May 2020 Member Letter
May 6, 2020
After consulting with the U.S. pastors, and getting input from a number of brethren, along with seeking guidance from state and local officials, we have set May 30 as the earliest date for holding in-person Sabbath services in the United States. We are not requesting that all congregations return to services on this date, and in fact, we know that most probably will not be able to hold their first service at that time. But this date gives us a target and another three weeks until then to assess the situation and make sure the timing for reopening is appropriate before it actually happens.
The dates on which we reopen congregations will vary widely, with some able to begin on May 30 and others starting later. As far as the Church around the world, in some countries congregations never ceased meeting in person. This has been true in Zambia and Malawi in southern Africa. But in South Africa and Zimbabwe, right next door, the opposite is the case. In these two countries, meeting together in a group may not be allowed until well into the summer.
Based on the current information we have, severe restrictions on meetings will continue in the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. Congregations in Latin America will also face a variety of obstacles prior to holding in-person services, ranging from minor restrictions in Mexico to extreme restrictions in Central America. In South America, where nations are in different stages of lockdown, we also face divergent requirements. Chile already allows smaller groups to meet together, while Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador and Peru are under very tight lockdown requirements. Although businesses are beginning to open in Europe, it appears that churches will not be able to hold services until sometime later in the summer.
We have heard from many of you as to what a blessing and how spiritually unifying the weekly webcasts from the office in McKinney have been. Based on your response, we are now planning a churchwide webcast on the Day of Pentecost, Sunday, May 31. This is scheduled to be our final churchwide webcast, at least until further notice, but that will depend on a number of factors, including the ability of congregations to meet in person by that time or shortly thereafter. On Pentecost we will hold a full service, beginning at 12 noon Central time, for all U.S. congregations, along with any others who may be able to join us. We will once again webcast in English, French and Spanish. The significance of Pentecost should make this a highly emotional church service and a significant weekend for all of us.
Recently I attended a funeral in the Houston area for a young man who died suddenly at the age of 19. While it was a very sad occasion and the number of attendees was limited because of COVID-19, I was very encouraged by the fact that the brethren are doing so well under these extraordinary conditions. They all expressed appreciation for the weekly webcasts and the ability to reach out through modern technology and stay in touch with each other.
I was also impressed by the spiritual maturity of the brethren. While they all want to get back together as soon as possible, they are patiently waiting, wanting to make sure it will be safe to be in a group again. They all expressed to me that they are praying for those in the office who are making important decisions for the future of the Church as we work our way through this pandemic. None of us was prepared for what has happened, and we have no prepared plan or guidebook for how we move forward in the midst of the current disaster.
From the Scriptures, we are given important principles that will guide us going forward. For example, we know that God would have us meeting together as a body of people wherever and whenever possible. The very definition of the Church is a group of people who come together. The first use of “church” in the English Bible is found in Matthew 16:18, and it comes from the Greek word ekklesia. The literal meaning of this word is “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship … in the religious meeting” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon). Christ further defined the Church (His disciples) as those who have love for one another (John 13:35). The desire to be together with love for one another was expressed to me often by those in the Houston area. It was obvious by watching the interactions that, as a group of people, we miss being together!
As I mentioned in my last sermon, having concern and even some fear is natural. We know that this virus has been quite deadly, particularly for those who are older and have other health concerns. It isn’t a lack of faith to acknowledge that and take precautions. As a body of people, we will do just that, but our goal is to be back together, worshipping God in a service that consists of young and old—the type of service we have experienced for many decades.
John wrote an epistle to the Church in the latter days of the first century. A false Christianity had developed, along with considerable heresy. John identified fellowship as being a critical part of our Christianity:
“That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. … But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:3-7).
Koinonia is the Greek word translated “fellowship.” It has a broad range of meaning, from a gift or contribution to joint participation. For the past two months, our fellowship with others outside our immediate family has been limited to what can be done by technology. While this has proven to be a light for us in the midst of a very troubled world, it cannot replace actually being with each other.
Our goal has not changed since we first canceled meeting for services on March 14 here in the United States. We desire to be back together again, but that desire has to be balanced with the safety of those who will be attending. We must all be patient, knowing that God will take care of us. We don’t have to fear, but we must be careful. What a day that will be when we are all together, young and old, children and adults, worshipping God on His Sabbath and holy days!
Sincerely, your brother in Christ,