When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Manitoba, the physical shutdown of our MBCM churches was pretty uniform. While the church continued to function as the body of Christ, everyone paused all in-person gatherings. Some churches chose Livestream as the way through this unprecedented season. Others pre-packaged video and provided various ways to engage. Faces on a screen became the normal church experience for many. For all of the variety and creativity that we experienced in the early days of the pandemic, there was a togetherness in the shutdown of in-person church.
One of the best parts of my work is spending time with our pastors. A couple of weeks ago, a few groups of pastors took advantage of an opportunity to spend some time together over lunch. I know not every pastor was able to participate, if you’re a pastor reading this and you didn’t have the chance to connect with your peers, hear that we care about you and we look forward to the next opportunity to connect with you. These meetings were special times to come together, listen to each pastor share about their unique experiences and pray for each other. It was a privilege for me to be with our pastors. I am so grateful for them! They have forged new ways and experienced ministry during so much change. At the same time, I’m concerned about the impact the coming days might have on our pastors. Not just our pastors and leaders, but everyone in our congregations. Let me tell you why. As I listened to those pastors process together, there was a common thread. This next phase won’t be like the shutdown in March. It’s not going to be uniform. As in-person gatherings begin to unfold, they are going to look different. A church of 25 people has different questions to answer than a church of 700. It might not be easier, but it is different. Here are some of the ways our churches are beginning to reopen physically.
Many of our churches, in the 250 and smaller range, are starting to gather. Attendees pre-register and are screened at the door. As people enter buildings, spacing and hand sanitizer are necessary. There are new signs here and there. Families and individuals are ushered to a physically distant place to sit and participate in the service. Familiar faces are present, if a bit farther away. Worship may or may not include singing. Some will wear a mask, and some won’t. The parking lot after the service might include a chance to visit, while some churches have asked for people to head to their vehicles. Our larger churches have adopted small groups or house church concepts for the time being. There are logistical challenges to getting many groups of 50 together safely and responsibly. A few churches are simply waiting until fall to take the next step. Churches who began offering other ways of engaging, such as Livestream or video production and other creative solutions, continue to provide them for those who are unable or unwilling to gather physically. Hybrid solutions of in-person and digital offerings are being considered and delivered.
It’s not uniform. A pastor or parishioner only needs to look down the street at another church to see something different about how your neighbour church is reopening physically. Navigating the unique needs and circumstances of each church is a real challenge. I know that our pastors and leaders are up to this challenge, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have some concern for them. Please be kind to your pastors. Go out of your way to express your appreciation for them. Let them know that you’re in this together.
I have one more area of concern to share with you. Each person will experience physical reopening differently. Some are very ready to get past the pandemic with all speed. They are finished with physical distancing, maybe because they see the low numbers in Manitoba or for any number of reasons. Others are doing their best to be a part of the ongoing health solution for all of us by adhering to the guidelines given by Manitoba Health. These are only two versions of what people are experiencing. These varieties of experience are prime landscape for judgement and resentment toward the people around us. I invite you to notice that these differences will exist among us. Be kind to one another, especially when you notice a person experiencing sensibilities that vary from yours. Be generous and gracious to the people around you. Consider what they need as more important than what you need. Recognize that this might not be easy.
Our pathway forward might not be uniform in terms of how physical reopening happens. But there will always be something uniform about the church, the Person on Whom we are built. Jesus is the same. We serve the same God. For all the differences, perhaps we can find togetherness around Jesus. I’m reminded of the great commandment, where Jesus is asked a big question. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ – Matthew 22:36-39
With love for God will come love for others. May this be our way forward together.