July 9, 2020
It is hard to believe that we are beginning the fifth month since the coronavirus burst on the scene here in the United States, after making appearances in China and Europe. It was March 14 that we took the unprecedented action of canceling services in the United States. On May 30 we reopened in-person church services where it was safe, and as we begin the fifth month of this crisis, we are still witnessing the gradual return to services for many of our congregations.
Back in March, we had hoped for a return to normalcy by the month of July if not sooner, but that isn’t proving to be possible, at least not yet. Most of our congregations outside the U.S. are still not able to meet in person for services. Our largest group of members outside the U.S. is in Latin America. As of this date, none of our congregations in this region are able to meet for services, but must rely solely on webcasts. And, sadly, several governments there are stating that in-person services may not be permitted until September, if then! If this is correct, we will be facing issues with the Feast of Tabernacles in Latin America that we have never faced before.
Each week that goes by, we are confronted with a multitude of decisions. The question we constantly ask ourselves is, What does God want us to do? While some things are easily discerned, others are not. When is it safe to return to services? This question is being asked by members around the world. Staying home and watching a webcast is not our desire. We realize that webcasts are a substitute when we are unable to meet in person, but they are not an alternative or a replacement for Church services. Of course, there are a number of members who have not returned to services at the present time—some because of a health condition, some because of increased infections in the community, and some because of age and generally poor health. We also must not forget that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is encouraging those 65 and older with any sort of health issue to stay home. We are committed to serving these brethren with a webcast. Members should not feel pressure to return to services before they are ready, nor should this be viewed as a lack of faith.
Many members are asking questions about the Feast of Tabernacles. Here at headquarters we are developing options for various scenarios, based on projections for how things will be in these areas around the time of the Feast. Currently, all areas where we are booked for the Feast in the United States are prepared to honor their contracts with the Church. Cancellations so far have been limited to Greece and Jordan. Others may follow, especially at sites outside the U.S. that are depending on travelers from the U.S., but so far we have only canceled these two.
The plans we are developing for the Feast will cover all possibilities—no changes (Feast as “normal”), limitations on numbers, social distancing required, or possibly other restrictions. These are all being discussed, but our prayer is that we won’t need options beyond keeping the Feast as we have done for decades. With three months until the Feast, we desire to keep it with few or no restrictions placed on our meetings by the local authorities. Please pray about the Feast, and I also encourage all of us to take a day or more over the next few weeks to fast about the situation. It is a serious concern for all of us here at headquarters.
Back to my question about what God wants us to do. Keep in mind that if we do what is right in God’s sight (Deuteronomy 6:18), we have nothing to fear or worry about for the future. The challenge is knowing what God wants us to do under these conditions. We were all convinced (and still are) that we needed to cancel services when we did on March 14. And we felt it was safe to reopen services in many areas on May 30. So far, so good, but what should we do going forward?
To seek God’s direction doesn’t mean you ignore the facts of a situation. But following human reason can lead to wrong decisions (Proverbs 14:12). Finding the balance is more difficult than it seems, especially in situations where we can’t rely on past experience. Everything about this virus seems to be unprecedented. We know that we should not “tempt” God (Matthew 4:7) by deliberately putting ourselves in a dangerous situation. Of course, there will always be risk involved when one decides to obey God.
We are instructed by Scripture to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We are convinced that we must observe the annual holy days (Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 14:22-29). But how should we observe the Feast of Tabernacles if there are restrictions placed on our services? I can assure you that we will observe all the annual holy days, including the Feast of Tabernacles. We realize that there may be restrictions, such as the size of groups and the possibility that in the case of our larger sites, not everyone will be able to meet together at the same time. We will also be prepared for the worst case scenario as we did for the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread when we met by webcast. We don’t expect this to be the situation by the Feast, but we would be negligent if we didn’t have a plan just in case.
Here at headquarters we have established a system of communication that involves all our U.S. pastors meeting weekly with Ministerial Services to assess the situation in all our congregations. This meeting takes place each Thursday. Then, each Friday, Ministerial Services provides an overview for the administration. In a time of difficulty that is filled with uncertainty, we must be constantly communicating. God has blessed us this far—our income remains strong, and we regularly receive messages from all of you expressing appreciation for our efforts to care for the brethren under difficult circumstances. We are also in regular contact with the regional directors and pastors from around the world, who are providing us with timely updates about their areas.
My concern is that if there are more cases and deaths as the year drags on, local authorities will impose new restrictions which could affect how we observe the holy days. Of course, even if the holy days weren’t a concern, the sickness and subsequent loss of life are major tragedies that should cause each of us to pray even more fervently. To this point, very few members have tested positive for COVID-19. In countries outside the U.S. where there is a weak infrastructure with the inability to handle a health crisis, the collapse of the health-care system is a real possibility. We must never take for granted God’s protection for His people during this challenging time.
Over the next month or so, I am encouraging all of us to seek God’s direction by fasting and praying. Our relationship with God is of vital importance. In every trial we must rely on that relationship and not lean on our “own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). We must continually strengthen that relationship by seeking God’s will in our lives and His guidance in our decision making. We must ask each day, What does God want us to do? If we base our decisions on the facts as we know them and seek direction from God through fasting and prayer, I am convinced that, while it won’t be easy, we will be just fine!
Sincerely, your brother in Christ,