We were one of the first churches to close when news of the pandemic began to coalesce. Given the information we were hearing, and the size and demographic of our winter crowd, it was the responsible decision.
We closed for ten weeks. But then we were one of the first churches in Sarasota to re-open.
Then after five weeks, the Florida Surgeon General requested again that people limit gatherings over 50 so we closed again.
Other churches started opening soon after that. We didn't. And now, after nine weeks, most of the churches around us have been open for weeks. I don't know actual numbers but it seems we are one of the last to reopen.
I want to give clarity about that.
My heart all along has been to cooperate with those who bear the burden of leading our city and state, that their service might be a joy and not a burden.
This is an application of scripture's mandate about following our church leaders, but I believe in principle it applies to all leaders: "Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you." (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)
Likewise, as one charged with making decisions that affect this church, I want to carry out that responsibility with diligence.
As I said last week, I don't believe there is a right or wrong decision about whether churches meet in person or not. I am confident that meeting in homes is not disobedient to scripture's call to not forsake meeting together.
In fact, it's possible that our preference for gathering somewhere other than our homes is more akin to forsaking meeting together.
But that's another post. :)
That said, most of us miss gathering don't we? I miss seeing you. I miss singing together with you. I miss the encouragement of just being together with you. At the very least we miss our memories of what it used to be like to get together.
And yet, if you were one of the 90 or so who met again for those five weeks in May and June, you likely remember how conflicted your feelings were.
There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm for meeting again, but there was some sorrow and timidity in meeting again.
Part of that is just a natural response to what social distancing does. Yeah, we all know that social distancing is manufactured -- that it's not really an indication about whether people like us or not -- but still, we learned at a young age how to respond when people keep their distance from us. We keep our distance from them. Physically. Emotionally. We shrink back. We become quiet. We avoid eye contact. We fade away.
It's hard to meet joyfully when we can't engage each other socially.
Now, I don't want to overcommit on that. There was joy. We even met new people who started coming to our church because we were one of the first to reopen. Wonderful people.
But many who I was hoping to see stayed home for the obvious reasons.
As I've said, we'll reopen again. But it's been my desire that when we do meet again I want it to be with joy. I want the room to buzz with enthusiasm, not hum with uncertainty.
I'm still looking for the right timing on that.
Part of that is I don't want to be "yes and then no." I don't want to just follow whatever opinion is trending on social media, riding the waves of public opinion up and down, back and forth, starting and stopping, herking and jerking. It's important to me that we be a non-anxious presence in this. Also, that we don't "condemn ourselves by what we approve."
And so, the staff's counsel is that we wait and pay attention to what happens when our local schools reopen. So far it has not been without challenges for Manatee public schools, as well as our own Sarasota Christian School.
But they are meeting, and we are watching. And almost all of the people have not gotten sick.
And next week we'll be watching the Sarasota County Schools to see what happens. Not anxiously. Just trying to learn. And I personally believe that almost all of the people will not get sick. That's my own personal bias.
But all that said, an underlying consideration for me in keeping our campus closed has been a spiritual sense that it is serving a purpose unique to our congregation in a way that has nothing to do with the virus.
Like I said here,
and one more (the one where I said the church is closed for good) here.
And so we continue to pray for God to move among us. Again, this isn't as much to do with the virus, as it is about what God wants to do among us.
Join me in praying this simple prayer: "Lord, what would you have us learn during this time?"
And lean into yesterday's teaching where I explained four things we need to be devoting ourselves to. It totally applies to this larger conversation. Take 19 minutes to watch it again here.
But I'm also sensing that it's time to gather for worship, even if it's not yet time to gather weekly for worship, so...
We are planning a special evening service for extended worship, prayer, communion, and inspiration: Saturday, September 5th, at 6pm.
It's Labor Day Weekend. Let's plan to worship together and encourage each other as part of our festivities.
Mark your calendars. (But mark it in pencil. All plans are in pencil these days. See above.)
My heart is that we would gather to encourage and strengthen each other. What do you think? Good idea? You in?
