All Services at Pearl PCA Cancelled Through April [Updated]
I am writing to you on behalf of the session of Pearl PCA, though I am also speaking to you from my own heart.
First, let me cut to the chase and tell you the big headline for the moment: effective immediately we are cancelling all physical services at Pearl PCA through the rest of March and April. Now, please keep reading to understand why and so we can tell you what we will be doing instead. When we announced last week that we were cancelling all church activities except for morning worship for the rest of March, it was with great trepidation and a heavy sense of unwillingness. We knew, even at that time, that for some of you this was a dramatic and even unnecessary step.
Since that time, however, a lot of things changed in a very short amount of time:
• Multiple cases (6 in Hinds county, 34 in the state total as of just now) of COVID-19 have been identified in the Jackson area as of March 18th. All these numbers are doubled from what it was in a matter of only three days.
• Nationwide cases of COVID-19 are up fivefold from the week before. They doubled nationwide just between Friday and Sunday. Those cases are expected to multiply exponentially. Nationwide cases jumped by 36.5% from Tuesday to Wednesday, and nationwide deaths rose by 27% in the same day.
• Governor Tate Reeves has asked churches of all sizes not to meet.
• President Trump declared a state of emergency and recommended that people avoid groups of 10 or more for the rest of March and April.
Paul states in Romans 13 that the magistrate is a “minister for your good.” In other words, as cynical as we may be about the government at times, suspicion in this case will not serve us well. The best I can tell these directives have not been given to us out of malice. This is advice from the best experts we have as to what is best for us, and none of us is qualified to say that we know better than those who have carefully studied the spread of diseases. This is not a time for civil disobedience, it is a time to listen to “ministers for our good.”
These recommendations apply to all public gatherings, not just churches. Many companies are sacrificing incredible amounts of money and capital in order to obey these recommendations. The NBA and NCAA are losing out on incredible opportunities by cancelling all of their events. Movie theaters are closing their doors. Even Disney is losing what is estimated to be billions of dollars by closing down Disneyland. These corporations are sacrificing.
Now it appears that the church is also being asked to sacrifice for the public good, as well. We are being asked to stop meeting in order to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases. What this means is that we are being asked cease meeting for an extended period of time in order to keep the emergency services and hospitals from being overwhelmed with too many cases all at once. Ask any nurses in our congregation and they will tell you they are already working incredible hours and are consistently exhausted. Once you add the exponential increase of cases headed their way and it wouldn’t take much to overwhelm the hospital system in our area (Italian hospitals have had to practice triage, deciding effectively who lives and who dies. Washington State has now run out of hospital beds and the cases continue to multiply). We have no special immunity to these things. What is happening in other places is sure to come our way as well in short order.
Epidemiologists now say it will be inevitable that most of the population will end up contracting COVID-19 over the next year or so, but the goal is to keep all of us from getting it all at once, overwhelming the medical system, and then sending up fatality rates when some lives could be saved during normal circumstances.
The Session of Pearl, observing these realities, hearing the recommendations of our government at every level, and out of concern for the good of those in our immediate charge have made the incredibly difficult decision to join the vast majority of PCA churches in the Jackson Metro area and ceasing physical worship services. We do not know how long this will be for, but we are revisiting this question as a session constantly. At the moment, our plan is to not have physical services at the church for the months of March and April. The President has asked churches not to meet through April.
In 1918 the church was confronted with a similar situation when the Spanish Influenza swept through the world. During that time, churches around the United States closed their doors for a season out of respect for a government request that they cease meeting.
How should we think of this change? Are we just quitting? Is this like when people fold under persecution? I would suggest it is not like that at all. If this was just about our own health and safety that would be one thing, but this is about our neighbors, the vulnerable among us, and those we love. I may be willing to lay down my life for Christ, but is it right for someone to lay their neighbor’s life for Christ as well? The answer, I believe, is no. Comparisons to persecution do not appreciate the gravity of these issues. We are not being persecuted. All organizations that meet in groups are being told not to meet. This is not persecution at the hands of a hateful government that means us ill.
As Garrett Kiel puts it: "During persecution, Christians defy government regulations in order to gather out of love for God and neighbor. We obey God, not government. During pandemics, Christians obey government regulations by not gathering out of love for God and neighbor. We obey God by obeying government."
The best way to think of this season is not persecution but providential hindrance. Two years ago in April we cancelled worship because of an ice storm. The session deemed that it was too dangerous for people to be on the roads that day and so morning worship was cancelled. Why? Because the entire congregation was providentially hindered by conditions. Lives would have been put at risk if people had come that day.
For the next 8 weeks or so, according to those who know better than us, there is ice everywhere, and we are being providentially hindered from attending during this season.
This is unprecedented. This is absolutely unheard of for us in the modern world. As your pastor, I have struggled mightily over this question of what to do. You may not know this, but my seminary didn’t have any seminary classes on a situation as unusual and wild as the one we are currently in. I realize that a few churches have concluded that they should still meet. I do not judge them. They are doing what they feel they must. But increasingly the majority of Presbyterian and Reformed churches in our area and around the country have decided to accede to the recommendations of the magistrate.
