Here’s a helpful talk from Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, on our politically fraught moment and the purpose of the local church.
On Thursday, September 24, Small Town Summits hosted a Summit in Litchfield, Connecticut and had the privilege of meeting many wonderful laypeople, ministry leaders, and pastors who are pouring out their lives for God’s glory around the state. This was our first in-person Summit during the coronavirus pandemic, and we didn’t know how many people would be willing to participate in a socially-distanced Summit with facemasks. More than 40 people came, and we sang together, ate together, prayed together, and discussed throughout the course of the day the value of small-place ministry and how we can do it more effectively. It felt to us like a very significant day.
Our hearts were stirred as we prayed for the leadership team of one 300-year-old church with a faithful gospel witness and just ten members. We rejoiced with a recent church plant that is thriving during the pandemic. We considered topics such as bi-vocational ministry, church revitalization, leading with vision in small places, and women’s ministry in small-place contexts. One leader later wrote, ‘thank you for such a great summit today! The work you are all doing to encourage and equip pastors and leaders is amazing…we came back to [our town] with full and encouraged hearts! It was a much-needed day…’
We experienced the same thing we have at our other Summits – the deeply encouraging realization that, throughout New England, in towns we’ve not heard of before, God has called and positioned deeply skilled, faithful, godly men and women who are serving him with their whole hearts. We praise Him for this, we rejoice that the gospel is spreading, and we continue to pray that one day soon the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will fill Connecticut – and the whole earth – as the waters cover the sea (Habbakuk 2.14).
The Gospel Coalition New England regional conference is coming soon, on October 16-17! It’ll be exclusively online this year. Lots of great plenary speakers and breakout speakers from around New England. Please register and join us! Click here for more information and to register.
We love you all very much and are praying that we’ll be able to see one another other face to face as soon as possible (1 Thessalonians 3.10). As we seek God in this season and also hear from you about how you’re doing, we’re working hard to formulate ministry plans for Fall 2020. We already see God working in marvelous, surprising ways during this difficult and unusual time. We’re hearing stories of people in our congregation on gospel mission in their neighborhoods and on their jobs and with their families. Our congregation continues to rally around those who are sick and grieving, and to gather (in person and online) for regular, weekly worship. Coronavirus is not stopping our gospel words and gospel works. Take heart! We serve a Savior bigger than any problem. He magnifies his name even through difficult times. He will win great glory through the tough and terrible circumstances in which we’re all living.
We’re writing to express our love for you and also to clarify what we’re asking from each of you during this time, since there’s been some confusion. That’s not unusual in the time of coronavirus, with lots of uncertainties and lots of communications going around, but we apologize if we haven’t been clear. Please pray for us as we make and communicate decisions, that these decisions will help to keep us as a church radically focused on Christ, unified, free from fear, and filled with love for one another and those all around us.
As Elders, we take seriously our God-given spiritual authority to lead, as well as our accountability to God for shepherding the flock well (Hebrews 13.17). In the Bible, the authority of Elders can properly be exercised in various ways. Sometimes authority is best exercised through a command that must be obeyed by those called to submit. At other times, authority is better exercised through persuasion and appeal. Both kinds of authority are found in the New Testament: Paul’s apostolic authority toward Philemon was one of persuasion and appeal (Philemon 8-10). Elsewhere we see Paul using his authority both to command (1 Corinthians 7.12, 25) and not to command (1 Corinthians 7.6).
Here are a few things that we as Elders are requiring of our congregation in this time. If you choose to attend an in-person worship service at PCF, we require that you wear a facemask at all times while in the building, that you maintain social distance, that you not come if you have a fever or illness, and that you can assure us you’ve not knowingly been in contact with someone who has recently tested positive for COVID-19. Our decision to mandate these things follows the directives of health professionals and our state government, and we’re doing so in order to protect our congregation and the broader community for the sake of love. We’re also seeking to ensure that anyone who chooses to join us in person on Sunday mornings will be made to feel as comfortable as possible.
There are also some things that we as Elders are advising but not requiring. We are not requiring those who are 65+ and/or with prior health conditions to absent themselves from in-person services. Out of loving concern, we have ‘strongly advised’ folks in these categories to act in accordance with the Massachusetts ‘Safer-at-Home Advisory.’ But we have intentionally not commanded or required compliance with the Safer-at-Home Advisory (it is, after all, an ‘advisory’). On this matter, we have felt it important to leave room for individuals to make the choice as to whether they attend in person or not, and whether they’re willing to take the calculated risk of coming. Some of our PCF members in these categories have been desperate for gathered worship (we’re so glad they feel this way, rather than being apathetic about gathering in person with God’s people). They have come to our gathered, in-person services and we have welcomed them. We love them. Their decision to attend is not a repudiation of the Elders’ authority or an act of disobedience, because we have intentionally left room for them to make the decision to come.
