OUR SLOW REOPENING PROCESS
John 4:19–24 (ESV) — 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
When are we going back into the building? That’s the question that is on so many people’s minds and like most everything these days, it’s hard if not impossible to arrive at a consensus. So, pastor, when do we get back into the building? You hear it in the voices. The concern is rising about how much government intervention is being allowed to curtailing our liberties most cherished. Economic interests and the American fascination with empowering democratic choice - the freedom to assemble being a bedrock - isn’t something folks are eager to trade in. Then there is the concern that the worst is probably over. Not to mention concerns more trivial - I would love to be able to preach without having my children jumping off furniture in the background. Can I get an Amen out there (a real one; not the virtual variety). So pastor, when are we going back into the building?
Well, this Sabbath, several churches across the Wisconsin Conference opened their doors to allow for greater numbers of their flock to experience in person worship again. Praise God! Most of these churches are outside of the cities and within counties and cities that as of now, have limited restrictions on in person worship services. Our Conference leadership and pastors have sat together with input from Adventist Risk Management and suggested best practices for holding in person worship services again. Some churches are back in the building, but ministry still isn’t the same. Who knows how long it will take for our churches to get back to the way things were. So pastor, when are we going back into our building?
Our situation in Milwaukee is a little different for two major reasons - 1) there are still city and county restrictions that impact how much we can do from our building at this time. These restrictions may change in the near future but I really don’t know much more than the average person about this and 2) the City of Milwaukee by far has the highest cases of COVID-19 within Wisconsin. This means that we might need to be a little more cautious in our approach. Unlike the more rural areas, this is a very real threat here.
So where we are now is that we have had some time to do an initial walk through with our Church Board on what we would like to do as well as a short informal survey of our members which also checked on where our members feel we are in the process. So far, our developing consensus for our church community is we really aren’t gaining anything by rushing back into the physical building. While we can’t control when other churches reopen, we can learn from their experiences to see what worked well for them (and what didn’t) as they serve as pioneers for the reopening process. And learn we must from their experience. Our best guesstimate is that we might be ready for in-person worship services by June 13, 2020. Even then, no one should feel under any obligation to attend services if they feel their health is already compromised or would be compromised by worshiping in our building. And chances are by then we still wouldn’t be offering Sabbath School services for children, any potluck and may even have to do an abbreviated service.
Something about this passage spoke to my heart as I thought about the reopening process. I love our building. It’s beautiful and unique with a rich heritage that represents the real sacrifices of so many people past and present. And though the dynamics within this text are different from our own, there is something to be said about preaching and living our faith in a situation of exile away from the institutions that center our attention and focus towards God. What has been built through sacrifices must be cherished. But our physical structure and meeting within it must never become an idol given what we already know and proclaim about the spiritual nature of worship. Our worship isn’t limited by locality - worship happens when as a people we connect together and connect with God. Again, this isn’t the only factor of what is happening in our situation, neither is this text advocating that we never worship in person again since Jesus came. But what it is saying to Jew and Samaritan then and to us today is, our worship is and has always been bigger than the symbols and institutions we use to facilitate connecting with God. The hour is coming and now is when neither in this mountain or in Jerusalem or at 2229 N Terrace Ave or 5200 Loomis, we will worship the Father. But even when we aren’t on location, we still can connect with God who is Spirit.
So, keep your spirits high and connected to God. And soon, we will meet again with a new appreciation for the fellowship of believers.
Loving you, Missing you and Always in my prayers,
Pastor Sheldon R. Bryan