After four months worshiping together from a distance, this coming Sunday we will finally open our doors once again for in-person worship services. We are as excited as can be to see each other, but this doesn’t mean we’re really ready for it. Last week we started a conversation about how we can hit that mark together. This past Sunday morning we finished that conversation and I shared our guidelines for worshiping together safely in light of the ongoing threat of COVID-19. Here’s what I had to say.
Loving One Another
One of the most effective ways that storytellers keep their audiences coming back for more is with the use of a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger, of course, is a story that ends at a moment that is decidedly unresolved thereby inviting you to come back to find out what happens next. For superhero fans, consider the ending of Avengers: Infinity War. The bad guy accomplished his main goal, wiped out half the life in the universe with the snap of his fingers, and sat peacefully on a distant planet enjoying a beautiful sunset. Three hours of movie-watching and the bad guy wins after 10 years and 22-films worth of build up?!? Of course, I’m coming back for the sequel! What’s that? You want $100 per ticket? I’ll take a dozen just to make sure I don’t miss anything.
Or, if superhero fare isn’t your cup of tea, Lisa and I have become avid watchers of ABC’s The Good Doctor. The season finale this year was powerful. It was an emotional rollercoaster with higher highs and lower lows than any other episode of the series thus far in three seasons. It was a two-parter. The first part ended with the main character in a basement filling with water after an earthquake along with a woman whose leg had been impaled on a piece of rebar. He had to cut her out and not drown while waiting to see if the rescue workers were going to be able to get to him in time. The writing was absolutely terrific and left us sitting on pins and needles for a week before the final part premiered.
Well, last week, I left us on a bit of a cliffhanger. We are preparing to get back together for live, in-person worship services next Sunday. Seven more days and we’ll be doing this together in the same room instead of spaced out all over the community. We’ll still be streaming because there are some folks who are just not ready for that yet and that is completely okay, but most of us are going to be genuinely live together in the same room. I’m excited and I hope you are.
But, just because we are excited, doesn’t mean we’re really ready for it. Getting back together is going to come laden with some landmines which if we are not careful will blow up on us causing all kinds of chaos as landmines are wont to do. With the help of Paul and an issue facing the church in ancient Rome (whether or not eating meat that had been previously offered in sacrifice to a pagan god was morally permissible for followers of Jesus), we gradually came to understand that in spite of the myriad of challenges getting back together will bring, we cannot let differences of opinion divide us. It is not up to us to pass moral judgment on the choices a fellow follower of Jesus makes on issues that are not determinative of our salvation. That’s between them and God just like our decisions are between us and God.
Now, someone might ask how we determine which issues are and which issues aren’t. The Scriptures are our primary guide here and always and only under the intentionally sought leadership of the Holy Spirit. Here’s a basic rule of thumb, though, with the promise that if you want to explore this more together, I would be glad to do so. If the issue does not involve a conscious rejection of the lordship of Christ or a violation of something the New Testament clearly outlines as sinful for followers of Jesus to pursue, then it’s not one that plays a determining role in our salvation and we can’t let differences of opinion on it divide us. For instance, there’s nothing in the Scriptures about what kind of music should be used in worshiping the Lord. That’s a difference of opinion issue. The Scriptures are very clear, however, that occult practices have absolutely no place in the life of a follower of Jesus. If a brother or sister is somehow dabbling there, we’ve got to put our foot down. As necessary an admonishment as that was, though, the question I left us all hanging on this past week was this one: How do we actually manage to do that?
Well, I told you to come back this week, I’m grateful that you did, and so let’s take a look at the answer together. Let’s jump straight into the text of Romans 14 because Paul actually gives us the answer in the very next verse over from where we stopped last week. Find a nearby copy of the Scriptures and take a look at this with me because you’re going to want to see it for yourselves.
After making clear that we are each going to be personally accountable to God, Paul says this in v. 13: “Therefore, let us no longer judge one another.” That’s it? But that’s what we decided we needed to not do last week. Well, I said the answer was in the next verse, not the next sentence. Keep reading: “Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in the way of your brother or sister.” That’s it. That’s the answer. How? Let me explain.
