Just over two months ago, we began the unprecedented journey through the COVID-19 crisis.
As a church, we have
- Prayed for those with the virus and for the medical professionals providing care to the sick.
- Cooperated at every level with our government and carefully followed the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
- Ministered to our community through this crisis.
- Pivoted our services to an online-only venue.
As a pastor, I have also
- Prayed and fasted. (Many of our church family have joined in this, which I appreciate.)
- Sought counsel from medical, legal, and political leaders, keeping our deacons apprised through the process.
- Participated in numerous webinars to study the issues and respond properly.
- Spoken with our city, county, state, and national leaders.
- Stayed in touch with our mayor, who has kept me up to date.
- Communicated with our county supervisor and gladly accepted her invitation to serve on the Economic Resiliency Task Force.
- Worked with hundreds of pastors across our state and around the country on these issues, considering safety for our congregations, religious liberty, and constitutional rights.
While we are glad to submit to those in authority over us (as instructed in Romans 13) for the safety of those in our community and church family, we are also mindful of the importance of gathering as a church body as modeled in the New Testament and instructed in Hebrews 10:25. All of us, including the pastors I have spoken with, have felt awkward that in our state of California worship is still considered “non-essential,” and our governor has provided no timeline for when he would encourage a safe return to worship. Therefore, with the help of the Christian Law Association, we have petitioned our governor regarding these issues. He has not responded.
With these realities in mind, I cannot in good conscience wait longer to return to in-person services.
In recent days, as I have been praying and fasting for the Lord’s guidance in our return, I have been drawn to the life of Ezra.
Ezra called the children of God back to Jerusalem after their years in Babylonian exile (Ezra 3:3), and he led them in rebuilding the Temple. The people rejoiced and wept together (3:11–12).
But what strikes me most is that they prayed and fasted as they sought the Lord’s help for a safe return:
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.—Ezra 8:21
For Ezra and the Israelites, the safety they sought was in protection from enemies; for ours, it is safety for the health of our members and protection of our religious liberty as we return.
As I have followed Ezra’s example in prayer and fasting, God has confirmed in my heart that it is time for our church family to move forward in faith to a careful and safe return to services.
This past Wednesday evening, I announced this decision as well as the details of our safe return to our church family. If you missed the live stream announcement, I invite you to watch the video:
(If you cannot see this video in your email or RSS reader, you can watch it here.)
In this time with our church family, I asked and answered four questions:
Some will say we are returning too soon, while others will say we have waited too long. So why are we returning now?
- We are in Los Angeles County—not Montana or another less-affected area.
- We have weighed out Romans 13 and Acts 5:29, and we believe that the time has come that returning indicates a priority on obedience to God. (I previously wrote a blog about this here.)
- There may not be a vaccination for quite some time, and even when it is developed, it may not be as effective as some hope. Thus, we cannot wait indefinitely to obey the clear command of Scripture.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a phased plan of return that allows us to follow the recommendations of the CDC for social distancing and sanitation, and I mailed it to our elected officials as well as publishing it to our church website. (You can read the plan here; I encourage all Lancaster Baptist Church members to read the entire document.) When we return, we will follow Phase 1 of this plan.
- There will be four Sunday morning services, to provide adequate space for social distancing. The service times will be 8:00 AM, 10:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 2:00 PM.
- We are assigning service times by which connection group members are a part of, in order to keep each service manageable for social distancing. (We are emailing members their suggested service time.)
- Signs will be posted around our campus reminding everyone to observe social distancing, not come (or stay) if they are sick or have shown any symptoms of being sick, and to wear masks at all times.
- We have installed dozens of additional hand sanitizer dispenses around the campus.
- We will sanitize and use electrostatic sprayers after each service. (We have purchased seven.)
- We will use infrared thermometers to take temperatures. (We have purchased thirty.)
- We are training maintenance and ministry teams in the policies we have outlined for this return.
- Sunday evening services and Wednesday evening Connection Groups will remain at LBCLive.TV.
So how does this impact the various members and age groups in our church family?
- Families will be encouraged to sit together in the service. Anyone not in the same household will be asked to sit at least six feet apart from one another.
- Childcare will be provided for infants through age three, in small groups.
- Those who are over sixty-five or have underlying health conditions are encouraged to stay home and continue watching services through live stream during Phase 1 of our return.
Here is our schedule for the next three Sundays:
- May 17—Drive through Sunday for medical professionals: All church members are encouraged to drive through campus from 9–11 AM with a wrapped candy gift and note of appreciation for our medical workers. We will deliver these the following day.
- May 24—Return to Church Practice Sunday: All Phase 1 workers will meet at 10:00 AM for a “social distance training Sunday.” This includes all ushers, greeters, parking attendants, thermometer greeters, childcare workers, and minimal services staff.
- May 31—Return to Church Sunday: We will begin Phase 1 with the four-services schedule and the guidelines highlighted above and given in detail in our return to services plan and policies.
Like Ezra who led God’s people in a return to worship, we know that the key in our safe return is not in us, but is in the Lord’s hand of protection upon us. Above all, then, as we follow this plan for a return to worship, we will continue to seek the Lord’s guidance and follow His direction.