On Sunday November 22nd, having heard confirmation of a second lockdown in Toronto, I broke down in tears while giving the benediction to my congregants at Royal York Baptist Church. We were blessed as a small church to be able to open our doors to all our members and even visitors throughout the summer and beginning of the fall. Thirty percent capacity of our building was more than our membership, and in spite of the masks and social distancing, things felt optimistic and at times even normal.
But the second, more rigid lockdown only gave room for ten and was meant to provide sufficient people for online streaming or church recordings. Because we believe that the physical gathering of God’s people is vital to the life of God’s people, we dreaded the thought of reverting to online services. We could comply or defy. What were we to do? Instead of going back online, we chose to provide seven services over the weekend, each with ten people.
We currently provide one service on Friday evening, three Saturday morning, and three on Sunday morning. They are an hour long and include scripture reading, prayer, confession, a word of assurance, singing, communion, a twenty-minute sermon, and fellowship. We broke the membership into groups of nine (I was the tenth member), and each group was designated to a specific time and day.
Due to our size, Royal York Baptist Church is able to do what many large churches are unable to do. We can continue to gather in smaller groups allowing us to honour our government without neglecting to meet together (Hebrews 10:24–25).
Churches across Canada are trying to be faithful while wresting through what it looks like to be the church in these difficult days. I can sympathize with church leaders that have chosen to defy government restrictions as well as those who have chosen to follow government restrictions. I have found throughout these last ten months that I am not looking through clear water, but murky water; and at times, it’s hard to know which way to turn.
This of course isn’t because the Word of God is insufficient or unclear. Instead, our interpretation of God’s word and understanding of these difficult circumstances are often imperfect. Because of this, I want to extend as much grace as possible to my fellow brothers who have decided on a different path. I know that we’re all wanting to be faithful to the task before us, desiring Christ to be honoured through it all. May God help us to that end.
Here are three benefits that I have discovered while doing seven services over a weekend.
First, there is a deeper commitment to the church. Having seven services is not ideal, as we do truly long to gather as one people at one time. But I have observed much good from these seven services. For one, I believe these services have deepened our commitment to the Lord and one another, and it’s specifically in situations like this where that is tested. I have seen our members more committed to our gatherings now than before.
Of course, one of the reasons is that our groups are so small that if you don’t show up it makes it awkward for everyone else. But I also think our members are understanding just how important it is to be with God’s people even if it’s only with nine others.
Second, member care has strengthened. When we decided to do this I expressed to our members that they would really need to respect my days off and learn to differentiate between what it is that only I, the pastor, can help with and what it is that other members can help with.
While the Bible has lots to say about pastoral care, it actually has much more to say about members caring for one another. Because the seven services take up a lot of my time and energy, members are more willing to reach out to other members to pray and care for each other.
This can only be a good thing moving forward post-COVID. It’s easy for members to think that only a pastor can meet this need or pray for this situation when in reality, there are many other members who would be happy, willing, and able to do so. Our church is understanding this all the more, and there is nothing as beautiful as seeing God’s children loving and caring for one another.
Third, we have learned to adapt. The last benefit from this is that it has made our church adaptable without having to compromise. I think churches in Canada need to be prepared to adapt as our society continues to descend into moral decline and continues to grow in hostility toward anything that would be considered traditional Christian ethics.
I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I am more and more convinced that dark days lay ahead for the Church in Canada, and we need to prepare our people for how that might impact how we operate as the Church.
A call to small churches
I repeat in humility my realization that not every church can do what we’re doing due to our size. But I do want to leave a challenge to my fellow pastors pastoring smaller churches like mine. I want to encourage you to do all that you can to gather in person while honouring the restrictions. Do it for your sheep! Toil and struggle by the strength and energy that God provides (Col. 1:29).
I believe your people will love and treasure God all the more. They will love and treasure your gatherings all the more, and they will love and cherish their pastor all the more. That has been a benefit I have truly felt during this time. Press on brothers!