Some principles for regathering Christ’s church for worship

Here is the news for which our church has been waiting:  we are planning to regather for corporate worship on Sunday, June 14 at 11:00 a.m., Lord willing.

We have been thinking about, desiring, and planning for regathering for corporate worship for three months (since about 30 seconds after we made the decision to stop worshipping corporately, in mid-March!). When the decision to stop worshipping on site, in response to the COVID-19 virus, I thought the most difficult decision of this situation had been made.  Oops.  I was wrong about that!  The decisions surrounding the regathering have been more complex and difficult than I imagined they might be back in March.

Many things have been muddy and confusing, but one thing that has been clear to me is that I was going to have to give up some preferences in this process.  I was going to need to think differently about my choices and think differently about others.  The decisions weren’t going to be about what I personally wanted but about what was going to be wise for the entire church body, honoring to the Lord, respectful of the government’s suggestions, and in line with best medical counsel.  Whatever was decided would also have to be enacted with care for the protection of the spiritual needs of the church body and especially for the preservation of the unity of the church.

Now that we have selected a date (have I mentioned it is June 14?!), there are still logistical factors to resolve.  While we are regathering, it will still feel very different from when we last met on March 15.  Here are some things we are considering (a full plan will be released early next week):

  • No hugging, high-fiving, or handshaking, and maintaining 6-ft distancing as much as possible
  • Wearing masks while on campus, including during singing
  • Signing up for worship service and assigned seating (to maximize seating)
  • No coffee, snacks, or any unwrapped food on campus
  • No formal fellowship time and conversations and visiting done outside (as much as possible)
  • No Sunday School classes on campus for now; Sunday School will still be done on Zoom (9:00 – 10:00 a.m.) allowing an hour to drive to church for the 11:00 worship service
  • Only one worship service (11:00)
  • Providing seating in a separate room for at-risk attendees (if they desire it)

We don’t know everything we will do, but that is a representative list and it will be different than “typical” or “normal,” and it will probably even conflict with some of my own personal practices. How do we handle that?  Here are a few implications on preserving unity from Ephesians 4 that we talked about last Sunday:

1. Determine to be more concerned about personal purity than personal rights.

It is fine and even appropriate to exercise the rights and freedoms that we enjoy. That’s not just civil liberty, but there is a sense in which that is also an expression of spiritual liberty.  But every exercise of my rights must be done with integrity. I cannot insist on rights belligerently (something for which the church in America has a terrible reputation).  I cannot speak angrily in order to get my rights.  I cannot exercise my rights pridefully and arrogantly.

Every exercise of my rights needs to pass the test of humility, gentleness, and patience (Eph. 4:2).  One simple test of that characteristic might be for us to ask, “would Christ in His infinite righteousness, do what I’m about to do?”

We are well-served in remembering that Christ didn’t call us to have rights; He called us to be like Him. No one has given up or had taken away more rights than Christ.  And listen to what was said of Him:  “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously…” (1 Pt. 2:21-23).

We are to follow His example in suffering:  we do not sin with our actions or words in our suffering, we do not object angrily, we do not threaten, and we do trust God. Instead of insisting on our “rights,” can we, like Christ, persist in holiness when those privileges are impacted?

2. Be willing to give up your preferences for the benefit of others (because you love others).

Personal preferences are fine — until they become immoral (and unloving). For instance, my right to swing my fist stops at the end of your nose.  If I violate your nose with my fist, it’s not just immoral, it’s unloving.

As followers of Christ, who gave up all the privileges of Heaven to be our servant and die for us (Phil. 2:5-8), we are (we must be!) willing to give up what might be our civil rights to fulfill Christlike obligations.

While we don’t know yet all the things we will have to “give up,” but it will likely include no hugging and handshaking (for now) and include wearing masks. The best medical counsel we have right now says that’s a wise way to live.  Is it a legal requirement?  No.  Is it an act of love that demonstrates I value others more than myself?  Yes.  We do well to remind ourselves of Philippians 2:3 and how Christ descended from Heaven and ascended to the cross because He regarded others more important than His divine prerogatives of Heaven. Can you imagine Christ refusing to wear a mask because He has a right not to wear a mask — that He refuses to give up His civil rights?  Me neither.

One further implication of this principle: it might be tempting to stay away because it’s easier to stay away if we can’t give hugs.  How about (if you’re a hugger) making a concerted effort to come because you want to demonstrate your willingness to give up that right (for now) for the sake of others?

3. Make choices, but be humble about those choices.

This isn’t in the text in Ephesians, but a few weeks ago we considered the knowleJune 14dged and wisdom of God from Psalm 139.  We know that only God is omniscient. Only God makes perfect choices every time.

No matter how much you are reading about COVOD-19, you don’t have all the information (and neither do I!) and neither you nor I have all we need to evaluate the information we have.

We are all trying to navigate a situation that none of us has ever seen before and I’m sure I’ve made some inconsistent choices some unwise choices. I need to be willing to acknowledge that and be willing to learn and accept correction and speak gracious words to those who are similarly making inconsistent and unwise choices.

So let’s make our choices but let’s not be dogmatic and insistent about them, knowing we aren’t omniscient.

4. Distinguish between wisdom choices (preferences) and moral choices.

Moral choices are clear — it’s immoral to gossip, fornicate or adulterate, covet, be deceitful, steal taxes, not honor every government official, or speak angrily (among many others).

Preferential choices are less clear because they feel like moral choices to us, even though they are not — will I watch a movie or read a book? Eat chicken, steak, or only vegetables? Will I live in a 1500-square foot house or a 2500-square foot house?  Buy a new or used car?  For whom will I vote (and before you say it’s immoral to vote a particular way, let’s ask if we are willing to practice church discipline against someone for the way they vote)?  Masks or no masks?

Because preferential choices are just that — preferences and not moral absolutes — we tolerate, endure, and encourage others who make choices different than us. We do not condemn, ridicule, demean, or stay away.  In fact, we lovingly embrace and welcome others who make choices that differ from our choices (Rom. 15:7).

5. Be patient with — and embrace (figuratively!) with joy — those who make different choices than you.

To amplify the previous point, I not only need to “endure” the preferential choices of others that are different than mine, but toleration means I need to embrace and celebrate and champion those choices.

I also need to be careful about making assumptions about why others make the choices they do; there not only is liberty for different choices, but they may have circumstances I don’t know, and I need to be considerate and kind toward them because of that possibility.

6. Be patient with the circumstances.

I know this situation is not normal and I know you want normal.  So do I.  But suffering and hardship are normal in life (and especially so for believers) — and we have not suffered very long yet.  And no matter how long this is, when we get to Heaven, the suffering will seem short, the effort to endure will seem light, and we will have all the fellowship and intimacy we want.  Let us remind ourselves of this principle from 2 Cor. 4:16-18, among others.

7. Remember it is all about Christ.

The unity we have is from Him.  And we have a mandate to preserve it so that He is glorified.  All we have is from Him and for Him.  As we re-gather (June 14!), let’s remember that.

There we are — seven principles to guide our regathering.  That might not be everything we need to consider or do, but as we do these things, we have will laid a firm foundation for enduring unity in our church body.

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