Responding to the Virus – A Local Church

What follows is posted here in support of Felton Bible Church’s response to the Coronavirus issues in our community.  Part A is a letter emailed to members and regular attenders.  Part B are further considerations in support of the letter itself:

Part A

Brothers and Sisters,

After prayer, discussion, and communication outside our body, what follows outlines how we intend to proceed as Felton Bible Church in response to the Coronavirus concerns.

Bottom Line Up Front

We believe what God’s Word says to us in Romans 8:28-30 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  God is working through this Coronavirus experience for the good of Jesus’ church.  In some manner, this is God’s instrument to shape us into the likeness of Christ.  Glory will be the end result.  Praise God!

In light of this truth, and after due consideration of the present circumstance, FBC will proceed as follows:

1. As a church we will continue to meet for worship until the Lord directs us otherwise.  This will be a week-by-week consideration accomplished through prayer, by giving attention to our civil authorities, and in wise discussion with one another.

2. As you may arrive at the conviction (in prayer) that participation on Sunday morning is unwise for you personally, then please obey the Spirit and remain at home! We encourage you to make this decision a matter of weekly prayer, and to return to fellowship as soon as you are able.  Please keep the church office informed of your needs so that we can help care for you along the way.  Such is our privilege as the body of Christ.

3. If you are actually experiencing Coronavirus symptoms, or other infectious symptoms, then please stay home and get the care you need.  Be sure to let the FBC office know how your brothers and sisters can help and support you.

4. Depending on your age and general medical condition, wisdom may also require that you remain at home on Sunday mornings.  If you fit into a “high risk” category for severe Coronavirus symptoms, then please consider abstaining from Sunday mornings until this threat has passed.  The article linked here – written by a Jesus’ following doctor and pastor – is quite helpful.  He highlights that the “highest-risk patients are those older than 60 and those who suffer from chronic disease, either respiratory or another type such as diabetes mellitus or renal failure.”

5. We will modify our time together on Sunday morning consistent with wise precautionary measures.  Hand sanitizer will be available in the foyer on Sunday.  Please use it!  Better yet, bring your own, use that, and help preserve the church’s limited supply.  We will encourage you to bump elbows on Sunday and forgo shaking hands (but we won’t run you out of town if you do).

6. Please consider that the church’s financial needs will continue throughout this period of Coronavirus difficulty.  Remember that you can give electronically through the Online Giving tab on the FBC website.

What you’ve just read is the “Bottom Line Up Front” of a more extensive discussion available at the “Fix Your Mind” Blog.  Please read the latest post if you’d like to understand how we’ve arrived at this point.

May the Lord bless and keep you.  Please pray for wisdom as we consider our unfolding circumstances and seek the Lord in this situation.  It will be a day-by-day process…which is to say, an exercise in faith!

In Christ,

P.J. and Warren (In consultation with others)

Part B

Theological Grounding

Gathering together in worship is not “optional” for the body of Christ, it’s essential.  It’s not incidental to our lives as followers of Jesus, it’s central.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we live under a law of particulars about how, when, or in what manner we gather.  Indeed, God’s Word gives us great freedom to do what is both edifying and wise.  But, the centrality of corporate worship to the life of Jesus’ church means that we ought not surrender such time easily.  In other words, we look to the Spirit of God to direct when and how we meet, particularly as God himself providentially orchestrates the circumstances we face.  It seems that we are not yet at the point of needing to voluntarily forgo meeting for Sunday worship.  May the Lord, in his mercy, spare us such a day!

Experience of the Church

It’s worth remembering that Jesus’ church has often gathered under difficult and even dangerous circumstances.  One excellent story of persistence in worship comes from World War II England and the experience of believers at Westminster Chapel.  On one occasion during a service a German bomb landed nearby the church building, such that, “Windows rattled and plaster fell.”  In response, the pastor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “paused for a moment and then continued to pray…the man who gave the notices…came up, gave the announcements as always, and dusted her father off, and then watched her father go back up and start preaching” [Mark Dever, “What I’ve Learned About Preaching from Martyn Lloyd-Jones,” in Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preachers and Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 258].

If we went even further back in church history, we’d find Christians busily ministering to their plague-ridden family and neighbors.  For instance, in the year 1527, Martin Luther wrote a response letter to Christians in Breslau titled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”  It’s a document full of sound theology and neighbor-loving practical wisdom.  Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Of course, even as we note the above, it’s also important that we remain mindful of times when the church did cease gathering in response to a public health threat.  The last time such extraordinary measures took place on a large-scale in America came with the 1918 global flu pandemic (Note: You may appreciate the two articles linked to here and here).  For brief periods of time in the fall of that year civil authorities in many places specifically prohibited most or all public gatherings, including church services.  In obedience to the law and out of love for neighbor, churches complied.  After the month of October when the infection and death rates began to drop, church leaders lobbied civil authorities for a lifting of the ban (see the linked articles).

Amidst all these experiences it has constantly been the duty of Jesus’ church to boldly and wisely proclaim the Gospel.  Now it’s our turn (in much less dramatic circumstances) to be wisely bold while we too speak and live the Gospel.  By God’s grace, we will.

Santa Cruz County and California State Guidance

Currently the Santa Cruz County Public Health Office recommends canceling “non-essential” gatherings of 50 or more people.  The county has not yet formally banned such events through legal channels, and in the meantime other public services and venues remain open and functioning – shops, malls, zoos, etc.

Beyond the county, the California Department of Public Health states, “…gatherings that include 250 people or more should be postponed or canceled…Smaller gatherings held in venues that do not allow social distancing of six feet per person should be postponed or canceled…This applies to all non-essential professional, social, and community gatherings regardless of their sponsor.  Gatherings that do not meet the aforementioned criteria should only be conducted when they are essential…”

Because these guidelines remain in the realm of recommendations, we feel that FBC is still free to exercise wisdom in whether, or how, we gather.  Should our public health agencies move to the level of legally supported, limited-time bans on such gatherings, then we will need to reconsider our approach.

Experience of other Local Churches

Our decision is essentially consistent with that taken by our brothers and sisters in a nearby like-minded church.  While each congregation is free to pursue its own decision before the Lord, we appreciated the opportunity today (12 Mar 20) to confer with a church outside of our own.

Other congregations in our community will decide differently according to their own unique needs and circumstances.  For instance, the largest church gathering in Santa Cruz County determined that it will forgo meeting physically (in favor of livestreaming) through March 22nd.  We honor this church’s desire to serve and love its “neighbor.”

The Beauty of “Smallish” 

For some time now we as FBC have struggled – just beneath the surface often – with awareness of our small size relative to some churches in our area.  While this is not the place for a full-orbed discussion of congregation size, can we not, for a moment, rejoice in being a smallish local church?  It is much easier for us to continue meeting because God has limited our numbers at this point in our congregational life.  Praise God!

Preparing for The Future

As we wait on the Lord for an end to this public health concern, we will also work to think creatively about a way ahead should corporate gatherings become necessarily (or legally) restricted in our area.  “Creative” may include things like:

Livestreaming the service

Gathering in smaller groups

Conducting our services outside

By God’s grace we are not the first Christians to encounter a situation like this, which means we can borrow good ideas from others!

Christian Freedom

We close by emphasizing where we began.  Yes, at present Felton Bible Church will gather for our normal service on Sunday morning.  But, be free before the Lord (in prayer) to remain home as you deem it necessary.  Be encouraged that our God is merciful, and the difficulty of this moment will pass according to his timing and good purpose.

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