Six values that inform the decision on how/when to resume in-person services

In a “family conversation” with my church I shared six values that are driving our decisions on how/when to reopen in-person portions of our ministry. Much of the conversation was unique to our church, but I think the six values themselves are applicable to a wider audience.

These values sometimes live in tension with the others, leading church leaders to think creatively and make difficult decisions. These values are not unique to us our to our church. Pastors, staff, and elder boards all over the country are wrestling through them and their implications.

Value #1: God intended for his people to regularly gather.

While I’m grateful that we have Zoom and Facebook Live, and believe that God is using those tools right now for the spread of the gospel, the current model of virtual services is not ideal and is not, in the long run, sustainable.

I believe that the New Testament expects that his people will regularly gather around the Word and sacrament, participating in fellowship and worship.

However, the New Testament is not always clear about the nature of those meetings such as their size and location. Acts 2:46 tells us that the church met in the Temple courts and in people’s homes. Church buildings are great, but maybe not the only way to “do church” right now.

Value #2: The health of our church members.

As I observe Jesus’ ministry in the gospels, it is clear that he cared about both the spiritual and physical well-being of those who followed him. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. He fed the hungry.

While the first value draws me to think on the spiritual importance of gathering, this second leads me to articles and health guidelines which draw out the risks of gathering.

Caring for the health of those who attend our events is one of my duties as a pastor. To disregard it would be pastoral malpractice.

Value #3: The health of those in our community.

Jeremiah 29:7 tells us to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city.” In a pandemic, gathering in the wrong way or at the wrong time does not only affect those who gather, but those to whom they might spread it. We cannot simply say “I do not care about whether I live or die” since we do not live in an individualistic bubble.

We are part of a broader society and have a responsibility to our neighbors. Every decision we make impacts our neighbors whom we are called to serve and love.

 Value #4: The witness of the gospel.

What does it say to our culture to re-open before it is safe or to re-open in an unsafe manner? For many, the answer will be, and has been: “They do not care about life. They care about continuing to receive money.” Or, perhaps, “They want to make a political statement against their political opponents.”

These accusations may not be true and may not be fair, and we cannot be controlled simply by how others perceive our actions (that would be the fear of man) but, for the sake of the gospel witness, it matters how we present ourselves to our neighbors.

More importantly, we need to search our own souls and ask whether what we are doing fits with the gospel we proclaim and adorns that gospel with love and truth.

Value #5: Honoring our governing authorities.

Our church’s relationship with the governing authorities are complex and those authorities do not have an ultimate authority over the church. However, the Bible emphasizes that we should honor those authorities. If they are not calling us to disobey God, obedience to authorities is the default position.

In Michigan, churches are exempt from the stay-at-home order and so, to meet in any form for worship, would be technically legal as far as I understand. However, I believe that proper honoring of the authorities involves observance not only to the letter, but the spirit of the law.

Even if we do not always agree with those authorities, we are at least called to show them the respect and honor that is their due.

Value #6: A respect for the medical and scientific community.

Underlying the values of #2, #3, and #5 is a value for medical experts who are issuing guidance on when and how to safely meet.

In many sectors of evangelicalism respect for these experts is being undermined in what I believe to be a dangerous and unbiblical way. I say unbiblical because it ignores the doctrines of common grace and general revelation. General revelation tells us that God speaks through his creation and that truth can be discovered through a process of observing the creation around us. Common grace tells us that God sends rain on the just and unjust alike. That is, he gives even to unbelievers the ability uncover that truth.

The history of medicine, its incredible advances over time, have shown us the truths of these doctrines. Therefore, we will continue to listen to and read the advice of the broader medical community. This doesn’t mean they are always right, but it does mean that they are the most reliable source of this type of information right now.

These values, along with a desire to properly disciple the church, leads to a tension and that tension requires creative thinking. These values lead me to ask not just “if and when” we can open, but “how” we can do it in a safe, God-honoring, government respecting, neighbor-loving way.