SOME THOUGHTS ON PUBLIC CHURCH SERVICES
DURING THE PANDEMIC
Pastor Paul Stepp
“I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.” (Ps 122:1)
King David was glad to go into the House of the Lord. The opposite of glad is sad. I am sad today on this Lord’s Day, at least with regard to the lack of public worship in many of the Churches of God in America. In our Church, we are still conducting Church services, but the number of attendees is very low. It is sad to see so many of the Lord’s Churches either with diminished attendance or who have altogether shut down their Public Worship Services on the Lord’s Day. I know we are in a difficult time, and a time of uncertainty. But, at least here in WV, we are not forbidden by the government to conduct our Public Worship Services. Legally, we are not even limited in the number of attendants.
And yet, many Churches are shutting their doors. (I wonder, if we would need the governments permission to gather together in other places and times? I wonder if previous generations of God’s people were worried about social peer pressure?) While the government and society asks us nicely – and in some places, not so nicely – the Lord’s Churches are meekly and docilely shutting the doors to our Church houses, and bringing to a halt, what the Bible strictly commands us – “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Heb 10:23-29)
I wonder, are we doing the right thing? Should we be ceasing to function as a public assembly, and adopt, instead, a sort of virtual or quasi-assembly, like so many of our Churches are doing? Or should we meet in the parking lots of our Church Buildings and pray, sing, and study the Word of God from our vehicles, instead of meeting together, where voices can be heard united in the praise of God? Does Facebook or YouTube count as an acceptable substitute for the public assembly of the Churches of Jesus Christ? These are questions that God’s people, and good Baptist Churches are asking and trying to answer. To be honest, I have always considered our Facebook or YouTube ministry as a means to reach the lost – or, as a means to be an encouragement to other saints of God, in places other than ours; perhaps some shut-ins, or some who are on the mission field, or Churches and people in other lands. The Church Members of the Indore Church should be at the actual, live Church services; the recording of the Facebook or YouTube videos ought to be experienced live and in person by the Church member, except in the cases when sickness or some other legitimate cause interferes with the personal participation of the Worship service. In fact, Church services in general – the Public Assemblies on the Lord’s Day – are designed and mainly intended to be of benefit to the existing Church. This is the place and the time where we gather together to pray, to worship God, to sing songs, to learn of Him and His Word; to encourage, teach, rebuke (if necessary); to comfort one another, and to generally bask in the Goodness and Grace of our God and Saviour; to meet together with our Lord, to rejoice in the Spirit of God, and to worship in the presence of the Angels. Nearly all of these qualities and benefits are lost in the remote or virtual participation of some Church service.
The question that I have is this: When are the Churches (who have ceased holding public services) going to open up their services again? Are we waiting on the President to open the economy? Are we waiting for the virus to go away? Are we waiting on a vaccine? Are we waiting for social peer pressure to permit us to gather together? I can tell you now, that if/when the President “opens the economy” (so to speak), the state governments and the local governments may or may not go along with the President’s determinations. Many governments of men in our day and age, will be more than happy to take the opportunity to impose lengthier or more strict measures to prevent the congregations or Churches from gathering together - stricter measures than what they will impose on other institutions or events. Since we have so graciously and peacefully granted them our permission, they will most happily continue to prohibit Church services – whether through actual laws, or through a social peer pressure – as long as God’s people will continue to play along. When are the Churches going to open up again? If we wait for a vaccine, it may be many months, or even a year. If we wait for the virus to go away, I am afraid we may wait forever.
I know the times are uncertain, but I believe we must continue to conduct our services, and implement cautions and logical procedures as necessary, to prudently address the health issues that we face. As for the Churches that have closed their services, whenever you open them up again (if you do open up again before a vaccine is developed and deployed), you are going to be in exactly the same state as now: The virus is still out there; your members could still catch it; sickness is still our enemy, and our bodies (because of sin) are still frail and prone to disease and destined for death. The only thing you have accomplished, is you have aided the government and society’s plan to “flatten the curve” - and even this might not be entirely true, given the number of people who are still active in our society at large. This might help in accomplishing some social or medical goal for the community in general. But when you come out of “quarantine” you haven’t changed a thing as far as your own personal situation is concerned. You are going to be exposed to the same viruses, germs, and other harmful elements that you were exposed to before you went into home confinement. Maybe there will be fewer germs or viruses around, because people have been somewhat more likely to stay home – at least there might be fewer people out and about now as compared to the time before the stay-at-home edicts were issued. But, relatively quickly, we will be right back where we were before with germs and viruses and sicknesses and accidents and injuries all around us – and what will we do then? Are we going to go into hiding every time a virus or sickness gains the upper hand for a while? Every time the media, the medical community, or the government tells us to hide, are we going to shut down our services? In WV, at least, it is still legal to publicly worship in the House of God. Even if it wasn’t legal in the eyes of the government or society, would it be right in the Sight of God to cease and desist our duties to Worship and Serve in the House of God?