The 6th commandment tells us to do what we can to protect our lives and the lives of others. Some of you may still feel compelled out of a sincere faith to seek out worship somewhere that will be open on Sunday mornings. The best evidence that we have suggests that this is not a good way to obey the 6th commandment. You may not be preserving the life of your neighbor if you do that.
Set against this at the moment, of course, is the 4th commandment which tells us to hallow the Sabbath Day. By suspending worship we know that we are taking away that aspect of keeping the 4th commandment. We are not worshiping corporately. It is important that the families of our church receive careful direction as to how to continue to hallow the Lord’s Day. To that end, the session have prepared a series of plans to help you set aside upcoming Lord’s Days and to hallow the day unto the Lord.
• First, we are producing a family worship guide which we will distribute to all of you via email, on our Facebook page, and on our website. We will produce this each week and distribute to you as early in the week as we can. This family worship guide will include Scripture readings, Catechism questions to memorize and discuss as a family, lyrics to familiar hymns and psalms that can be sung acapella, prayer requests for our church for you as a family to pray over together, and questions to discuss as a family after watching our sermon for the week.
o In coming weeks if you would like to have this worship guide printed out and sent to you all you need to do is request it.
• Second, we will be recording and posting a new sermon from Pastor Parker on our church Facebook page on the Lord’s Day. Our encouragement is for families to gather for worship in their home at the same time that we usually meet (Sundays at 11am) and use the family worship guide, watch the sermon, and practice worship together as a family. This is not the same thing as corporate worship (there is no substitute for that), but it is a way for our families to set aside the day and still hallow it unto God.
We have also made plans for further instruction and edification for the members of our church during the week:
• We will be posting the audio of a new Sunday School lesson each week by Levi Berntson from his Zechariah Sunday School series in our podcast feed and on the church website.
• Pastor Parker and Levi Berntson will begin having a Facebook Live Bible Study on our church Facebook page Wednesday mornings at 11am. You will be able to watch their discussion of the book of Leviticus and send them questions while they are talking and even hear them try to answer your questions. This will continue for as long as we aren’t physically meeting. If you can’t watch the video live you should be able to still watch the video later.
We don’t know how long this season will last. We hope it is short. But we believe that the above plans are sustainable over a long season until the government tells us that it is safe for us to return to meeting together once again.
We realize some may want to direct anger at me as the Pastor, or even at the session if they disagree with this decision. Simply know that every single member of the session came to this decision with incredible reluctance. Nobody in our church leadership or in our church is glad to see our church suspend worship services. Personally, my stomach has been in knots for over a week as I have contemplated what to do, and I have been driven to frequent prayer because of this. I never in all my life thought I would be faced with a question like this. When I think about each and every face in our congregation I find myself heavily burdened as the undershepherd of this flock. We have many in the over 60 crowd. There is an approximate 10-20% mortality rate from the disease in that age category. I love our people. I don’t think I could bear to do multiple funerals knowing that I decided for us to keep meeting physically as a church and that a poor decision on our part was a contributor to a beloved member’s demise.
Our God is sovereign, but he also uses our good and poor choices to accomplish his ends. It is not enough for us to have a room full of people potentially carrying COVID-19 and to say, “If it’s their time, it’s their time.” God’s providence means that even our suffering and death will be used for our spiritual health, but it is not an excuse to do things that we know are destructive to us and others. If it was, then the sixth commandment, which forbids us from doing things that are destructive to ourselves and others, would not have been given to us in the first place.
This decision was made with the utmost love for you as a congregation, out of a commitment to obeying the sixth commandment while also encouraging members to obey the fourth commandment the best that we all can given present circumstances.
On Tuesday of this week I was visiting with another local pastor who also concluded with great reluctance that they would have to cancel physical services, and he pointed out something important to me, and it’s something I want you all do know as a church: It is normal for all of this to make us sorrowful. I don’t want to make you feel good about this decision. I don’t feel good about it.
We should weep to be apart from the rest of the church. It should fill us with dread and sorrow not to be in the same room together, to be listening to the Word together, to be singing together, to be giving offerings together. That impulse and sense that we should be together is right, natural, and normal. This impulse is something we can spend this season reflecting upon and yearning and praying that the situation changes soon. Let’s take that yearning for togetherness and channeling it into prayer and the practice of family worship.
Your Pastor, Undershepherd, and Friend With Utmost Love,
The Session encourages our members to continue to give to the church during this time. Even though we will not be taking up offering physically at the church during this season, the church’s costs do continue. We encourage members to continue giving by check.
Please send to:
Pearl Presbyterian Church
2933 Old Brandon Road
[Update: a previous version of this post said we cancelled services through March only. The session later voted to extend that through the month of April as well.]