To the MABC Family- May 21, 2020
The decision for when and how we gather as a local body of Christ is a difficult and complex one. There are no “easy” options. The process is full of tension for a variety of reasons. As leaders in the church, we seek to weigh the decisions with wisdom and love for God and others. As God’s people, we are called to live according to his revealed wisdom and authority, guided by scripture and the Holy Spirit.
As dynamics, information, responses and guidelines related to the coronavirus continue to evolve, we have remained prayerful and hopeful while assessing the potential for resuming some in-person church activities. In this letter, we want to inform you of decisions regarding church gatherings as well as some of the rationale for the decisions. As of Sunday, May 17, we have decided on the following:
1. The resumption of life groups, Bible studies and other similar small gatherings of church members and guests in homes or in the church building is to take effect immediately. Those meeting together in homes are encouraged to practice the recommended safety protocols. Specific protocols will be communicated in a later communication. Those meeting together at the church should do the same and should also reserve a room in the building through Joan Wyse. Groups using the church building should be limited to 25 people or less. Use of the building at this time is restricted to church-related activities such as Bible studies or Life Groups. Use of the facility for personal or family gatherings such as a reunion or birthday party are not allowed at this time due to the fact that religious institutions in Pennsylvania have been granted an exception for religious purposes.
2. In-person, indoor worship gatherings will resume on Sunday, June 7. These gatherings will be limited to 50 people or less and safety protocols will be in place (to be communicated later). Those attending and participating in worship services will be encouraged and expected to follow them. At this point, services will be held at 8 am, 9:30 am, 11 am and 6 pm to accommodate any and all who choose to attend. Service times are subject to change and those planning to attend should sign up in advance for planning purposes. Sign up instructions will be communicated next week.
Some of you have expressed your concern for and recognition of the difficulty of decision making about church-related activities. The unpredictable and rapid nature of the still unfolding coronavirus challenge has obviously been difficult for everyone, including church members and church leaders. From the beginning, there have been a variety of perspectives and opinions about the virus, governmental responses and mandates and the impact on churches. Additionally, there are many perspectives regarding how churches should respond. The following is a brief summary of some of the factors the elder board has considered in the decision-making process over the last two months including the decisions previously mentioned in this letter. Our hope is that everyone will read this and seek to understand some of the reasons for decisions that have been made. We recognize that not everyone will agree with the decisions (either in full or in certain details), but we also hope that respect will be given to the leadership and their conclusions. Along with the following considerations, know that we have read much and read widely regarding the best course of action for resuming in-person gatherings. We trust that, for now, we are acting with wisdom according to God’s will as revealed in Scripture and that we are in the company of other like-minded Christ followers. We would be happy to share with you some of the information we have made the most use of.
The nature and purpose of the church. The truths that Jesus is the head of the church and that we are called-out to serve God through worship, mutual care and outreach are the primary factors in decision-making. We best fulfill our purpose as a church by being physically together, but the church is not limited to physical gatherings. We are the church at home, at work and in our communities as much as we are when we are meeting together in a building for corporate worship, edification and equipping. We believe that we cannot indefinitely suspend in-person gatherings. But we also believe that we can all fulfill our calling as Christ-followers under temporary restrictions on public gatherings.
Submission to authority. Much is being said and written about individual and corporate Christian submission to governmental authorities. Confusion reigns when it comes to determining whether or not people are obligated to follow a governor’s mandate that is not technically a law. Currently, state lockdowns and directives made by governors are facing challenges in state and federal courts. In our state, some elected county officials, including in Lebanon County, have chosen to disregard aspects of the governor’s requirements for easing lockdown restrictions. How should Christians respond? The answer to that is not as simple as it might seem. Jesus, Paul and Peter all taught that Christians should submit to governing authorities. Some conclude that we should obey all laws, mandates and directives unless they directly contradict God’s moral law. Others conclude that blind obedience to governmental dictates is not what is taught in the New Testament. The elder board of Mt Aetna Bible Church acknowledges the general obligation to submit to authority, believing that all authority belongs to God. We have attempted to remain aware of state guidelines for churches during the crisis. We seek to honor the God-given authority of elected officials. But we also recognize that submission to human authority needs to be done with wisdom and discernment. The primary role of human government is to promote justice (see Romans 13:3-4). There are times when government fails to do this and Christ-followers are faced with the decision of whether or not governing authorities are worthy of honor and submission. While it is concerning that restrictions have been placed on public gatherings, including church gatherings, we do not believe at this time that the legal existence of churches in our state or in our country is being threatened. We will remain alert to the challenges related to our church and other churches.
Witness and testimony in our community. We are committed to not creating unnecessary disturbance or discomfort in our immediate community of Mt Aetna, nor in the communities we represent. In planning for drive-in worship services, we contacted the township police to inform them of our plans and purposefully chose not to use a loud audio system. We want to promote goodwill and foster a good reputation in our community. However, we believe that public opinion of the church is not more important than fulfilling our mission and calling. Currently, there are a number of people who are concerned about, even afraid of the spread of the virus. We do not want to act in any way that increases fear or tension while also seeking more understanding about the nature of the virus and its potential dangers.
Holistic needs of the congregation. It is part of our responsibility as Christians and as church leaders to protect and care for the vulnerable among us. Vulnerability effects every aspect of human life: emotional, physical, personal and spiritual. Our goal, as difficult as it is under the circumstances, remains to care for the vulnerable while facilitating meaningful fellowship, worship and outreach.
Common sense and wisdom. We believe it is still necessary to take careful and reasonable precautions to limit exposure to and the spread of the virus. While it can be argued that to do so is ill-fated, unrealistic or unnecessary, we currently believe more needs to be known about the nature of the virus and that it makes sense to minimize its spread to the degree we are able. While doing so, we recognize the uncertainty regarding many aspects of the virus and responses to it. We view this as an inevitable consequence of our fallen nature and the sin-cursed world in which we live. Our goal is to be realistic and restorative while promoting hope beyond this life.
Logistics for safe and healthy gatherings. While we seek to minimize exposure to and the spread of the virus, we also are aware of the fact that we cannot completely eliminate exposure and spread in our facility. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of decision-making for indoor public gatherings involve health and safety issues. Determining what protocols to put in place and how to implement them is particularly challenging. Protocols effect people in personal ways and are vitally important to some while incredibly annoying to others. Our goal is not to try to compromise in order for everyone to be comfortable but to make wise decisions with the information we currently have. Ultimately, we will promote health and safety over personal preference.
The law of love. Throughout the New Testament, Christ-followers are encouraged and commanded to love others selflessly. While we are limited in our understanding and ability to apply this law successfully in every situation we encounter, we are obligated to submit to others in love. We are committed to doing this with wisdom, being open to feedback and new information, but at this time, we believe following certain protocols in our public gatherings for the sake of others best reflects the love of God.
Over the next three Sundays, the pastors will address some of these factors from a biblical perspective, culminating in our return to in-person gatherings on June 7:
May 24: Submitting to authority: Romans 13:1-17; 1 Peter 2:13-17 (video recording)
May 31: The importance of the church gathered Acts; Colossians 3:16; (video recording)
June 7: Living by the law of love: Romans 13:8-10; 14 (Meeting at church building)
We encourage everyone to listen to and consider these messages as well as to reach out to elders or pastors for clarification on the plan to begin meeting in person. Most importantly, we exhort the church to pray for God’s mercy, confess and repent of sin and selfishness, declare the Good News and love each other well.
The Elder Board of Mt Aetna Bible Church