How are we thinking about Sunday during COVID-19?

Here is the letter I sent to our church (with some slight modifications and clarifications).

Dear beloved church family,

We are in uncharted waters, and your elders are trying to think biblically and serve you and our Lord faithfully. The elders have had many phone conversations about these matters, and we wanted to let you in on our process of thinking so that you can understand the reasons we are leading the way we are leading.

Our church’s regular Lord’s Day practices are extremely traditional. The things we do together have been done by orthodox Baptist churches for hundreds of years, and our forefathers spent decades thinking hard and debating about what Scripture commands before they landed upon the aspects of church life and corporate worship that our church has practiced as a tradition for many years. These are not easy matters to resolve, now that our regular practice has been upended by the mandated and advised social distancing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are still in the process of thinking through what we are doing, and we do not condemn any churches that are trying be faithful, but still make different choices than we are making. Here’s how we’re thinking right now.

First, your pastors want to serve the church and care for your souls. Some pastors have cancelled all services and encourage their members simply to have family Bible studies at home, and refer them to older online sermons and resources from other ministries during COVID-19. I understand why they did that, and I sympathize with their choice (more below). But we believe it’s important for the church to hear from its pastors as a help to thinking biblically in light of the particular providences of our time. Thus, we do not agree with those who have cancelled all Bible teaching during this time.

Your elders want to continue to serve you with the Word of God. Hebrews 13:17 says that elders are “keeping watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” 1 Peter 5:2 instructs pastors to “shepherd the flock of God.” In Acts 20:20 Paul says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable.”

Second, your pastors believe that technology can facilitate a connection among church members that can serve you. While we can’t be physically present together, we can connect electronically, hear prayer requests from one another, and pray for one another. When we study the Bible together through technology, we can ask questions about the lessons we’re hearing, and make comments that edify the church. These are aspects of the life of the church that we can continue via technological means. If we ended all connection, we would lose much of this.

But Scripture teaches us to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). 1 Peter 5:14 says, “Greet one another.” 1 Thessalonians 4:18 says, “comfort one another.” While the lack of an assembly limits our ability to fulfill these commands, we can do them to some degree through technology.

Third, your pastors do not want to lead you to violate the second commandment, the regulative principle of worship. The second commandment says, “You shall not make for yourselves a carved image or any likeness of anything” (Exodus 20:4). That command means we must not worship God corporately according to our own elements or imagination (John 4:24; Colossians 2:23; Hebrews 9:1; 8:6). We believe in the Regulative Principle of Worship, which says that whatever elements the Lord has not commanded in public worship are forbidden (2LCF 22.1).

The Lord has not commanded us to worship corporately disassembled through technology. Literally, the word church “ecclesia” means “assembly.” We can’t obey any of the commands to assemble for corporate worship as a church through virtual means, like Zoom. We cannot corporately receive the Word. We cannot corporately sing together. We cannot corporately take the Lord’s Supper or practice baptism. The Bible knows nothing of disembodied, disassembled public worship for the church on earth. If the pastors were to lead our church to worship corporately through technology, we believe we believe we would be leading you to sin, to violate the 2nd commandment.

Fourth, the pastors want to offer to aid you in your private and family worship and provide a connection to the scattered church. While the church cannot gather for corporate worship on Sunday, the pastors can broadcast Bible study and song to your homes as an aid to help you to worship privately and in your families. An important thing to understand is that this is not a substitute in any way for what we do on Sunday. These are unusual times, and we believe we have the freedom to help you in your private worship, if you would like to choose to connect with us.

Our plan is to let each of the elders speak from a different location via Zoom because we are trying to model good social distancing ourselves (Mitch is sick with something). I will lead the Sunday School time at 9:30 (you can login to Zoom by 9:15 to make sure everything is working). From 10:30-10:45 we will take a break. At 10:45, Mitch will lead us in a hymn. Fred will read from the confession and give some brief comments. I will lead the main Bible study time. We are not calling it a sermon because biblically speaking a sermon is delivered face to face, from the preacher to the hearers. And finally, Mitch will lead with a closing hymn. This not only allows all of the elders to keep distant from one another, but it also makes our time of connection feel less like corporate worship and more like private worship. Everything will be less formal (I am not going to wear a suit). The goal of it will be to give you the Word of God in light of the difficult providences going on in our world right now, and to facilitate some kind of scattered churchly connection during this troubling season.

Fifth, the elders want to encourage a churchly connection throughout the week. Hebrews 3:13 shows that the church is not merely to stay in contact when it is gathered corporately “But exhort one another every day, a long as it is called ‘today.’” I will send out some thoughts each Wednesday, along with a call for prayer requests from the church. We encourage you to make your prayer requests known to one another via email.

Also, each of the deacons is contacting each of their families, once per week, just to make sure everyone is doing ok. The pastors are trying to reach out to those most in need, to the sick, to those who are struggling in various ways all through the week. I would encourage all of you to reach out to one other. Maintain your usual relationships, but consider forming new ones, building into relationships with other people in the church. Maybe look at the kinds of prayer requests people are making and give them a call or shoot them a personal email to encourage them that you’re praying for them.

Let us pray that this season will not last long! And let us long for the day when we can gather together again as the church and resume worshipping our God corporately as a church.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor Tom Hicks