When I see Christian leaders demanding their right to gather publicly as if it's a fundamental necessity, I'm a bit embarrassed.
I'm partly embarrassed to be associated with what I believe is a short-sighted view of worship. But more poignantly, I'm embarrassed for how it sounds to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where meeting publicly isn't even an option. I would venture that for them to meet at all is considerably more faithful than for us to exercise our rights by having an outdoor praise concert, or an open door sermon in our building.
This isn't to say I'm against meeting publicly, or opening our buildings. Not at all. I'm personally good with meeting. In fact, we're planning to have a night of worship coming up here shortly and I'm really looking forward to it.
But for a variety of reasons I haven't opened SCC to regular gatherings yet. And I must admit the awkwardness: while we are voluntarily doing church online in a state where we have permission to meet onsite, people in other states are willing to go to jail over not being allowed to meet onsite. Here we are, saying, "Let's just meet online for a time," and there they are, saying, "It is fundamentally necessary for us to meet onsite!"
I'm not picking a fight with anyone. And I understand the concern about losing our American rights. I get that. But that's not the conversation I'm having here. My concern is bigger than that.
I believe the increased emphasis on demanding our right to "do church" is reinforcing an already weakened view of what it means to "be Church."
Gathering publicly is about doing church. But no law can keep us from being Church.
We need to stop focusing on doing church and start focusing on being Church.
Again, I don't want to be misunderstood here. Gathering publicly is a wonderful privilege. I'm thankful for it. Let's meet publicly whenever we can. And, as American citizens, let's be good stewards of the voice democracy gives us in helping lead the country. I personally cast my own vote towards freedom whenever I can. But let's not hold up the Constitution and Bill of Rights as authoritative commentaries on scripture. It is not holy writ.
(I've taught about Kingdom allegiance recently, so I'll refrain from saying more here.)
But isn't it interesting that prior to Covid, we who are now willing to fight for our right to worship, increasingly exercised that as the right to not worship? Or the right to worship on our own, whenever we felt like it?
I was talking with a school teacher recently who said that people used to view education as a privilege and so they were willing to work very hard for it. But now they see it as a right, so they give up as soon as it gets hard.
When we see worship as a right, we stop seeing it as a privilege.
We give up on worship easily because we just want it to be easy. And apparently "easy" means "when I'm not tired" or "when I don't have something else to do" or "when I'm tired of being cooped up in my home during a government mandated shut-in."
For decades, worship attendance in the U.S. has been declining across the board. Many "regular church goers" go half of the time. Some would say monthly is all the connection they need. Some stopped going to church in person years ago and only watch online. And some don't even watch online.
For those of us (like myself) who are at church if the doors are open, it feels like they've left the faith, doesn't it? But the reality is, some still read their Bibles daily and have spiritual fellowship with others organically. Some have a very active prayer life and devote themselves to serving people in need, while being directed by portions of scripture they memorized a long time ago.
What do you think about that? Can you be a good Christian and not go to Church every week? No doubt you have an opinion. And now that we've all "skipped church" multiple weeks in a row, I wonder if your opinion has changed. Does going to church make us the Church?
Let's be clearheaded about this.
Gathering publicly is not fundamentally necessary to gathering in Jesus' name.
All throughout the world, Christians gather privately and faithfully in Jesus' name. And the power of God is there in their midst.
No gawking media.
No demonstration of rights.
No social media posts being shared.
No publicity of any kind.
No dividing up by preferred political solutions.
None of that.
Just people gathering as followers of Jesus to pray together, study the scriptures together (if they have them), sing some songs together (quietly), and break bread together. Just two or three plus Jesus, because they have gathered in his name. (Matthew 18:20)
Is two or three plus Jesus not enough?
The Western Church has fallen in love with "the worship service" as if a crowd amplifies the Lord's presence. It doesn't.
It intensifies our experience. Sure. It amplifies our voice. Sure. It proclaims the gospel and declares the praises of God's people. Yes.
