Compared to other places, Alberta is not a bad place for churches to wait out a pandemic. We are thankful to have the freedom to meet together as a congregation. Since the Provincial Government issued the Guidance for Places of Worship document on June 22nd, churches have been entrusted with determining the number of people that may attend services. We are required to follow certain regulations, such as physical distancing, cleaning protocols, and specific entrances and exits, but there is no cap on attendance for places of worship.
Our last service before the shutdown was on March 15th. For the next several weeks, we recorded a simplified service on Saturday afternoon and posted it to our website for Sunday morning. On May 14th, the Provincial Government issued a guidance document that enabled us to meet to a limit of 50 people. We responded by launching two services, one on Saturday evening and one on Sunday morning. We continued to record the service on Saturday and post the video for Sunday morning. With the removal of the cap on attendance, we returned to one service at our regular Sunday morning time. A little over half of our people have come back to our worship services at this point.
Beyond the regulations and protocols, this season has tested our fellowship. Some people are fearful and are continuing to self-isolate. Others are skeptical and believe that all the rigmarole is silly. Others say that we are walking into dangerous territory by giving in to all the government demands, particularly as we keep lists of the people who attend our services. Our city, Edmonton, passed a bylaw requiring masks for indoor events on August 1st. That requirement became a flashpoint of opposing perspectives among our people.
We are standing in unity at this point, particularly as an elder team. I am pleased with the gracious and honest conversation that I have seen among these men. We are closer and stronger because of this season. I believe most of our people are happy with our leadership and cooperative with our strategy. In the first few months, our elders were meeting every week, not to mention many email conversations. We haven’t always agreed on protocols and philosophy, but we still like each other.
For the rest of the congregation, there have been ups and downs. I am sad that more people have not returned to worship services, even though we have the capacity. I worry about how many of our people may never return. On the other hand, we have had several new people come to church during this season, some of them after a break of many years. God is using the stresses of this season to draw people to himself.
The closure of hospitals and seniors’ homes to visitors has been difficult. So, too, was the pain of not being able to have proper funerals during the first few months of the pandemic. Some of our isolated seniors are struggling with anxiety.
There are some comparatively minor irritations as well. Zoom Fatigue is a real thing. Six months with no childcare has been a challenge for parents. We miss hugs, handshakes, and even seeing faces without masks.
There have been positive aspects to this strange season. Many of us have rediscovered the phone. Early on, we divided our people into phone lists for the elders to call through. Renewed relationships are being forged through these calls. Other members are calling and checking on people that they can’t see regularly. Some of us had not realized how much we had shifted to email and texting to communicate.
Setbacks can facilitate opportunities. As the regulations changed, we have had to communicate. Through regular emails to the church, I have a chance to recommend some good music and articles and point people to God’s Word as I explain the latest government guidance. In responding to fear over government overreach, we have an opportunity to teach on the sovereignty of God and the relationship between church and state. Even the mask bylaw has returned singing to our congregational meetings, albeit foggy and muffled singing.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of this Covid-19 season is the opportunity it presents to talk about the nature and purpose of the church. Watching a service online, even your home church service, is not the same as going to church. We had conversations about not making our live stream too polished and professional because we wanted people to miss the real thing. We agreed as leaders that we wouldn’t try to do the Lord’s Table virtually. We had long conversations about the relationship between church and government, and when we might entertain practicing civil disobedience (not soon, for what it’s worth).
With the ease of watching church in PJs on the couch, some of our people are more aware of the dangers of having a consumer mentality about church. Others are making the effort to check up on people they haven’t seen for a while. Our giving has remained quite strong, which means that not too many people have checked out just yet.
Dealing with a global pandemic is difficult. We don’t like it. But God is still at work, sifting, refining, leading, and making his people more like his Son. I am indebted to the positive people in my church, looking for opportunities and creative ways to do ministry. We are smaller, limited, and constrained as a church, but I am thankful that God is not limited, his Word is not bound, and his Church is still his treasure.