Instead of judging someone else for the choices they have made, let us focus our attention on helping them not trip over something we may be doing that could prevent them from connecting as fully with their heavenly Father as they could be. Do you see how this changes things? Now, instead of being fixated on what we think they are doing wrong and critically poking them in the direction of God—a prodding to which exactly no one responds well—we are instead focusing on the log that might be in our own eye with the intention of removing roadblocks from their journey to Jesus. We are looking for ways we can be intentional in our efforts to see them become more fully who God designed them to be. And, if you’ve been listening to my preaching and teaching for very long, you just may recognize those words. What are we doing when we are intentionally committed to seeing someone else become more fully who God designed them to be? We are, in a word, loving them. In deciding to never put a stumbling block or pitfall in the way of our brother or sister what we are doing is loving them. That is, love is the way we manage to not let differences of opinion divide us.
Paul goes on to further unpack this idea starting in v. 14. And again, the issue on which he is focused is idol meat, which is irrelevant for us, but the underlying emphasis is what matters. Listen to this: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” That is, like we were talking about this past Wednesday, the limits of the freedom available to us in Christ are much greater than we usually imagine them to be. In Christ we can do just about anything. Whether or not we should is an entirely different question. Unfortunately, most of us can’t fully get our minds around just how big our freedom is and so we struggle with one issue or another. Continuing in v. 14 now, “Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean.”
Does that idea make sense? What he’s saying is basically this: If someone considers something to be sinful to do, for them, it is sinful to do. This is the case whether or not it is actually a sin. Alcohol makes for an easy example here. For some folks, taking a sip of alcohol is a sin because of what it has wrought in their life and the lives of the people around them. In an absolute sense, though, there is nothing in the Scriptures that prohibits the moderate consumption of alcohol. That is, drinking alcohol won’t by itself separate someone from a relationship with God. Where someone believes it will do that, though, for them, drinking it will indeed separate them from a relationship with God.
For Paul’s audience, eating this idol meat was not in and of itself sinful. There were some folks in the church, though, who were entirely convinced that it was. For them to eat it, then, would be sinful. It would be sinful not because they somehow violated God’s command by eating it, but rather because they violated their internal convictions regarding God’s authority over them. They were doing what they believed He had told them not to do and not because their convictions on this non-salvation determining issue had changed. If we do what we sincerely believe God doesn’t want us to do we are sinning whether or not He actually cares about our doing whatever it is.
Let’s put some concrete on this. Some folks coming to church next week don’t think things like wearing masks are necessary. Some absolutely do. Not necessarily because the masks themselves are so special, but because of the concern their use demonstrates for the people around them. Now, this is not an issue of weaker or stronger faith as the issue of eating idol meat or not was in the Roman church. It’s an issue of what is the proper way to show loving concern for the people around you. That’s the nature of the disagreement. And in a disagreement like this, what Paul is advising here is to lean in the direction of the more restrictive behavior expectations. Verse 15: “For if your brother or sister is hurt by what you eat [or by what you don’t wear], you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy, by what you eat [or don’t wear], someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be slandered, for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and receives human approval.”
And again, Paul was talking about meat, we’re talking about masks and other sanitation and physical distancing efforts, but this idea can apply to anything. How can you pursue the practical outworking of your relationship with Jesus in such a way that invites someone who does it slightly differently than you do to connect more fully and freely to their heavenly Father? Or, to put that another way, how can you obey Jesus’ command to love one another after the pattern of His own love for us more fully than you already are? This isn’t something passive either. Too often we take a live and let live approach to the way we live out our faith among the people around us—we don’t impede them, they don’t impede us, and everyone is happy. What Paul is talking about here calls for something more active. How can we be intentional about helping advance them by adapting what we do with them in mind? This shifts the emphasis from doing no harm to actively doing good.
“So then,” look with me at v. 19 now, “let us pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another. Do not tear down God’s work because of food [or masks or music or carpet color or anything else that is not determinative of salvation].” And why? Because “everything is clean, but it is wrong to make someone fall by what he eats.” If limiting yourself or changing what you do allows for someone else to connect more fully with Jesus and doesn’t unnecessarily impede your own relationship with Him (indeed, in your intentional efforts to see them advance in His direction…that is, to love them…you just may find yourself connecting more fully with Him because of this), then that is a worthy goal to pursue. “It is a good thing not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.” This is a wildly counter-cultural idea, but it is worth it to sacrifice your rights and what you believe you are entitled to have if by doing so someone else can come to more fully reflect the image of Jesus than they currently do.
And listen: You don’t have to agree that the person is right in thinking this or that. Verse 22: “Whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God.” For these matters, what you believe yourself doesn’t matter. How you love your neighbor does. We don’t want to be the cause of someone else feeling distanced from God because of a judgmental heart or a conflicted conscience. “Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever doubts stands condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith, and everything that is not from faith is sin.”
