t taken away from us by an overwhelming military force.  It wasn’t taken away from us by terrorists seeking to destroy our way of life.  It was taken away from us by our own willingness to give in to the fear of a pandemic.  In the course of one week, everything we thought we knew about our own way of life has been ripped away from us – and with the snap of the finger, we live in a different world.  A week and a half ago, we would have all agreed that any threat to our freedoms would have been met with a grass roots uprising of homegrown military force the likes of which the world could not imagine.  Today, those freedoms have been voluntarily laid down without a single finger being raised in opposition.

To be clear, I am not suggesting those freedoms are gone permanently.  I truly hope that the promises we are hearing that all of this is just for a few weeks will render itself true.  Likewise, I am not suggesting in any way that restricting our travel and our movements – in general at least - is necessarily the wrong thing to do under these circumstances.  Nor am I suggesting that putting limitations on the gathering of large groups in general is the wrong thing to do.  I have personally said on many occasions that the gospel of Jesus Christ does not guarantee us any such freedoms and that we ought not to presume we have any rights to them at all.  Yet to see how easily and quickly we laid them down was a surprise even to me.

It is into this new understanding of who we are and what we are willing to do in the face of circumstances such as the outbreak of COVID-19 that I wish to speak.  It is within this context of self-quarantines and restricted movements that I speak this urgent exhortation to every pastor that may find himself reading this article: 

NOW, more than at any time in our lifetimes, it is imperative to the cause of the gospel for the doors of the church to remain open.

And having said that, I want to urge each of the pastors who have canceled in person gatherings in the name of love not only to reconsider their position on this matter, but also to consider whether they need to repent of that decision and what it means regarding their own understanding of the gospel.  Even having said that, I fully expect to receive the ire of many of my pastor friends, but before coming down too quickly on me for those words, please let me give you my reasoning for such a strong exhortation.

I want to give you four reasons why I believe the church, along with pharmacies, grocery stores, hospitals, etc. should remain open during this terrible crisis – after which I want to give you my thoughts on how I believe the doors of the church can remain open without overly exacerbating the risk of spreading this contagion.

1.      The precedent of the past as it relates to the present

When we look back on history, can we really say that COVID-19 is really that different than any of the many threats the world – and the church – has faced throughout history?  This is not the first plague the world has known.  This is not the first time in history that government leaders have suggested – or even forbade – the gathering of the church.  In all these prior circumstances, the true church remained open.  Yes, in some cases, the true church had to go underground, but in the face of plagues, war, famine, and even persecution, the precedent of the church has always been to remain open for business.   In the first century, there were regular concerns over potential plagues and there was imminent concern about governments forbidding the church from gathering for worship.  Yet it was precisely at this precarious time in history that the author of Hebrews said these words that – at least to me – seem as if they could have been writing to pastors and church leaders in March, 2020 as easily as the first century.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)

Those words were written to encourage us that our responsibility is to gather as saints so that we would continue to urge one another to love and good works. We do that through corporate worship and the proclamation of the word.  If we close the doors of the church, foreclosing any opportunity for gathering and worshipping and encouraging one another to good works, we will be at risk of falling into the trap of closing ourselves off from doing the good work that this time, more than any other time in our lifetime, is calling us to do.

And just as there is a precedent established by our forebears in the past, we too are establishing a precedent for the future.

2.      The precedent of the present as it relates to the future

We have closed our doors in the name of love.  Please – will you just say those words out loud.  Consider about how silly that sounds.  Let’s be honest as to why we are closing our doors.  We are closing our doors out of fear that a virus will hurt us or someone we love.  We are closing our doors out of fear that the rate of spread of the virus will overwhelm our health care system.  I get it.  I understand that.  But think about the precedent we are setting in closing our doors.  If we are so easily willing to close our doors today for this situation, what will be the situation that we are willing to close our doors for tomorrow?  This is supposed to be a temporary thing to stop the spread of a deadly virus, but the ease in which all our freedoms were stripped away underlines the risk that those same freedoms could be taken away at any time for any reason.  Who is to say precisely how long this will last or how it may evolve?  What happens if the social order starts to break down?  We are already seeing pandemonium in the stores.  What happens if that spreads into neighborhoods and the public in general?  How easily will the state of emergency become the new *permanent* normal? Today, we are unwilling to gather when the risk – for MOST people – is that we may or may not get sick for a few days – even though, yes, there is a possibility that some could die.  What will we do when there is a greater risk that we will be severely punished or imprisoned because we have gathered?  Has not the gospel called us to lay down our lives for the kingdom of God?  The truth is, in many cities across the country, church services aren’t just being discouraged, they have already been banned.  That’s right.  The time has come and is now that in the United States, church services have been banned.  Say that out loud.   Have not we all said on many occasions in our Sunday School classes and bible studies that we would all be willing to lay down our lives for the cause of Christ? Have we not said that we would not forsake the assembling of the saints even if it were against the law? Have not you, pastor, preached from the pulpit that exact message?  How quickly our tunes have changed.

 And that bring me to the third reason.

3.      The understanding of the gospel as it relates to the current situation

Think about the gospel.  So many of us right now are thinking about how dangerous it may be for us to gather in person for worship.  If we love our elderly and at-risk saints, we will cancel our services so as not to put them at risk.  Brothers and sisters, this is not the gospel at all.  The gospel is not “God is love and he wants everyone to be ok.”  The gospel is “Jesus willingly laid down his life so that we may be saved – and he calls each of us to lay down our own lives so that others may be saved.”  Jesus himself said in Matthew 25:16

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (ESV)

We say that we are protecting these saints, but true saints understand the risk of the gospel and would never want their safety to be the reason that someone failed to hear the gospel message.  I am painfully reminded of Paul’s words:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  Galatians 1:6-7 (ESV)

I urge you to go read the entire letter to the Galatians again in light of our current situation.  If we believe that cutting off access to the physical gathering of saints in the name of love is the gospel, we have lost our way.  If only 5 people are willing to show up for corporate worship, we need to be open for business so that those 5 may gather.  If one lost soul, desperate to find an answer to the chaos that is trying to carry him/her away, shows up at your doorstep, those doors need to be open so that we may share with him that our hope is not in this world, but in the resurrection of the dead through the grace of Jesus Christ.

