Nothing seems easy as a church anymore. Should we meet in person, or not? Should we sing, or not? Should we take communion—with the majority of our congregation still unable to meet in person—or not?
What would normally be matters of basic routine have become points of difficulty, possible controversy, and therefore necessary discussion. Yet perhaps that is precisely where the gift lies within this peculiar season. Because almost nothing can be done out of mere routine as a church, we have the opportunity as a church to do everything with intentionality. Nothing can be taken for granted as a church, but perhaps that leads us to appreciate each and every function of the body of Christ.
This, at least, is what we found as we recently contemplated performing our first baptisms since Covid and quarantine began. I might summarize our thought process with four keywords: commission, celebration, caution, and conviction.
Although many things have been uncertain and confusing during this pandemic, it has been reassuring and settling as a church to remind ourselves of the things that are certain and crystal clear: God is sovereign, Jesus is Lord and Savior, God’s Word is sufficient, God’s promises are sure—the list goes on and on. Among these rock-solid realities is the enduring authority of the Great Commission. No matter what else is going on in the world, Jesus is still building his Church and his Church is still to be making, baptizing, and teaching his disciples.
The particular means of fulfilling Christ’s commission may need to be flexible. We have tried numerous different avenues for reaching our community and sharing the gospel in the midst of Covid. Some have been effective, some not at all. Like everything else, it has often felt like one step forward, then two steps back. But God’s words never return empty, and the Spirit is still working sovereignly to call people to himself. As a result, despite obstacles and setbacks and discouragements, we were thankful to have several candidates for baptism this fall.
In his three-fold rebuke to the Pharisees, who were revolted to see Jesus eating with sinners, Jesus twice insists there is joy in heaven over even just one sinner who repents. In the concluding parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus describes a banquet of celebration over the return of a wayward child.
Though a baptism service for our church meant additional logistical conversations, alterations to our already-challenging livestream efforts, and yet another deep dive into the latest Covid regulations—we determined to reflect the joy of heaven in our discussions and performance of this occasion. If angels are singing, how dare we be found grumbling?
We were thankful to be reminded that the Lord continues to work even when the whole world seems shutdown, yet we also wanted to exercise appropriate caution concerning the current coronavirus crisis. Regardless of any single person’s perception of the dangers or exaggerations of Covid, we as a church thought it was important to honor our regional guidelines, make each one in the congregation feel safe, and help the candidates themselves feel as comfortable as possible.
For this reason, this was both like and unlike any other baptism ceremony that we have had before.
As usual, a pastor from our church administered the ordinance. Each candidate stood at the microphone and shared their testimony of coming to know and love the gospel of Jesus Christ. Each was then baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, there was plenty of unusual. The pastor wore a mask throughout the service. The microphone was sanitized between each use. The baptismal pool was carefully chlorinated—just as you would a swimming pool—in order to make it safely sterile. And the baptismal tub itself was purposefully placed in the middle of the stage, in order to keep it more than two metres from any of the other people or equipment. One of the candidates, being a former Muslim, requested we not livestream that particular baptism. So we reenacted all the same protocols and precautions after the normal service, in front of the in-person congregants, after the conclusion of the rest of the service.
We are confident this will not be the last awkward encounter between Covid regulations and our church’s enduring mission. Like most churches, we intend to take each day, each opportunity, each challenge one step at a time. Just this past week, we have had new regulations handed down from the government in response to a feared second wave of the coronavirus. It feels like an unwelcome reversal of the slowly building momentum we had finally gained as a church over the past several months. We sometimes are tempted to worry about how all this will impact our church, community, and city in the long-term.
Our conviction, however, is that God is still sovereign. He rules over Covid, over governments, and over his Church. While we are responsible to be flexible in ever-changing circumstances, to be respectful toward every level of government, and to walk in constant dependence on the guidance and provision Jesus promises—in the end, it is Jesus’ church, not ours. And that conviction must shape everything else, including our temptations to worry.
We are thankful for those God has recently called to himself and to be part of our congregation. We grieve that it is so difficult to know how to effectively reach more in our community. Yet we trust that God will continue his work, that there will be more baptisms to come, and that we will faithfully endure whatever challenges Covid may present us in the future.
For now, though, we are content to share in the joy of the angels while we wrestle through the messiness of gospel ministry on earth.