Let’s put a cap on this together. How does all of this help us thrive through the transition period of getting back together once again? When we first get back together next week, it’s going to be a good week. That’s going to be a great morning. It will be so good to see one another again. Some of you haven’t seen people you love dearly for a quarter of a year—think about that! Closing the distance gap is going to be wonderful. What could change that? Remember what we said last time? It’ll be good at first, no doubt about it. We’ll be honeymooning together for a few weeks. There’s no reason in the world not to enjoy that to the fullest. But, come on, you know this as well as I do: honeymoons eventually come to an end and we’ve got to face reality. These issues we’ve been talking about are real and they aren’t going away just because we’re excited to see each other at first. And, the differences in how we worship together and what it looks like for us to be back together will make sure that we don’t just forget about them over time. It’s going to be a while before things are like they were before all of this started. Some changes may wind up being permanent. We’re learning as we go to be sure, but we’re going to be in a learning mode for a while. Differences of opinion stand a great chance of dividing us if we are not prepared to meet them head on with grace when they come. Differing approaches to living out our faith will regularly threaten to derail our Gospel-advancing efforts unless we learn to follow Paul’s call here to love one another. The fact is, the church always thrives when we love one another.
What we have before us is a chance to reestablish our commitment to loving one another—something we generally do really well here at First Baptist Oakboro—in ways that will uniquely position us for powerful future kingdom expansion. God has made us to be a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. This fresh start is giving us a chance to be that for even more people than before.
Imagine something with me for a minute. Imagine that our reputation in this community and beyond becomes that we are the place where people can connect. It doesn’t matter where they are from or what lies in their background. They can connect here. They can connect here because grace flows in abundance. Even where people look different from one another and come to the church from out of wildly different places, there is a constant and intentional effort on the part of everyone already here to create space for newcomers. People are received just exactly as they are without any preconditions and expectations. At the same time, though, while they are given the space they need to seek the One True God from out of their own experiences and personality, there is a lovingly intentional effort to see them become more than they are now. Got a mental imagine of that in your mind? Listen: It can happen. In fact, it’s God’s will for it to happen here. The church always thrives when we love one another. The church always thrives when we love one another.
Folks, there are going to be other people in the room starting next week who don’t agree with you on a whole number of issues, but in particular how best and how thoroughly to pursue keeping themselves and their families safe from COVID-19. The reality is that it is spreading again and in this area. Many of you have no doubt noticed that Stanly County’s numbers have spiked recently. North Carolina is one of the leading states of COVID hospitalizations in the country right now. This stuff isn’t any less contagious or scary now that things are opening back up. In fact, as things are opening back up, cases are starting to swell. Many of us lived in a bubble from it for quite a while, but while we are still COVID-free as a congregation, thanks be to God, I know that many of you have had much closer brushes with it than you perhaps imagined you would have ever faced not all that many weeks ago. Now, personally, you may still think it’s no big deal, but I’m going to ask you to lean in the direction of the folks who are sure that it is. They may not be right, or you may not be right, but it’s what love requires all the same. And the church always thrives when we love one another.
So then, how are we actually going to do this? What is it actually going to look like for us to get back together starting next week? At long last, let me share the details with you. And, in case the feed cuts out on you or us here, this is not the only time we’re going to make this public. I will post this on the Facebook page, make it available on the website, and it will be in the newsletter which will go out tomorrow.
Are you ready? Here goes. For starters, we are going to have two services. Given the data we have been colleting on just how many folks are planning to return starting next week, we believe that two worship services will allow us to worship with adequate physical distance between your family and the next family over. The first service will be at 8:30 and the second will be at 11:00. The timing there was chosen intentionally and for a couple of different reasons. Number one, it will leave time for our cleaning team to sanitize the fellowship building between services. We have a cleaning service who will make sure the place is ready to go before the first service and we’ve got a trained team of folks who will handle it before the second. Every single surface that someone has even possibly touched is going to be sanitized before the room is used a second time. Additionally, if you are interested in serving on that cleaning team, consider this your invitation. Just let me know and we will get you trained and in a rotation. The second reason for the timing is that in a few more weeks we are prayerfully planning to add in-person Sunday school back into our schedule. I don’t yet know what that will look like so stay tuned for details. These service start times will allow for us to do that without changing things on you again in a few weeks.
