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A Theology of Worship & Social-Distancing

Posted by Joshua Claycamp on

Dear Brothers and Sisters, First Baptist Church of Kamloops,

Everything is shifting very quickly with regards to COVID-19. In British Columbia and Kamloops, the government has declared an Emergency and closed all bars and clubs, banned gatherings over fifty people, and counseling social distancing. In other parts of Canada, such as Ontario, religious gatherings have been expressly forbidden by clear command. I expect that everything will shift again quickly, and it will keep shifting. To love God with all of our mind will require a lot of thinking about these things every day.

One thing we need to think about: What should our attitude regarding gathering together for worship be under the present circumstances?

These New Government Regulations are not Religious Persecution

Before we begin, there are a couple of nuanced points that need to be made. First, it is important to remember that government counsels and commands under these circumstances are not religious persecution. They may clearly be an infringement upon religious liberty, and we may be instinctively averse to them, but we should not consider them as religious persecution. The governments of the world are doing what they ought to be doing as ‘good’ governors, seeking to take care of those entrusted to their oversight. Even though no secular government has any clue of what real Christianity involves, lumping all ‘faith communities’ and ‘religious gatherings’ together, I do not think we should resent these restrictions.

Freedom of Conscience & Respect for the Elders, the Government, and other Authorities

Additionally, the second nuanced point to be made. With everything that is about to be said, it is important to remember that there is freedom for every Christian to act as they deem to be wisest in accordance with an instructed conscience. This is difficult, because a church member might not believe that the elders have chosen the wisest course for the whole church, yet those members should still be willing to embrace that course of action for the church while disagreeing with that recommended course of action for themselves. None of us have the liberty to lord it over the consciences of others. At the same time, we must not allow our liberty to shackle others. Therefore, you do not have the liberty to ignore your elders as they seek to instruct your conscience; nor do you have the liberty to trample upon the souls and bodies of others, any more than you have the liberty to raise your fist against a government seeking to do its job well in a nightmarish environment such as this.

Now, what does God say?

Let us simply reflect on what God has commanded:

“Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”” (Mark 12:29–31, ESV)

Both of these commandments will intertwine and balance against each other in this discussion about our attitude to gather together for worship under the present constraints.

The key points in Canada are as follows:

  • everyone in the Canada is now being advised to avoid “non-essential” contact with others and “unnecessary” travel.

  • people are also being asked to work from home “where they possibly can”, and avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and social venues (in Ontario Declaration of Emergency this was explicitly applied to gatherings of the church.

  • people are now being advised to stay at home for 14 days if they, or anyone in their household, has either a high temperature or a “new and continuous cough”.

  • people in at-risk groups will be asked, probably within days – maybe even today, to be “largely shielded from social contact” for 12 weeks.

  • Canada is to scale up coronavirus testing in the coming days.

How, then, ought churches to respond to this?

First, what does it mean to love God?
  1. It means worship. To love God means to desire Him and to delight in Him, and that is nowhere more fully expressed than in the gathered worship of the church. There in the gathered worship we hear His voice; there He lifts up the light of His countenance upon us, and gives us peace. That means Christians must have a built-in predisposition to gather together to worship Him.

  2. It means prioritizing God. The first four commandments require us to place God first, to put our trust in and worship Him alone, to honor His Name above all things, and to serve Him with our time and energy on the other six days of the week, while gathering with His people on the day appointed for His worship, when not providentially hindered from doing so.

  3. It means thinking differently about ourselves than the world thinks about us. We are not a social gathering in the casual sense of the phrase as used by the government. There is a vital spiritual dynamic at work which God’s people cannot afford casually to neglect. For these reasons, I do not think that we should quickly assume that cancellations of worship services are the only way forward. At the same time, we are a gathering in which we will have quite prolonged and close contact, under normal circumstances. That will carry us to our concern for neighbors below. We should remember the witness we bear to those around us by how we live, and what our priorities are.

  4. It also means respecting the Government. Love to God requires a proper respect to the government that He has appointed, within the terms of the fifth commandment, which has application to the way in which we both exercise and respond to God-given authority. In fact, among the things which we should do on the Lord’s day is to pray for our government.

  5. It means thinking about God’s Name in the community of Kamloops. Furthermore, love to God requires us to preserve his reputation, as it is carried by the church, both positively and negatively. We do, perhaps, need to take account of the fact that religious services of some kind proved a catalyst for major outbreaks in both New York State and South Korea. We must therefore avoid giving the impression that we are creating or exacerbating an avoidable problem.

  6. Loving God also means not putting God’s blessings inside a box beyond even His reach. With everything that we’ve said, we must also remember to honor His ability to bless us outside or beyond the ordinary means of gathered worship that we typically use for our spiritual wellbeing. Would we deny that God has, for example, been pleased to sustain the spiritual health of men and women who have been, perhaps for years, cut off from the normal means of grace of attending the worship service? Can he not do the same under these unusual circumstances?