I know many will accuse me of being incautious, insensitive, or even downright dangerous to our current situation. But I disagree. In my daily secular work I am considered an essential worker (who would have ever thought it?). So, I go to work every day. And, for me, it is business as usual. Of course, I implement every reasonable precaution. I constantly make use of sanitizer and soap while I am out in the public. I try to maintain some physical space between myself and others. But, because this job provides a portion of my living, I remain at work, travelling from retail location to retail location, performing repairs and maintenance on the retail facilities as needed. And, I can tell you now, that the so-called quarantine or stay-at-home orders that have been issued, haven’t changed the situation at these retail establishments in the least – not in WV! In fact, without doubt, the large retail establishments are doing more business now, then they were before the virus captured the attention of a Nation. I see and come into contact with more people now, than I did before the corona-virus. In some of these retail stores, there are hundreds of people gathered under one roof, at any given time, with cars lined up in the parking lots, and vehicles queued up at the gas stations. The drive thru restaurants seem to be doing a brisk business. (I wonder who all is touching your food before it is passed to you through your open window?) Somehow, this is all deemed safe, acceptable, and even essential business. So, tell me, is it OK to practice your rights, and participate in “essential” business such as grocery shopping, trips to Walmart, outdoor exercise, restaurant purchases, or trips to visit your neighbors or family members – but it is wrong or unacceptable or “not essential” to come to the Church House on the Lord’s Day? If we are so concerned about the corona-virus – but it doesn’t keep us from “essential” jobs or shopping trips and even many other activities – why don’t we implement the same precautions at the Church House? If the elderly or otherwise “at risk” persons don’t want to come to the Church Services, then, by all means, stay home. Maybe these “at risk” persons are the prime reason for live-streaming our services today. If a Church Member feels sick, or demonstrates symptoms related to the virus, then, by all means, stay home. These are legitimate reasons to stay away from others – not just to stay away from Church. (I don’t know that being “afraid of getting sick,” falls in the same classification of “actually being sick.”) If the Church Members are concerned, then, by all means, keep the recommended 6’ physical space between the members; have plenty of sanitizer on hand; practice good hygiene and be considerate of one another’s health. If the area you are in limits the number of people who are gathering – and you want to submit to their demands – then, why not hold services in degrees, limiting the number of congregants in each assembly? After all, these are some of the things that we are doing in our daily lives, and it is somehow sufficient for us to continue to work, to shop, to exercise, to travel, to visit relatives. I think it is hypocritical to adopt these safe practices in public and private lives, but reckon them insufficient or inappropriate in order to continue our Church Services. The world’s reasoning is that these Church services don’t add anything to the economy – these Church services (to them) are “non-essential.” In fact, most of the world would probably lump Christianity public Church services into the same category as “entertainment.” (Sadly, much of Christianity may give proof to the lie that Church services are nothing more than entertainment.) But, to Baptist Churches all across this country, and the people of God wherever they are, our Church Services are not “entertainment,” they are not “non-essential.” Rather, our Church Services are “essential” – we are about the “essential” business of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!
Isn’t it just the world that would reckon that these “safe” practices or behaviors that are adopted, and these strict measures that are taken to allow folks to go to work in this pandemic environment, are adequate in the “essential” business of the world; but these same practices and safe behaviors would be impractical, unsafe, dangerous, and imprudent when it comes to the “non-essential” business of Church Public Worship? From personal experience, in my place, and in my living, I would dare to say that a person is exposed to far more harm, or potential for harm, through one trip to a large retail establishment, then in multiple trips to the Lord’s House, where God’s people and brothers and sisters in Christ can practice better social distancing and demonstrate better hygiene and show better care for one another, than can any number of strangers gathered together in a retail establishment, or any group of workers gathered together in a work place.
I urge you, Churches, to consider your reactions to the pandemic. Shouldn’t we even now be seeking God’s Face – if it were possible, even more than we were before? Maybe the Churches should be open this Lord’s Day – with the people demonstrating the same mortal and physical cautions as they do in the “essential” workplaces – with holy hands lifted to Heaven, beseeching God for His favor, and for His mercy on this Nation, and for His grace to save the sinners.
“Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the LORD: This gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter.” (Ps 118:19-20)