As far as who goes to which service, the 8:30 service is going to be for folks who are in a higher risk category whatever the reason you happen to be there. While we are going to go out of our way to clean and disinfect between services, there will have been two days of no one in the building for that 8:30 service meaning it will be about as germ-free as it can be then. If you feel you are at a higher risk for infection, 8:30 is the service time for you. For everyone else, the 11:00 service is for you. What we need from you, though, is to help us have an idea who is coming to which service. My lovely wife has created a Google Form that will allow you to sign up for a particular service with your contact info. For this first service, many of you have been contacted by one of our wonderful deacons who have signed you up based on the information you shared with them. Going forward it is going to be your responsibility to do this. If you have not received a phone call or text, though, the link to the form will be available on our Facebook page and website. Please go and sign up. In most cases, you’ll sign up and that’ll be the end of things. But, if we find that one service is going to be more crowded than wisdom allows, we will be able to reach out to some folks about moving around for the sake of safe physical distancing. Again, this form is going to be available on our website and on our Facebook page. I will personally pin it to the top of the Facebook page so you can easily find it. For folks who do not have Facebook and can’t access our website, they will be able to call into the church office and Delinda will be glad to get them signed up appropriately.
As for the services themselves, they will be identical in every way except their audiences. The only exception to that is if we have special guests at the first service who cannot come to the second. On those occasions we will video that part of the first service and have it ready to play in the second. Your audio-visual team is hard at work making sure we are ready for things from a technical standpoint. We are also aiming for the services to last for not more than 45 minutes. The primary reason for that we will talk about momentarily. The secondary reason is that the longer we’re together, the greater the chance of sharing germs will become. But, at the same time, we still want it to be worth your time to get up and get dressed and come to church.
When you arrive, because of the amount of time we are allowing between services, both entrances to the building will be accessible. They will not, however, be opened until 15 minutes before each service. The doors will be propped open so you do not have to touch them. If one entrance—especially the entrance from the parking lot—seems congested, make your way to the other open entrance. As you enter—again, especially from the single door nearest the parking lot—as much as you are in the habit of doing otherwise, please don’t stop in the hallway to visit. That space will quickly become congested. Instead, come straight on in and find a seat. The chairs will be spaced appropriately so that you will be able to sit with your family and not have to worry about folks sitting around you being too near. Also, as much as you are accustomed to doing otherwise—especially you extroverts—don’t make rounds to visit. Enjoying talking with the people immediately around you, but more movement around the room increases contact which we want to keep to a minimum. If you see someone you know, don’t shake hands. Don’t reach out to hug. I know it feels weird, but as the sign in the hallway (graciously and expertly designed by students at the STEM school) reminds you: Greet each other with a smile and a wave. Also, given everything we talked about earlier this morning and last week, you don’t know for sure how comfortable the other person is with contact. The last thing you want to do is force someone into even a limited amount of contact they don’t believe is appropriate. So, just don’t do it. Smile and wave from a distance. When the service is over, the doors will be opened for exiting. At that point, please don’t hang out in the room to visit more—our cleaning team needs to be able to get to work preparing the room for the next service. Go ahead and make your way to the parking lot—keeping in mind physical distancing as you go. This quick in and out is not what we normally do, I know, but it’s where we are.
As for the wearing of masks…we are going to go ahead and ask you to do that. I don’t say this eagerly, but all the wisdom right now points us unavoidably in this direction. Now, no, we’re not, as a church, subject to the governor’s updated executive order about the wearing of masks. But, all of the medical and spiritual wisdom right now suggests insistently that it is wise to go ahead and ask for them to be worn anyway. And let me give you one Gospel reason why: It may be that we have someone come and visit our church who doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus. They’re nervous about the virus, but they’re so hungry for spiritual truth that they come anyway. If they walk into a roomful of people who aren’t wearing masks and who aren’t physically distanced, they’re not going to be repelled just from our church, but from the Gospel itself. We can’t risk that alone happening. In other words, unless you’ve got a medical reason you can’t wear one, I’m going to ask you to plan on it. We will have some available here for folks who find they need one upon arrival. We will also have hand sanitizer available for folks who desire it. For the sake of the most vulnerable among us as well as the most vulnerable in our community with whom we might come into contact, we are going to do everything we can to practice safe physical distancing and conscientious care for our neighbor. This is loving one another. And the church always thrives when we love one another.
