I hope that none of my regular readers will be offended if I aim this post first and foremost at the good folks who are part of our Roan Mountain Baptist Church family. Even if you don’t attend our church, perhaps you’ll be able to glean something here that will help you decide what God wants you to do regarding attending your church in these confusing days of Covid-19. If nothing else, this post will give you some insight into what it’s been like to be the pastor of a smallish rural church in the mountains of western North Carolina for the past four months.
Following our church’s Sunday morning service on March 15th, 2020, the deacons and I made the decision to temporarily suspended indoors services at the church. I assure you that decision was not an easy one to make. We did, however, have two good reasons for making it.
First, the Coronavirus had everybody on red alert in those days, and so erring on the side of caution seemed prudent. Second, on March 14th, 2020, our state’s Governor, Roy Cooper, had issued an Executive Order that had closed the K-12 schools statewide until March 30th (ultimately, the schools ended up remaining closed for the rest of the school year), closed certain businesses that were deemed “non essential,” and banned mass gatherings of 100 or more. As a church that at that time was averaging approximately 100 people in attendance for our Sunday morning worship services, we chose to comply with Governor Cooper’s Order as a way of fulfilling our scriptural obligation to Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13, two passages that command Christians to submit themselves to the governing authorities because those authorities are appointed by (ordained by) God.
Our church’s decision to suspend indoors services prompted us to immediately step up our efforts in regards to online ministry. The following Wednesday night, March 18th, I walked into an empty sanctuary and preached the next message in our Wednesday-night series of studies from the book of Genesis. The only other person there that night was Mike Silver, who was manning the audio/video room and streaming the sermon to You Tube Live. That type of service became the only type our church would offer for the next few weeks.
Unfortunately, it took us a while to get all the kinks worked out of our You Tube Live stream. For example, Mike quickly decided that we needed to up our game in terms of the audio and video quality of our product. That required purchasing some new equipment. Also, there were times when we had trouble streaming live at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings and 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday nights because the You Tube stream wouldn’t let us join at precisely those times. (Apparently, You Tube was overloaded with churches who were doing the same thing we were trying to do.) That’s when we started streaming about 30 minutes before I actually went to the pulpit and preached. We did that just to make sure that people could join us live at 11:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.
The next step in our Coronavirus evolution came on Easter Sunday morning, April 12th. That was the first Sunday that we offered the “drive-in church” option in addition to the You Tube Live option. While there are different variations for how to offer this option, the one we chose involved a short-distance radio transmitter that beamed our service out to the cars in the parking lot where the attendees could hear the signal by tuning their car radios to 87.9 F.M.
That same Sunday morning we also added singing to our worship service as our Minister of Music Ethan Thomas and our organist Cindy Burleson joined me in the sanctuary. Ethan sang what amounted to a couple of solos (unless people we couldn’t see were singing along with him in their cars or their homes), and he continued to do that for the next few Sundays, after which he started scheduling other singers to help in that endeavor. So, now we were doing about all we could do in terms of continuing to offer our church services as the pandemic kept rolling along throughout America.
I have to say, though, that as much as I was enjoying the good reports of how God was using the You Tube sermons, I was even more fond of the drive-in church option. That option, you see, allowed us to send out ushers (wearing masks and gloves) to not only take up Sunday-morning offerings but also to hand out bulletins that had prayer-request lists on the back. Furthermore, the option allowed those in attendance to fulfill the Hebrews 10:25 mandate about Christians not forsaking the assembling of themselves together. Yes, assembling ourselves together in cars in a church parking lot on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights counted for that!
Then came our Tuesday night deacons meeting on May 13th. During that meeting the deacons and I decided that the church would start meeting again for indoors services on June 7th, the first Sunday in June. We all felt good about that date and believed it was the direction in which the Lord was leading. Thankfully, our discernment regarding that decision received a high degree of confirmation the following Saturday, May 16th, when a North Carolina District Judge issued a 14-day temporary restraining order that prevented our state from taking any action against a church that defied Governor Cooper’s orders regarding mass gatherings. Those orders, by the way, had by then reduced the allowable number for an indoors gathering down to 10 or less.