But you say:

“We haven’t closed the doors; we still have livestreaming, and we still have digital church.”

That brings me to my fourth reason.

4.      The fallacy of digital church as it relates to an alternative to in person gatherings

Livestreaming is good.  Digital church is good.  There will be those who truly are homebound because of their exposure to the virus, just as there are those who are and have previously been homebound for other reasons.  This is one of the many reasons we have ventured down the path of digital church.  But neither livestreaming nor digital church can substitute for in person corporate worship.  Prior to this week, you as pastor would have told your congregation precisely that truth.  What has changed?  The virus?  Don’t be fooled by that line of thinking.  You know as well as I know that no amount of technology can substitute for being together in person.  Just as the lepers needed the personal touch of Jesus…  Just as the hemophiliac woman needed the personal touch of Jesus…  people need our personal touch.  They need our presence and we need theirs.  Let us not for one moment believe the lie that technology is the answer.  We know there are those who have no access to this technology.  Are we abandoning them?  We also know there are those who are not nearly as savvy with technology as others – especially some of our older saints. Are we abandoning them? And most importantly, we also know how unreliable technology can be.  We have been livestreaming our services for a number of months now, and we encourage our members who cannot physically be present to join us during the livestream.  This past Sunday we had an unprecedented number of people voluntarily stay home and participate in church via the livestream.  I’ve read the comments. 

“I can’t hear.” 
“No sound.”
“Still can’t hear.”
“Better but still having trouble.”

How could those people be truly worshipping God when they were struggling with the technology so?  You can’t worship under those conditions.  It really is hard to say what was the cause.  On our end, everything seemed fine.  So, even when it is seems good on our sending end, it is not always good on the receiving end.  Is it internet bandwidth?  Is it user error?  Is it something wrong in our setup?  Honestly, the playback seemed fine to me after the fact.  The point is this: livestreaming your worship serves a purpose, but even under these conditions, it cannot substitute for the gathering of the saints.

Most importantly, how can you, as a pastor, perform your solemn duty as shepherd of the flock over the internet?  How can you keep up with the needs of your flock?  How can you even know whether or not they are watching?  As a pastor, you know how easy it is for believers to get into the habit of not coming to church.  How much easier will it be for them to get into the habit of not watching church – especially if there are difficulties for them in watching the stream.  How easy will it be for them to become lax and start watching it half-heartedly while they are doing other things?  Their worship will become divided with other interests.  There is a reason we gather in person – so that we may focus on Jesus without interruption.  Pastor, you will be held accountable for their souls, but how can you know the condition of their soul without constant interaction with them?  For your sake as a pastor as much as theirs, digital church is NOT church – and it is not the final answer to this problem.

So, how can we keep the doors of the church open under conditions like these?  In what way can we be faithful to Hebrews 10:24-25?  We adjust and we adapt.  We put protective measures in place.  We change how we do church without canceling the in-person gathering.  For a small church like mine, the adjustments may not be quite as difficult.  For larger churches, the adjustment may be more extreme. 

First.  We have grown accustomed to and even prefer the large church gatherings, but if we look at history, this is not how we began.  If we look at areas of the world today where church is regulated or banned, this is not how they gather either.  The church of history has always been small.  If your church is larger, consider going to multiple services to keep the gathered number as small as is practical.  This is going to be especially difficult for those large churches that have already gone to multiple services.  I’m not na├»ve enough to think it will not be a challenge for them.  It will be more work and will require greater commitment on the part of all the workers – or we could just cancel church, right?  On the other hand, if my suspicions are correct, even if you keep the doors of the church open, you are going to see a massive reduction in attendance as people choose to stay home.

Second.  We accommodate with technology, but we don’t substitute technology for the real thing.  There will be many who choose to stay away.  There will be many who MUST stay away because of sickness and contagion.  We need to be able so show them grace for their circumstances while still doing everything we can to reach them with the gospel.  Technology is not the best solution, but just as it was two weeks ago, we don’t ignore it as one of many tools that may be used to proclaim the gospel.

Third. We take all necessary precautions.  This means cleaning.  This means having sanitizer available (assuming we can still get it).  This means not passing the offering plate.  This means respecting social distancing where it is desired but risking everything – even our lives – to maintain close, physical contact where it is needed.  This is NOT the time to distance ourselves from those who truly need us.  Many will want us to keep our distance, but there will still be many who need us to be there for them.  The gospel is about intimacy with God that results in intimacy with others.  Let us take the precautions we need without eliminating the intimacy of the gospel when it is needed.  Make yourself available to them.  Trust God for protection but recognize he may allow you to suffer for the cause of Christ.  If he does, rejoice in the privilege.

Fourth.  BE THE CHURCH.  This is a time where the church can show true leadership.  People will need the church.  People will need the people within the church to step up and be the church.  Show the world we are not afraid to risk our lives to serve one another.  Offer to go to the store for people.  See if they need rides to the pharmacy or doctor.  Be willing to risk everything for the gospel.

I know this article will anger many.  I may even lose a few friends as a result.  But I must speak the truth.  Now is not the time for the doors of the church to close.  This world needs us now more than ever.  Perhaps God is using this to bring to light the true church – to purge the true church and help identify the wheat from the tares.  Brothers and sisters, consider these words.