I didn’t make it through the first stanza of the first hymn. As we sang “Be Thou My Vision,” I began to weep. I had no idea how much I missed worshipping with my church family. Of course, it was only a portion of that family. Ninety-two to be exact. If you’d told me four months ago that we’d have 92 people in a 9:00 am service, I would have been crushed. Now, scattered carefully around our sanctuary, I was so grateful. Grateful for those who felt free to join us as we re-started in-person worship. Grateful for the applause when Pastor Ellis stepped up to preach and said, “Welcome!” Grateful for the sounds of singing—incredibly robust singing given the number of voices. Grateful for the “smiling eyes” that greeted me from behind the face coverings.
For months, I have stood in front of a camera every week and preached to one person in the room. I did my best to imagine you out there, on the other side of that camera. I tried to time my jokes to let you laugh. I tried to connect with you as best I could. But I didn’t sign up to be a TV preacher. I signed up to preach to real live human beings—people that I know and love—as well as visitors who have walked through the doors. I loved seeing your faces, greeting you in the foyer, watching you from my vestry window as you stream in from the parking lot, joyfully embracing one other. THAT is what I signed up for.
Then came COVID-19. And, of course, we were willing to do whatever was necessary to keep our congregation together and moving forward. We are grateful for what the internet allowed us to do in this difficult time. But I had no idea—until “Be Thou My Vision”—how much I missed you—how much I needed you. And I wasn’t even preaching! Pastor Ellis brought the word. But he felt the same way. It was sooooo sweet to be together again.
And as I watched the lengths to which our facilities teams went to protect the worshippers—alternating pews, hand cleansing stations, a touchless experience, thorough cleansing of every hard surface between the services—again, I was blessed by the team that God has brought together to lead and care for this church.
Last week, Pastor Ellis called on us to recommit to worship. Well, I want to echo his exhortation and encourage those of you who are willing and able to recommit to worship in person. But let me first address those of you who might have objections to returning.
Objection #1: I am in the at-risk category.
I realize that some of you may be too much at risk to worship with us yet…which is why we will continue to provide live-streaming so that you needn’t miss out on a single service. I hope someday soon you will join us again. Meantime, join us virtually! A reminder that you can join us on YouTube or Facebook every Sunday morning at 9:00 and 11:00. Recommit to engaging in this way!
Objection #2: I don’t want to wear a mask.
I also realize that many of you chose not to come because worshiping in masks seems odd. And yes, it IS a little weird—and everyone adapted as they needed to. There are no face-mask police—and we are trusting people to respect the concerns of others. But I guess I would ask this: if the evidence was compelling that the ONLY safe way to gather was by wearing a mask—would that mean you’d never come back to church again? Really? The privilege of in-person corporate worship is precious. And it is essential for our spiritual lives. The Devil is the only winner if a piece of cloth prevents us from worshiping together.
Objection #3: The government is overstepping in our worship.
As for those who have constitutional issues, believe me—I understand the concern about political overreach. Our First Amendment right of worship should be vigorously defended. It is why I have been personally involved in a legal case seeking to protect the rights of churches in Washington state. It is why Cyndi and I have traveled to Olympia to express respectfully our concerns. It is why I rallied large churches across the state to join in signing a letter to the state government, a letter I wrote. You may not have been aware of these efforts, but I view this as an essential protective role as your pastor. For those of you who hold these Constitutional concerns, I assure you I am fully engaged in protecting these precious rights. Are you?
Meantime, however—we need to be together! In prayer. In worship. In a public, in-person celebration of our call to be faithful disciples AND faithful citizens at the same time.
Objection #4: Worshipping with my kids in the service is tricky.
So, my Sweetheart Church, I invite you to make your way back to church. Safely—wisely—humbly—sweetly—come back. If you have kids—bring them! Let them squirm; it’s okay! That’s the way we DID church for centuries. I know you will find ways to keep your kids entertained for one hour and our Children’s Ministry staff is here to help.
And, whether you return, don’t yet feel safe to return, or don’t choose to return, would you pray EVERY DAY for those of us who ARE returning so that we might maintain a witness to the central expression of what it means to be a follower of Christ: the public, corporate worship of Almighty God.
I hope to have you in my pew this weekend…I’ll wave from six feet away!
Pastor Mark (and Cyndi)