But in no way does a crowd amplify the Lord's presence.
If we're not clearheaded about this, we will "throw our pearls to the swine." Gathering publicly is not essential to being church. It's just how we're used to doing church. And I believe the caffeinated energy of crowds and celebrity camouflages the fact that many who do church have never been converted from their worldliness. They are good at doing church but with all their being, they are still worldly. But man, they sure are good at doing church.
Like I keep saying, this is our opportunity to discover what it really means to be Church.
But it's going to take intentionality — the kind of intentionality that we don't need to exercise when the highlight of our faith is doing church. Because the reality is that for most people, doing church really means letting other people do the stuff, so we can just show up and enjoy it.
I don't mean to sound jaded. I am just calling out what I believe is prophetic impulse: It is time for us to stop doing church and start being the Church.
And, like I taught yesterday, this is all about becoming Followers of the Way.
Go watch it again. Consider it. Become an apprentice. And share the message with anyone else in your circle who is just waiting till "we can start doing church again." It's got to be about way more than just doing church again.
Lord willing, I plan to teach this week about the need to be in community with a few others who are devoted to the same things.
I dare you to invite a few people over to your house for worship this Sunday.
Invite two other households if you have the room, whether that's two people or four, or even more. Setup the TV ahead of time. (We just plug a laptop into our smart TV via HDMI cable.)
Enjoy their company. Watch the service together. Then, at the end, take the lead in discussing the questions. And ask the question: "How can we be praying for each other?" Then do that. And plan ahead to share a meal together. Eat in or go out, doesn't matter. But let it start right there in your own home where you are learning to be the Church!
Who would be the most natural for you to invite? Start with them.
Be the Church.
When we go to somebody for help in overcoming something, it's often just to get a different perspective.
The counselor or therapist looks at our problem from a different perspective and, through questions, helps us to see things differently. And through experience with seeing what has helped others is able to prescribe what can help us.
The primary care physician looks at our symptoms from the perspective of having seen many people with the same symptoms, and then uses that perspective to decide whether we should be concerned, and to prescribe either medication or behavior modification that has the best likelihood of fixing the problem.
We go to the mechanic for perspective, the contractor for perspective, the accountant for perspective, the consultant for perspective, etc.
As a minister I am called upon to give perspective. My perspective as a preacher and teacher is to remind everyone how God has spoken into our circumstances. I open the scriptures to "correct, rebuke, and encourage." (2 Timothy 4:2) And my perspective as a pastor is to look at presenting problems and give spiritual direction, not always to alleviate the symptoms, but always to correct the root causes of whatever spiritual dysfunctions I see. Again, this is from my perspective.
As I was studying for last week's message (Encouragement in These Last Days) I was living with the perplexity I hear in many people as they ask, "What next?!" Like what bad thing is going to happen next?
Just last week (feels like forever ago) there was the explosion in Beirut, reports of earthquakes all over, a hurricane, and a tornado in PA. And that was on top of the ongoing pandemic, riots, political unrest, and all the posturing of a contentious election on the horizon. It just seems like we keep getting hit with "one more thing." I even learned last week that hundreds of elephants have been dying in Botswana and no one knows why. "One more thing."
As I pondered it, something felt familiar. I looked back a few years to gain perspective, and I found a message I preached on September 24, 2017. In it I addressed the same sense of perplexity we were experiencing then. See if you remember it. I said,
"Five weeks ago we had a Solar eclipse.
"Six days later Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston.
"Two days later North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan.
"Ten days later an 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico.
"Two days after that Hurricane Irma hit us.
"Five days later North Korea launched another ballistic missile over Japan.
"Four days after that a 7.1 magnitude earthquake crushed Mexico City.
"Two days after that Hurricane Maria swamped the Caribbean Islands again.
"The day after that we had what seemed like a monsoon here.
"The day after that another earthquake in Mexico.
"And the whole time wildfires were consuming 2 million acres in the western United States.
"And, to top it all off, Christians were saying the world was going to end September 23rd. Otherwise known as 'yesterday.'"