What else do you need to know? Well, I know many of you have gotten used to going to church in your pajamas. You must actually get dressed before you come. Shirt and pants are required no matter how you might be dressed and watching right now! Here are some other changes from what was normal to expect: There will not be bulletins available. The announcements will still be scrolling up on the screens to let you know what’s going on. If you aren’t already receiving a copy of the newsletter, contact the church office to get on the list. You won’t have a service order, but we’ll make sure you know when you need to do what. Speaking of service order, we will not be taking up an offering as a part of the service. If you have not already signed up for our e-giving, please consider doing that. It’s super easy and completely contactless. If you would prefer to bring your offering to the building, we will have an offering bucket near each entrance and exit for you to be able to leave it there. Another change is that there will be no greeters. We are glad as can be that you are here and we’ll have some great folks in the parking lot to say hello—from afar—but our entryway has a tendency to bottleneck and a greeter will only make that worse. No greeters. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, it will be contactless. I’ll let you know how that will work before we do it.
There will not be any childcare or Children’s Church available for either service. What that means—especially in the second service—is that things will be a little louder than before. That’s okay. Parents of young kids, if you are comfortable bringing them to church, we want you to know that you are welcome to do so. No one is going to be looking at you funny if they make noise. Kids don’t sit for very long very well. And after four months, they’re really out of practice. Believe me, Lisa and I understand, we have three. Actually she understands because I’m in a room with no kids right now and she’s not. With that in mind, in addition to my own message, Pastor Nate will be bringing a special message for our younger students each week. These should be a lot of fun and will give your kids something to look forward to each week. Also, feel free to bring some things to keep their attention occupied if you would like. We absolutely want you to know that your kids are going to be welcome here even if they happen to be noisier than you’d like them to be. That’s going to be part of life going forward and frankly, I think it’ll be good to remember what it’s like to worship all together again and that making a joyful noise to the Lord doesn’t only come in one form.
Speaking of that joyful noise—and this is a tough one, I know—there will not be any congregational singing. This is a point on which different churches are going to make different decisions and we’ll love them all the same. But, most experts in virology and musicology both agree that singing is one of the most effective ways to spread the virus around a room. Six-foot distancing makes no difference when it comes to singing. And the more joyfully we sing together, the worse it is. This and the lack of childcare are the primary reasons we are going to intentionally shorten our services for the time being. Now, I know how important singing is as a part of worship for many of you. It is for me too. But, we simply cannot in good conscience worship in such a way that will knowingly put anyone in the room at risk. That’s not loving one another. Fortunately, singing is not the only way to worship the Lord and Dana has been working really hard on planning some worship elements that will be different than we are used to but, I think, powerful new additions to our worship retinue. I’m frankly really excited for the ways her leadership is going to make a difference in all of our lives here.
Okay, that was a lot of information, I know, but I want you prepared in every way for what next week and beyond will bring. The summary is this: There will be two services at 8:30 and 11:00. We need you to sign up for your service understanding that the early service is for higher risk folks. As much as you want to do otherwise, don’t stop to visit when you come in the room. Grab a seat and prepare to worship. Afterwards, go ahead and hit the road. Masks will be required. We won’t collet or pass anything including bulletins and offering. There won’t be childcare, though we are planning the services with kids in mind. And, we won’t be singing together. Doesn’t sound like quite so much when you put it like that, does it?
That being said, you may still have questions. It may be that after all of this, you’re still not comfortable coming back yet. Hear me well: That’s okay. Just because the doors are open right now does not mean you have to be here. We will still be streaming the message, so you won’t miss out in that way. If you have questions, though, by all means, please ask them. Call my cell phone. Send us a direct message on our Facebook page. Send me an email. The truth is, we don’t know everything. There may be something we miss. There may be a detail we overlook. I’ll ask you for grace should you find one with the assurance that we are holding to this plan with humility. If circumstances or wisdom dictate a change, we’ll make it. We’re going to be pretty nimble over the next few weeks and months. But we are going to be intentional about loving one another because that’s what will make this all possible. The church always thrives when we love one another.
One more thing: Next week is probably going to be emotional for many of us. That’s okay. We are going to experience those emotions together and lay them before the Lord with gratitude for all He’s done and will yet do for, in, and through us as a church. All of this has been hard to be sure, but it’s not going to stop the advancement of God’s kingdom. Jesus Himself declared that not even the gates of Hell would prevail against the church and COVID-19 isn’t even close to the gates of Hell. Our God will never leave us nor forsake us, and as we commit ourselves to His kingdom business, He’ll make sure we have all we need to experience the success He has planned for us. With all of that said, let me pray for you and then we’ll get ready for what next week will bring.