written by Richard Bergstrom, D.Min., President, ChurchHealth
*Published on March 4, 2020 – prior to the wave of church closures
You heard me right. I’m thinking about giving up church for Lent.
Last year I attended a church that placed a high priority on all the disciplines associated with Lent Season, beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. Our pastor urged all of us to sacrifice something dear in order to enter into the suffering of Christ. Last year I gave up ice cream. This year I’m thinking about giving up church. Now before you judge me, allow me to explain.
Last Sunday, my wife and I live-streamed church services from Northshore Community Church in Kirkland, WA, where I served for ten years as Executive Pastor. I was in charge of all things operational, including being the primary risk management officer. Today the church finds itself at the epicenter of the Novella coronavirus outbreak. The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was diagnosed in Everett, Washington. It was followed by an outbreak at the Life Care Center of Kirkland (located a few blocks away from the church) where several residents have since died from the virus. The Washington Post published an article on the church and the Life Care Center and their places at the epicenter of the Coronavirus outbreak.
At the beginning of the Sunday service, Senior Pastor Scott Scruggs stood before a smaller than normal audience and said, “We are gathered together today amidst news that can make us anxious or fearful. I’m sure all of our hearts are thinking about the word, ‘coronavirus’” he said. “We’re doing what we can and we want to invite you to do the same.”
I spoke with Jonathan Wolfgang, one of the pastors at Northshore, who confirmed they were offering all three of their morning services online as streaming services. We discussed all aspects of their ministry going forward and what they envisioned unfolding in the midst of this public health crisis. The banner across the top of their website provides updates on the coronavirus. They continue to remain open for services but are following the recommendations of public officials about whether to continue to hold meetings in the future. The update assures people they are doing everything possible to ensure the safety of their facility and the people who gather there– including sanitizing the building, washing hands frequently, encouraging staff and volunteers to stay home if sick, providing hand sanitizers around the building, and relocating offering buckets in the back of the sanctuary rather than passing the offering plates from person to person.
They also encourage their church members to stay home if sick, wash hands regularly with soap and water, cover a sneeze or a cough with a tissue or arm, avoid touching one’s face, forego shaking hands at church, and inform the church if someone tests positive for COVID-19 so they can pray for them and take any necessary precautions at the church.
THE BIG QUESTION:
How can churches get ahead of this public health crisis in light of increasing reluctance to gather in groups of any size?
Fortunately for Northshore, they had just launched an online streaming option for their Sunday services a few months ago. They were prepared to stream services to people in their homes or on their devices wherever they were. Beyond that, they maintain live hosts on their streaming service who can interact with viewers in real-time.
I researched twenty-five church websites in the Bothell/Kirkland area and found that only 1 in 4 churches had information on their home page with information and guidelines informing their people about the Coronavirus. Based on my conversations with Northshore and my other research, I would suggest the following:
- Encourage people to stay home if they or a family member is sick with symptoms resembling the flu or coronavirus.
- Thoroughly clean and disinfect your facility regularly.
- Provide hand sanitizing stations around the church.
- Discontinue traditional practices around communion that involve people passing a communion server or sharing the same cup during the Lord’s Supper. Find alternatives or forego communion altogether until the crisis is past. A new outbreak of 10 cases in two families recently occurred in eastern France after people took part in an Evangelical Lent celebration in which 2000 people participated.
- Offer options for online giving or place offering baskets in the back of the church rather than passing the plate from pew to pew.
- Allow staff to work remotely when possible. With computers and internet connectivity certain types of work can be accomplished almost anywhere these days.
- Consider alternatives for face to face meetings and appointments. Zoom technology allows for meetings to be held online. Skype or FaceTime can be a good alternative for appointments or even for personal counseling or coaching.
- Thoroughly disinfect nursery and children’s areas. Provide alternatives for children’s ministry other than live weekend services. Northshore is providing downloadable digital content for parents to use alongside their streaming Sunday services.
- Don’t wait for the latest technology to offer streaming services. Facebook Live allows even the most modest of resources to broadcast services. One church announced on their website they were beginning to broadcast their services on Facebook Live starting March 1st.
Northshore Community Church has not retreated from this outbreak but has instead become the hands and feet of Jesus to the residents of the Kirkland Life Care Center. Pastor Wolfgang personally delivered 50 Chick-Fil-A meals to the staff and residents there, along with 250 goodie bags that were assembled within hours by the church’s staff and volunteers.
The Scriptures tell us “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as you see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25, ESV). And yet in these times, even if it is for a season, it behooves all of us, as well as those in the leadership of the church, to consider ways to continue cultivating community in creative ways. Living in a digital age, we have tools that can provide a substitute for face to face gatherings.
I don’t know what your decision will be. As for me, I’m thinking about giving up church for Lent. It all depends on where this public health crisis goes, and if churches are taking the necessary steps to protect those who attend. At least I know I can live-stream the services from the comfort and safety of my living room–and stay in my pajamas.
I’ll hope to see you on Easter Sunday, Deo Volente (God Willing)!
Images by CanStock and ChurchHealth
Late-breaking notice: CLICK HERE to read a document produced on 3/3/2020 from Northshore Community Church outlining their plan for tactical communication and spiritual care.
UPDATE: The Sunday after this blog was posted, Northshore Community Church and several others in the Seattle area cancelled their public worship services. Those who were able opted to live stream their services. This week (March 12th) the entire Seattle Public School System and area universities have cancelled all classes and are shifting to online education. The situation is evolving daily with major events, conferences and public gatherings being cancelled. It looks like I’m going to have to give up more than church for LENT. RB