In our minds, the following three sentences fit together without contradiction:
- We love you and miss you very much
- If you’re 65+ and/or with previous health conditions, we believe it’s wise for you to observe the Massachusetts Safer-At-Home Advisory and continue to livestream our services on a weekly basis
- If you’re 65+ and/or with previous health conditions, and you decide that it’s important for you to come and participate in in-person worship, we will welcome you and rejoice to see you face to face. We will trust that you have given these matters prayerful consideration and made a wise, Spirit-filled decision that is best for you
Please know of our continuing prayers for you. We long for you to walk closely with Jesus and not to drift spiritually in this season. Please continue to read your Bible, connect with other Christians, and worship weekly with us, in person or over the livestream. We need each other and we need God. He is at work.
The PCF Elders
I hope that at some point in the past week, each of you found a sign in your front yard like the one pictured above (if you didn’t get one, we’re sorry we missed you – please contact me and we’ll make sure you get one). It’s yours to keep as our small way of communicating to you that we miss you very much and consider you an important part of our church family.
COVID-19 and the many associated disruptions to our lives continue on, and we don’t know when it will end (or what things will look like when it does). For many of us, it’s a wearying, troubling, isolating, lonely, and difficult time. But we also know that God is on the move, doing good things – some of which we can see already, and many which we don’t yet glimpse. I encourage us to continue to trust in our sovereign Lord for the perseverance, comfort, and peace we each need and desire.
This coming Sunday in our Scripture reading, we’ll hear the words of Hebrews 10.24-25: ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ I’d like to apply this passage to two groups of people in our congregation in order to encourage and spur us on.
Those for whom it’s wisest not to be present in person on Sunday mornings
For many in our congregation, it continues to be wisest not to attend our gathered services in person on Sunday mornings. The State of Massachusetts’ ‘Safer-at-Home Advisory’ says: ‘People over the age of 65 and people who have underlying health conditions – who are at high risk for COVID-19 – should continue to stay home except for essential errands such as going to the grocery store and to attend to healthcare needs.’
Although it’s painful for us as the PCF Elders to advise those in these groups not to attend in person on Sundays, we continue to believe it’s the wisest and best course of action. As you heed the direction of our state government and the counsel of the PCF Elders, you are honoring God. And it’s important for you to know that you can still fulfill the spirit and intent of the Hebrews 10 passage quoted above. You can still consider how to spur on your brothers and sisters at PCF to love and good deeds. You can still make a rock-solid commitment to be with us over the livestream on Sunday mornings (and to be sending cards, making phone calls, doing Zoom meetings with a small group of fellow believers during the week). You can still encourage the rest of our church body. In fact, you are urged to do so in the Hebrews passage. Will you do it, for your good, our good, and God’s glory?
We’re so excited about the day when you’re able to be back with us in person. Until then, please stay connected with us in every way you know how, and please encourage us. We are praying for you, and we need you.
Those who are now able to be present with us in person on Sunday mornings
There are lots of good reasons you may not be able to return to gathered worship now or for a while; age, health conditions, little children who can’t sit through a service or keep social distance, etc. Each of us will be processing events and concerns differently, and we’re called to extend lots of grace to one another during this time.
That said, there is a reason to stay away from church that’s not a good one: convenience. I have to say that there were some Sunday-morning conveniences for me in the early days of COVID-19. I could sleep in a bit later than normal. I could walk down the stairs to my study, fire up my computer, and livestream the service from there. Yes, I wore a collared shirt – but I could also wear jeans if I wanted to! After the service ended, I was home already. How convenient.
But I said something very important to our congregation early on in the pandemic: we’re providing the livestream not as a convenience but as a necessary, second-best option for those who can’t be with us in person. That’s still true. I read a writer who said this week, ‘As we emerge from the restrictions of Covid-19, let’s not go from being people who can’t go to church to people who won’t go to church. There’s too much to miss out on.’ Amen! Please hear and heed this exhortation. If you can come back in person, please do. Don’t let the comfort and convenience of your couch or home prevent you from responding to God’s call to assemble regularly with other believers. At this point, we still have extra seats available in our services every Sunday and we’d love you to join us.
For all of us
Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians, ‘we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith’ (1 Thessalonians 3.10). Please hear Paul’s passion! He prays frequently and earnestly to see his fellow Christians in person. Let’s each make that our prayer, too, whether or not we’re currently able to return in person. Let’s earnestly, regularly ask God to make it possible for us to see one another face to face.
With you for your joy,