Second, what does it mean to love our neighbor?
  1. It means forsaking reckless bravado. We ought not to risk our own lives or the lives of others unjustly or carelessly. Whatever faith in God means, it does not mean the kind of bravado that flaunts itself. Whatever we do, we ought to take all reasonable precautions to protect and preserve health and life (in accordance with the sixth commandment). Anyone who does exercise their liberty in meeting should not make the gathering itself, or our behavior at it, an act of bravado rather than of faith. Temple-jumping is not faith but folly – it is testing the Lord your God (cf. Mt 4.7). So, for example, if you choose to gather, you should observe not just the niceties of social distancing on the smaller scale, but take stringent and even aggressive measures to avoid any risk to health and life.

  2. This might mean NOT going to Worship. If you are at risk or a risk, you should act out of love to others, and absent yourself for the period of time that is wise. If you are obliged to exercise your liberty in not meeting, then you should do all you can to make the most of the Lord’s day, taking advantage of every means to enter into the spirit and purpose of the day. All those who are exhibiting any signs of this sickness, or are within those periods of time of necessary wariness and observation, should not attend; neither should those who fall within the ‘at risk’ or ‘high risk’ categories. If we can maximize the distance between those who appear to be a risk and those who are at risk, we can act with a clear conscience.

  3. It might mean INSISTING on going to Worship. We need to start thinking more about the positive effect on our neighbors of continuing to worship God. For some, this will be the first time they have ever truly considered their mortality, and they need to know the God who saves. The fact that we value God above all things, and place His worship so high on our list of priorities that, even in such a time as this, we organize our lives around the centrality of worshiping God will be a blessing to them. Let them hear our songs of praise sounding from our homes during the week and out of our church on the Lord’s day. Let them know that we are praying for them and for others. Let us share with them opportunities to hear the Word of God, however they can hear it!

  4. It means thinking about our own unique congregation. Elders, in making these decisions, must take into account that different congregations have different compositions. A congregation composed mainly of elderly saints might need to make some more radical decisions than one composed mainly of younger folks. If there are an unusual number of sick people scattered among the congregation, that will also have an impact.

  5. It means that we need to use all the means at our disposal to feed the souls of God’s flock and to call sinners to repent and believe. Whether that means personal visits, regular phone calls, employing available technology to provide audio and video live-streams or recordings, or whatever it may be, we must not neglect to care for one another, body and soul.

We need to press home upon men and women the fearful judgements of an offended God, and plead with them to turn from their sins, before a worse thing comes upon them. We need to explain that such horrors as these are the birth pangs of the great and terrible Day of the Lord -which is coming. The greatest love we can show to God and to neighbor is to preach the truth of His judgement against sin and His mercy toward sinners, of the salvation to be found in Christ for all who repent and believe, of the horrors of a looming hell and the glories of a promised heaven.

How the Elders are Leading at First Baptist Kamloops

So, what will that look like at First Baptist Kamloops? We are stripping down to the bare minimum in terms of meetings and gatherings, a skeleton of Lord’s day morning services of worship, and a Wednesday prayer meeting.

At this point in time, until the government’s advice changes again, we are anticipating that we shall do all we can to maintain that pattern. At the same time we are urging those who are a risk, and at risk, to take care of themselves and others by staying away. This will enable others to gather if they deem it wise and proper.

We shall open the doors, probably a little earlier than usual. We shall encourage people to enter as individuals or tight family units, and sit accordingly, following stringent principles for social-physical distancing, sitting apart from each other within the building. On the Lord’s day, we shall do what we can to embrace all the normal scriptural elements of worship, but we shall probably do so in a more minimal fashion than usual. We shall live-stream our praying to the Lord and our preaching of His truth, so that God’s people can enter in.

WE SHALL DO THIS AND NOT LEAVE IT TO OTHERS! While we appreciate the many good resources online, we are God’s under-shepherds in this place, and this is His flock under our care, mine, Pastor Ryan and Pastor Al, and—God helping and sparing us—we are going to preach to the people we know and love until we cannot. When we have finished worshipping, we shall dismiss as individuals and families, giving people time to wash their hands and clear the building one after the other. And then we shall do it again when the next occasion comes.

And if we are actively forbidden for a time from meeting even like this? Then we shall consider meeting in the open air, well-spaced out. And if that also falls under the ban? Then I shall probably go alone to the church, and I shall preach my heart out to the saints and the sinners whom I love, even if they are not present, and I will use all the technology at my disposal to give them a chance to hear it.

And if we are obliged to self-isolate or to stay at home, or if we fall sick, then we shall either ask someone else to preach. Or, what is more likely, we may tell everyone else to stay away and come to the church ourselves, sick men though we be, and we will keep preaching to you so that the saints will be fed and the sinners warned. And if the Lord calls us home, we trust that someone else will take our place and keep preaching God’s saving truth.

I hope this impresses upon those of us who have become too accustomed to our privileges and too presumptuous concerning our blessings, that there is nothing on this side of heaven more like the heaven-to-come than the saints of God gathered in His presence on His day to worship His Name. There will always be worship. Of this, I am certain for so Christ has taught me:

“As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”” (Luke 19:37–40, ESV)

Though all the world fall into darkness and perish, may the worship of God continue!

 In Christ,

Pastor Josh

Tags: church, worship, worship services, kamloops, social distancing