On March 15, 2020, Grace Fellowship Church closed her doors. Like almost all the rest of the world, our Province had gone into lockdown in response to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, and we chose to abide by those Province-wide gathering restrictions. Throughout the next 16 months, Grace Fellowship saw how God allowed us to survive and thrive. We also learned how to adapt to challenging situations.
I wrote this article then to explain how “thus far the Lord has helped us.” I hope it will encourage others who have lived through similar situations and tasted the Lord’s kindness.
Lockdowns and Restrictions
For the first 13 weeks, we produced a somewhat low-quality chapel service that was posted online for our members. It was about all we could figure out to do. Finally, on June 14, 2020, the first complete lockdown ended and faith groups were permitted to gather at 30% of their building capacity. In Ontario, these were the largest gatherings permitted anywhere. As members began to return, we added a second service on August 30 to make enough space to have two thirds of our membership attend a service in person. We also live-streamed these services for our immuno-compromised and elderly members. We thanked the Lord for 24 straight weeks of gathering together in limited numbers. At some point in here we began to conclude our service by going outside to sing.
On November 29, we moved outside of our city to another health region and borrowed the facility of a sister congregation in the evenings. Although this required most members to make a lengthy commute, we were able to get over two-thirds of our members into one service for the first time. From here we switched from chapel services, back to church services. After 37 weeks without, we took the Lord’s Supper together and held many baptisms. Praise the Lord! But, this only lasted for four weeks.
December 27, 2020 introduced Ontario’s second lockdown. We were able to meet in groups of ten. So we live-streamed a chapel service from our office and put ten folks each in our lower and upper gyms. The rest watched from home. This continued for 11 weeks and might have been the most trying season of lockdown for us. We were all growing weary and longed to be together. It was also not the best moment for our provincial leaders. While this lockdown was lifted on March 14, 2021, the respite only lasted three weeks. We pivoted back to meeting at the church to the north of us, but by April 4, a third lockdown order came into effect. This order reduced our gathering limit from 30% to 15%, yet we managed to provide a Good Friday service, and multiple Sunday chapel services. But only for three weeks.
Further restrictions came down the pipeline on April 25 and we were back to meeting in groups of ten. For the next seven weeks we provided 17 in-person services of ten souls every weekend. The first of these was fully recorded, then the preaching and singing were replayed for each group of ten. One of our pastors or an intern would lead the little service. An unintended blessing of this version of meeting was the intimate fellowship we had with our members. There was a lot of good soul care in these days.
By the time June 13, 2021 came, religious gatherings were permitted to meet at 15% capacity again (later increased to 25% on June 20), however there was no longer any gathering size restriction on outdoor religious services. We met one Sunday inside (while we ordered some big tents), but since June 20th have held all of our worship services outside. We hold one church service in our backyard under tents, trees and umbrellas and, so far, no rain. But, we love the idea of being one church so much that it would have to be something of a torrential downpour to force us back indoors. We have enjoyed the Lord’s Supper and many baptisms week by week. We are five weeks in and praising God for his mercies to us.
Why I Am Recounting These Events
I am recounting these events here for two reasons. First, I want to give glory to God for letting us survive and even thrive as a church through our trials. God has had things to teach us as we chose to submit to the governing authorities He placed over us. Our hardships are not really to be compared to what millions of Christians around the world endure, but they were ours and we saw His faithfulness to us through them. Thanks be to God.
Second, this long season has taught us how to adapt. From many masked groups of ten chapel services spread over a weekend, to our unmasked singing, preaching and praying in our back yard as one church, God has been worshipped week by week. Even in those darkest days of a little chapel service filmed from my living room, we knew we were covenanted together, praying for each other and longing to be back together again. The long wait made the actual thing all that much sweeter. I will never forget that first Sunday all back together again in the back yard. And we learned what we had said for so long—the church is not the building.
Other churches took different courses of action. Many suffered much more than we did. Some saw fit to quietly contravene government orders and meet normally. Some did not meet at all. Many more followed their local ordinances in any creative way they could come up with to get as many of their members together as possible. I recount our story as just one testament to how God was faithful to one local church.
Of course, every Christian I know longs for the day of no more gathering restrictions. On a personal level, I cannot wait to see that big gym stuffed with people again, taking communion, singing God’s praises, praying, and listening to the Word publicly read and preached. And I am very hopeful that day will come before the temperatures drop again! But if it doesn’t, I know this for sure: the Lord will be with us, for “thus far the Lord has helped us.”
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
At a glance, here is how one Church in Covid managed:
- 13 weeks — online chapel services only
- 24 weeks — multiple in person chapel services at 30% capacity in our building
- 4 weeks — one in person church services at 30% capacity in another building
- 11 weeks — multiple 10 person chapel services and livestream
- 3 weeks — one in person church services at 30% capacity in another building
- 3 weeks — multiple in person chapel services at 15% capacity in our building
- 7 weeks — seventeen 10-person chapel services each weekend
- 1 week — multiple in person chapel services at 15% capacity in our building
- 5 weeks and counting — one in person church service with everyone in our back yard