There’s an old curse which says “May you live in interesting times.” It sounds fairly innocuous, but on reflection you can see the meaning: uninteresting times are times of peace and tranquility; interesting times are times of upheaval and unrest. We are certainly living in interesting times! Historic, in fact.
I wanted to take a few moments to elaborate on something I spoke about from the pulpit last Sunday. I’d like you to know the process the Deacons and I went through in deciding about reopening the church for services on Sunday mornings. It was not a snap decision.
First, let me lay this to rest: we did not decide to reopen the church because the church needed money. In fact, to our absolute astonishment, our offerings have actually gone up during the shut-down. I have heard about other churches that are struggling financially because of this extended stay-at-home period. Some are even in danger of shutting their doors permanently. But our congregation has responded in an unprecedented way during this time. We’ve had a constant stream of people bringing their offerings in to the church, and even more mailing them in. Twice a teller at the bank asked if we were still having services, because the offering deposits were so generous. That’s incredible, folks. Glory be to God!
Perhaps in sharing this with you, we run the risk of people thinking, “Oh, the church is doing all right now,” and our offerings falling off. We all hope not. There’s still plenty to be done in maintaining our buildings and our campus. (Just ask the Trustees!) But I didn’t want to hold this information back from you for two reasons: first, because this is one more thing in a pretty wonderful list of blessings God has given our church in the last year-and-a-half or so. We have much to give thanks to God about! And second, I didn’t want anybody wondering if we were opening the church back up because of money. Let me be blunt: we aren’t.
Our congregation, like most, contains a wide spectrum of individuals and opinions. Any time you get six Baptists in a room, you get at least seven different opinions.
I’m confident that we have some who, if we had defied the government’s guidelines and continued to have church during the shut-down, would have pumped their fists in the air and shouted a loud “Amen!” It was even suggested to me that the shut-down was a violation of our First Amendment rights to freedom of worship. That would have been true if it had just targeted churches. But it didn’t. It was across the board, applied to all public gatherings. The Deacons and I discussed it, and we felt that under these temporary circumstances, we were following the command of Scripture to “be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1) I am grateful that our Indiana government has not been heavy-handed toward churches, as has been the case in some other states. In California, the governor’s restrictions have been so unfair toward churches that a lawsuit has been filed, with the intention to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. I’m glad we haven’t had to do that in our state.
Then we have others who regularly asked when we were going to open up the church again. Our response was always cautious: we wanted to follow the government’s guidelines as long as it seemed helpful and reasonable, and that churches weren’t being unfairly singled out. We are commanded to obey the governing authorities, unless those authorities tell us to do something that goes against Scripture and our faith. The principle is, “When authorities conflict, always obey the higher authority.” We all prayed we wouldn’t be put into the position of having to obey God rather than man (Acts 4:19, 5:29). But we had people who wanted to come back to church at the first opportunity. So many told me, “I can’t wait to get back to church!”
Then we had still others who expressed reluctance. They wanted to come back to church, but were concerned that they not risk their health or unnecessarily expose themselves to getting the coronavirus. We always told them, “You make your own best decision about when to come back. Do whatever you have to do to feel safe and protect yourself.” We always encouraged people to follow the government’s guidelines: that people 65 and over, or who have health issues that put them at risk, should stay at home.
During this time I have been extremely grateful for our state Southern Baptist leadership. Dr. Steve McNeil, Bob Weeks and others have been so conscientious to keep up on the latest information from state and federal authorities, and to send out summaries and links to the government’s websites as we all tried to feel our way through this unprecedented situation. I didn’t even know what a Zoom meeting was before all of this happened. Now I’ve lost track of how many online Zoom meetings I’ve participated in, with state and national leaders, and other pastors. We were all trying to make sure we understood what we were being told, and how and when to safely reopen our churches when the time came.
Frankly, sometimes we were getting contradictory information from government agencies. I called our county health department to ask if we could have a drive-in church service with people staying in their cars. After several back-and-forth phone calls, we were told “no”. Within 48 hours, the health department had to call back all the churches in our county and tell them that they’d been mistaken, and according to state guidelines drive-in services were allowed. Everybody was trying hard to understand and do the right thing.
