Please see Bishop John Henderson's statement on the closure of LCA Church buildings in Australia in light of the corona virus pandemic. The closure extends to small group meetings on all Church properties (Bethlehem House and Stables) as well as to services in the Church itself. The office will be closed most of this week. Further statements will soon be made available on the website and sent out via e-mail and Facebook.
Issue 04 - 24 March 2020
I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?
On Sunday, 22 March, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced new measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including the closure of churches and other places of worship from midday on Monday 23 March.
Also, on Monday 23 March New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern placed her country on a level 3 alert, moving to level 4 in 48 hours. This is NZ’s highest alert, which will lock down the whole country, leaving open only supermarkets, pharmacies, and essential medical services.
The picture across Australia is less uniform as States and Territories implement their own restrictions to suit the local situation. Those measures will become increasingly strict and will soon match those in New Zealand and other countries.
This is an opportunity for us to step forward, boldly and confidently, as Christian citizens who understand how to practise care, compassion, and love. The hope we have in us is greater than anything this earth can offer, and God’s love strengthens us. Our Lord has been preparing us for this time for many years. Suddenly, being church is not just talk, but action, as we are challenged to step out of our church buildings into the unknown. As we do that, we will feel some sense of loss, but it does not need to bother us unduly. Our true hope is not in bricks and mortar, or the things of this world. We will always have what we need for each day. This is what we repeatedly ask God for, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We can use the gifts we have been given for the good of the whole world, serving God with joy in our hearts.
1. Stop gathering in church buildings
Government directives are quite clear on this matter. We must close our physical church buildings and worship centres for the duration. Australia has a Christian, church-going Prime Minister, and he would not ask us to do this lightly. This means no Sunday morning, Lenten, or other church services, small group bible studies or prayer times in our buildings or in the church grounds.
And yes, sadly, this means no Holy Communion for the time being. The bishops ask you not to trial any experimental practices in your congregation. Communion is not magic. It is the community meal of the church, instituted by the Lord of the church, not a private spiritual act. Returning to the altar for the bread and the wine, once this is all over, will be a sweet and special moment, a special celebration of God’s redeeming grace. While it is central to the regular life of the church, in times of duress our faith and salvation do not utterly depend on receiving Communion. God has many ways of feeding us with his word and the water of eternal life – let’s explore them and make use of them.
2. Gather however you can, without physical proximity
We will continue to hold Services of the Word in whatever way we can, using whatever means God has made available to us. When St Paul wrote to the churches from his Roman prison cell, he had the Spirit, a message, some parchment, ink, and a quill. Praise God, we still have the Spirit and that message, the gospel of salvation, and we also have the internet, phones, printed materials, and (still) a physical postage system for those not yet adapted to the digital era. If Paul could do it in the 1st century, we can do it in the 21st!
Some congregations have asked whether they can still use their church building to film live-streamed or recorded services in the sanctuary. We understand that, in Australia at this point, you still can, provided you keep the number of people in the building to the absolute minimum required to do the filming (no public entry), and observe the physical distancing rules which are clearly stipulated in government announcements. Please observe any further government restrictions which may come out in the next days or weeks. You can check for them at https://www.health.gov.au/ and https://www.health.govt.nz/.
Funerals must be small, private services, not open to general invitation. We must respect the need for this, even though it will be difficult. If you are arranging a funeral, you must ensure clear guidelines are in place.
3. Keeping worship alive in your home
My congregation has just mailed out a ‘Faith Pack’, the first in a regular series. It includes a letter from our pastor, worship resources, a sermon, ‘Growing faith at home’, and information on how to continue to give my offering. Other congregations will have other ideas. I encourage you to share those ideas over the grapevine, through your district office, or through the churchwide office. We are considering a special social media group for you to do that as well.
Some congregations can live-stream worship into people’s homes. It can no longer feature a gathered congregation. The streaming must be designed and filmed specifically for this purpose, using just a handful of people under physical distancing rules. To keep this activity going over an extended period it will need to be sustainable, so what you do doesn’t need to be elaborate. It’s the Word that matters most – style will come and go. These videos can be viewed by a wide variety of people, not just your own members.
LCA Communications and the Commission on Worship have established Church@Home (www.lca.org.au/churchhome) where we can all share and access these resources. We are sharing these resources to supplement, but not replace, those of your local congregation. Please stay in touch with each another locally. If your congregation and pastor (where you have one) are providing worship, prayer and bible study materials, please use those local resources, even if you also access a streamed service from another congregation. While not every congregation is equipped to provide regular local resources, we need to do all we can to stay as connected as possible with the worship and spiritual fellowship, and the pastors, of our local church homes.
4. Thinking of others
In an address to the Australian parliament on Monday, Scott Morrison said, ‘While you may not be able to go to church, the synagogue, the temple or the mosque, I most certainly call on all people of faith for you to pray… I can assure you, my prayer knees are getting a good work out.’
In times of anxiety and fear it is easy to think of ourselves. It takes courage and resolve to think of others. This must be our motivation. It is why we must cease public gatherings for the time being. Even the humble home group or Bible study needs to be replaced with another form of gathering by which we show care and encourage each other. Pastors can prepare resources for their congregations, including sermons and use their newly available time to make phone or internet calls. Lay visitors can switch to phone or internet visits. Pastoral carers can deliver much needed supplies to people who otherwise can’t get to the shops. Committees and councils can suspend meetings or meet over the internet. I am hearing of all these things happening and more. We’re in this for a longish haul, and I know we can do it well, with a positive spirit.
5. Easter is coming!
The highest festival of our church year is only a few weeks away. The bishops encourage congregations to start thinking about how you can celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus this year from your homes. How can you gather and maintain physical distancing? How will you worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day? Work with your pastor in developing your approach. For those who don’t have a pastor, or those looking for additional resources, we plan to have ideas and resources available for you at Church@Home.
6. Keep up-to-date and share resources
The LCA continues to develop and share resources. You can find them via the links at www.lca.org.au/covid-19. Later this week we will upload another video message. You can sign up for the revamped LCA daily devotions, specifically written for these times. If you know someone in your church who doesn’t have access to a computer, you or your congregation might like to print out some of this material and deliver it to them (without breaking physical separation rules) as many congregations are already doing.
I have been very encouraged by reports from the LLL that they have received many calls and emails inquiring about signing up to REG as a way of supporting ongoing ministry. If you want to continue to give your weekly offering by this method, helpful information on that is available at www.lca.org.au/REG. The LLL stands ready to assist you – please call them toll free on 1800 556 457.
Pastor John Henderson