At that time we were all asking "WHAT’S GOING ON?!?!" People were declaring unequivocally that "THE END IS NEAR!!!" Many were living in a state of constant alarm. I had forgotten a lot of those things, but now I remember them. Because it was my job to give perspective then, and it's my job to give perspective now.
I said then that many of us were "emotionally multitasking," going back and forth between “WE'RE ALL DOOMED!” and just watching the latest kitten videos. Today, instead of kitten videos, it's probably trying out the latest dance moves on TikTok or whatever.
I said then what I say now. And this is why you don’t catch me being alarmed about stuff.
I believe God wants his Church to be a non-anxious presence in the community. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned. But it does mean that we shouldn't be alarmed.
We need to remember that worry is a sin. I don't say that to shame you. I say it to free you. Don't give into it any more than you'd give in to lust or hatred. Confess it as sin and resist it. And then replace it with longing.
Worry looks forward in fear. Longing looks forward in anticipation. Hope holds all things in eternal perspective. This is foundational to our faith.
These are crazy times — and many say it’s evidence that we are in the End Times. Sure. I prefer the biblical phrase "the Last Days." It is less of a commitment to an eschatalogical framework as simply a faith statement that Jesus is coming back. The evidence for that is not how bad things are. The evidence is that Jesus left and hasn’t returned yet! When Jesus ascended into the sky (Acts 1:9) it was with a declaration that we were now in the Last Days. He would soon come back to get us.
So far that "soon" is 2000 years old. In other words, it's a really old "soon." It's a "soon" that has gone through 80 generations so far. Yet believers in each of those generations believed the Lord's return was imminent. And that's the better word: Imminent. That's what Jesus wanted his apostles to believe, and it's what he wants us to believe. So we believe. Eagerly.
Jesus is coming back soon. It could be today. Or he might delay another day. And even if he delays another generation, we're okay with it. We don't get to know when because we don't have to know when in order to be ready when. We just have to be ready now.
Like I said in this week's message, I’m prepared to see him coming on the clouds! But I’m also prepared to steward this life for another several decades if given the opportunity. I hope to live a long life, but more than that, I hope to live life longing for the Lord’s return, so that when he appears, I leap to my feet in eager anticipation.
I do fear that some feel like the bus is careening off the cliff and they're just trying to figure out whether it’s better to go along for the ride, or jump off before impact. If I can give this counsel from my perspective: Don’t jump off. The end will come soon enough.
Instead of fearing, start longing. Instead of being alarmed, just be encouraged. Focus on that, and soon enough, Jesus will return, and your whole being will erupt in a joyful shout at the glory of is appearing!
It's good to long for heaven. And for now, it's good to long patiently. As long as the Lord waits patiently, we must give witness to the hope of our gospel for all who receive him. I am encouraged by the imminence of the Lord’s return, and yet I count each day a sacred opportunity to encourage others to give their heart fully to Jesus.
Be encouraged today with this perspective: Jesus is coming soon. And Today is the Day of Salvation.
I knew it when I wrote it. Some would only read the headline. And the rumors would fly.
Today I learned of a rumor and it gives me opportunity to make the point again, so I smile and thank God for the opportunity. And I thank God that people care so much about SCC.
The phrase? "We're closed for good."
Like I say, I knew it was provocative, so I clarified it in the third sentence. I said, "I don't mean that like it sounds." And then I went on to explain what I meant, that God is using this temporary shut down for good. Meaning, let's look for the good that God wants to bring out of this! (I'll resist the urge to make the point again here. Just go read the full article.)
Nevertheless, some people think we have closed the church permanently. Let me correct that with two statements:
We don't know yet when we'll open weekly. We're taking many things into consideration. But we do hope to hold a public worship event in the next several weeks, even if it's not yet prudent to resume weekly gatherings. (More info to come.)
So please, if you hear anyone saying we've closed the church permanently, have them read this. And then have them read the original post. It's still a message that needs to be heard.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.