With that restraining order in play, North Carolina churches were guaranteed a two-week window in which they could “legally” (for lack of a better word) meet indoors regardless of the size of the crowd. The original plan was that toward the end of the 14-day period the Judge would allow both sides to present their arguments for either revoking the restraining order or extending it. That part of the plan, however, became a moot point when Governor Cooper chose not to fight the order. In effect, that caused the status quo that had been set in place by the restraining order to became the new “legal” standard as churches were allowed to continue to meet if they wanted to do so.
As a result of the restraining order, on Sunday, May 17th, many North Carolina churches quickly evoked their right to meet for indoors services. Others waited a week or two and began indoors services on either May 24th or May 31st. As for Roan Mountain Baptist, the deacons and I still felt like God had given us a peace about June 7th, and so we stuck to that decision and waited until then to start offering inside services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. We haven’t regretted that decision and right now we’re still conducting our Sunday morning and Wednesday night services inside, but we haven’t yet gotten our Sunday School classes or our Wednesday might fellowship meals back up and running.
We are also continuing to offer not only the You Tube Live streaming but also the drive-in church option for each service. Frankly, now that we have the systems in place to provide those options there is simply no reason to ever revert back to the time when we didn’t offer them. This, of course, is to say nothing of the fact that we want to show our support for our church regulars who are still hesitant about attending the indoors services.
This, then, brings me to where I’ve been headed with this post. First of all, in light of Covid-19’s refusal to show any signs of letting up, I want to assure each of our church folks that I understand anyone’s continuing apprehension about attending an indoors service. I watch the news a lot myself and am therefore not about to berate anyone for not wanting to join in with a fair-sized crowd of people, most of them not wearing masks.
Second, though, for those of you who still aren’t ready to attend an indoors service, I would like to encourage you to sincerely pray about taking advantage of our drive-in church option rather than just be content watching the service on You Tube. And if you’ll hear me out, I’ll list five of my reasons for suggesting this:
- The drive-in church option enables you, as a Christian, to keep God’s command about not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25). As I said earlier, even if your assembling only makes it as far as the church parking lot, God honors that. You’ve put in the effort to join your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ at church, and that is no small achievement in the eyes of God.
- The drive-in church option causes you to stay in the habit of keeping your regular scheduled church times on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. Yes, it’s true that you can stay in your habit somewhat if you watch the streamed services LIVE, but it’s also true that it’s very tempting to start sleeping late on Sunday mornings and watch the archived service at a later time. Needless to say, once you start down that road there might be services that you just never get around to watching.
- The drive-in church option helps you keep your church life as normal as it can be during this Coronavirus if you don’t feel good about attending the indoors service. By using that word “normal,” I’m referring to you getting up on Sunday mornings, eating breakfast, and getting cleaned up for church just like you used to do in the days before Covid-19. Any psychologist will tell you that there are great advantages that come with keeping your life as normal as possible during abnormal times.
- The drive-in church option allows you to actually see some of your brothers and sisters in Christ in person. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to actually get out of the car. I’m simply pointing out that even if you do nothing but sit in your car and wave at some of your fellow church-goers, that’s more than you can do at home.
- The drive-in church option gets you out of the house and into God’s creation. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this much, but you just getting to enjoy the scenery that constitutes your drive to and from church is a major blessing. Taking that drive will help you realize that the beauty of God’s creation isn’t dampened in the least by the pandemic.
Finally, in closing, let me say a word to any of you out there who are using the Coronavirus as an excuse to skip church even as you continue to go to your workplace, the grocery store, Lowe’s, Walmart, restaurants, the golf course, your favorite fishing hole, vacation spots. etc. I’ll remind you that any church’s online ministry is primarily designed for those who legitimately can’t attend in person either by sitting in the sanctuary or sitting in their car. With this understood, can you honestly say that God is pleased with what you are doing about your church attendance? It’s an important question, so think long and hard about it.
You see, the thing is that God rewards the effort you put into getting to church almost as much as He rewards the actual act of worship itself. Keep this in mind the next time you are faced with the decision to choose the inside-the-building option, the drive-in church option, or the online viewing option. Truthfully, all three options have their place in God’s service right now, but only one is the option He has in mind for you each time Roan Mountain Baptist Church holds services. All I’ll ever ask you to do is seek His will and do whatever He tells you to do. I just don’t want you to get overly comfortable with choosing the online service when He might have you do a little more.