And there were lots of emails, text messages and phone calls with other pastors as we all tried to navigate these uncharted waters together. We all wanted to reopen our churches, but none of us wanted to put our people at risk, or open up too soon or carelessly. Hours and hours of meetings and discussions were taking place, all to try to make the best decisions for our churches. One national Southern Baptist leader told us, “If you feel like you don’t know what to do, you’re not alone. Even the largest churches and ministries in America are experiencing the same things.” It was good to know that we weren’t alone.
As I would learn things, I would take notes, ask questions, and try to make sure I understood it all. Then I’d type up a summary of all I’d learned (and I don’t type very fast), and send it to our Deacons. Social distancing meant we couldn’t have Deacons’ meetings, either.
I said something from the pulpit last Sunday that may have been unintentionally misleading. I said that the Deacons and I had spent “hours in online meetings”. In retrospect, I didn’t mean to imply that we all spent hours staring at each other on our laptops or phones or electronic tablets. What I did mean was this: it took me hours and hours to gather information, digest and condense it, and then send it to our Deacons. And these were not short texts or emails! The Deacons then had to read what I sent, and weigh the options. Often I gave them “homework”: pdf. files to read, links to follow, websites to investigate, or videos to watch. I was trying to give them the same information I’d seen and heard. Then we’d have a back-and-forth discussion and sharing of opinions until we reached a consensus and made a decision. Only then would information be passed along to the church. And sometimes after spending hours on a matter one day, we’d have to do it again a day or two later as new information came along. It took a lot of time.
When Governor Holcomb had his press conference on Friday, May 1st, about beginning to cautiously reopen things in Indiana, I was listening and watching it live on my laptop at church. I took notes as fast as I could, but when he got to the part about churches reopening, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. He seemed to say that there were no attendance restrictions on houses of worship, so long as they followed the social distancing guidelines and we didn’t have another outbreak of the coronavirus.
Unsure of what I’d heard, I sent the information to the Deacons, and asked them to watch the press conference or read a transcript of it. I wanted to make sure I’d understood it correctly. As they were investigating the governor’s announcement, I began to get emails and notices from the state SBC headquarters, and from other pastors and laymen, all concerning the governor’s announcement. And after digesting the information, the Deacons confirmed what I thought I’d heard: churches were allowed to meet again, beginning on May 10th, Mother’s Day.
But that triggered another round of online meetings with pastors, and lawyers, and state SBC leaders, and exchanging more texts, emails and phone calls, all to make sure we understood how to reopen our churches safely. We knew the governor had been very careful of our First Amendment rights. But we also knew he had entrusted us with the responsibility to open up our churches with wisdom, caution, and the safety of our people foremost in mind. We did not want to betray that trust, or to be a bad testimony by being careless in how we reopened. So we had more meetings, exchanged more information, and tried to prayerfully and wisely make more decisions about what our individual churches should do. We reached a point where we were reading and hearing the same information over and over again. That’s when we knew it was time for us to decide how best to apply all that we’d learned to our own church’s situation.
All of this summarizes the process of how the Deacons and I determined when and how to reopen the church: not before the state government recommended; strictly following state guidelines; and applying it all to our own building and our own congregation. In the end, we understood that it would be similar to having church during a winter storm: we would have services, but tell everyone to make their own best decision about whether to come or not. We would communicate as best we could all the information we’d been given, and especially what the state guidelines were. But if someone decided with their own families to come to church, we weren’t going to turn anyone away or tell them they couldn’t be here.
Some were glad we started having church again. Some were conflicted, wanting to come, but believing they should wait. And some were convinced we’d made a hasty decision for the wrong reasons, and we were being careless with people’s lives. After all the time and effort we’d put into this process, honestly, those kinds of comments were hard to swallow.
It’s going to take time to get back to normal. And it will probably be a “new normal” for the near future. God has a way of pushing His people in new directions, even when we don’t want to go. Someone said that he believed more people were being exposed to the Gospel of Jesus than ever before in history, as churches were forced to be creative and go online.
I’ve been especially grateful for our radio broadcast. Over the past couple of years I have come to realize that our radio presence is much more important to people than I’d ever dreamed. And it’s probably time we increased and improved our online presence, too. I look better on the radio, but I think we also need to have online video streaming of our church services. Other churches are doing this. We can, too. It’ll take time. I understand.
After all, it’s a process.
Soli Deo Gloria!