The spread of the COVID-19 virus has upended routines and traditions. Many things on which we have grown to rely are suddenly changed or gone. Fear has seeped in and threatens to push faith aside.
But as people across North America are asked to limit their movements and/or stay in their homes, and as health-care workers and others seek to stem the awful tide of this virus, Christian Reformed congregations in Canada and the United States, not willing to let fear rule, are rising to the occasion.
Instead of turning away and giving in to anxiety that can easily grip us, congregations have stepped up and — in a wide range of creative ways, many related to social media — are seeking to spread the hopeful and necessary message of the gospel.
For example, Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich., ran its Sunday class for youth online after the teacher drove around and delivered the day’s lesson to the front door of every participant’s home. A church in Canada has gotten parents and kids to shake off their boredom by getting involved in “Isolation Olympics.” And a church in Washington, D.C., offers an online story time for kids every day at 10 a.m.; hosts virtual lunch gatherings each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and invites parishioners to tune in every evening for a reading of prayer.
These churches and many others are working to give people, as the church has always done in times of trial, the long view: focusing on being the church of Jesus as it speaks out, turns to prayer, and offers hope and assistance to others. At the core of church life is the weekly gathering for worship, now online in many churches.
But churches are finding ways to address the need for “social isolation” and at the same bring the grace of God even into chat rooms, Instagram accounts and onto Facebook and YouTube.”
For instance often communion is a high point of togetherness for church members. But even the sacrament is not being shunted aside.
Bellevue CRC, Bellevue, Wash.
Take a look at Bellevue (Wash.) Christian Reformed Church, where Rev. Gordon Terpstra offered communion to viewers last Sunday at the end of his livestream sermon, titled “Jesus, Lamb of God,” based on Genesis 22:1-14 and John 1:29.
Throughout the past week, before Sunday’s service, Terpstra kept busy, sometimes late into the night, writing devotions that he sent out to church members. He also talks at length on the phone with his parishioners.
Then on Sunday he stood behind the pulpit, with a banner showing the face of Christ behind him, ready for communion. Breaking the bread, Terpstra asked the people watching at home to also take up a piece of bread and some wine or juice to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Before eating the bread, he also offered these words along with the usual instructions to “take, eat, remember, and believe”: “A word of assurance for us — Our Lord will never forsake us. The Lord is someone we can hold on to, no matter what.”
Across the U.S. in Goshen, N.Y., this past Sunday, Rev. Sam Sutter read Psalms 42 and 43, companion psalms acknowledging deep agony and a striking sense of feeling distant from God. Yet, weaving through these psalms are threads of hope arising from the honesty that the psalmist pours into these prayers, said Sutter in his livestream sermon.
Psalm 42 begins: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” And later in Psalm 42 we read: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”
These are tough words, reminding us that the psalms don’t always bring simple comfort. Some bring us to lament our situation in the world. We honestly lay out our fears and give it to God. We do this because, even as we cry out in lament or in grief, we always find God at work, taking us into the deep streams of our emotions and bringing us out again, said Sutter.
“These psalms are about someone who is looking for God and who is having a hard time finding him,” said the pastor. “We don’t know what crisis this godly person is in. This person can’t sleep and is weeping. This person is in the deep grips of anxiety and pain.”
Though filled with anguish, these psalms are also vital calls for us, even when we are sequestered at home to turn to the one who is steady at all times. Both Psalms 42 and 43 end with the refrain “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God.”
“We look up from what afflicts us,” said Sutter, and we realize that, like the palmist, we can reach out in “the middle of turmoil . . . and grab the line of God’s faithful love.”
Dirk vanEyk, pastor of Encounter Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., gave a similarly hopeful message to online worshipers on Sunday. He started out by saying that Encounter was working hard to make sure all of their weekly meetings and programs are not cancelled, putting them as much online as possible. Even so, he didn’t downplay the daily disruption that people are coping with.
“These are tough times for the church,” he said. Meeting together, face-to-face, is so key to a church fellowship. But that aspect of worship flew out the window for many churches when shutdowns and lockdowns began. “We’ve had to make critical decisions about how to retool and reimagine everything we do.” he said.
Despite all of the disruption and anxiety that the virus keeps causing, vanEyk asked people to think of themselves as rocks, solid to the core, and of God being the one who shapes us into the person we ought to be. “When you have rock-solid faith that cannot be shaken,”said vanEyk. “God will take a chisel to you, reshaping your life.”
Near the end of his sermon, vanEyk said: “Reach out with unsolicited encouragement in whatever ways you can this week. . . . I know there is a pandemic . . . among us. But, remember, what we have together is the gospel, the answer” to any fears that may take hold. “I can see hope on the horizon.”
Church Juice, a communications ministry of Back to God Ministries International, has been busy in the past two weeks helping churches sort out ways in which they might be able to offer online services. While some larger churches have the capabilities to livestream their services, many smaller congregations haven’t gone in that direction — until now, said Bryan Haley, team leader of Church Juice.
“We’ve gotten many calls from churches asking how to use technology and social media to keep connected,” he said. “I tell churches that a simple way is to point your church to other churches that have a livestream.” Alternatively, “it isn’t hard to livestream your service on Facebook or Youtube,” he said. (Check the Church Juice page for tips on how to do this.)
At the same time, Haley said, he advises churches not to feel that they have to live stream if they don’t have the capabilities. Even so, it isn’t difficult for a pastor to record a sermon and post it later on YouTube or a social media site.
There are many other options as well; pastors and other leaders can send out daily reflections; church members can make sure to call one another and see if some of the most vulnerable are having their needs met; they can even start a pen-pal relationship over email, as Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids has done.
In a message sent out this week, Calvin Church suggested: “During this time of separation, we're looking for ways to stay connected and care for one another. We're especially mindful of those for whom this time is particularly lonely. One way we could keep in touch and even get to know each other better is by coordinating pen/email pals.” Accompanying this message was a link the church created so that people can sign up: pen pal idea.
Meanwhile, Fellowship CRC in St. Thomas, Ont., launched its “Isolation Olympics.” Youth leader Jon Pollnow set this up as a way for church families stuck at home to get involved in an activity that seeks to break down the boredom many young people are feeling now that they can’t go to school.
Participants were asked to give themselves a team name and to come up with a flag. Then they were asked to take a selfie of themselves and their whole team — and, for fun, to make themselves look intimidating.
Then the teams had a number of tasks to perform online: bake bread from scratch; complete a large puzzle; go for a hike or dance in a public space (if safe to do so); ; make up a scavenger hunt; and the list goes on.
“We were trying to think of ways people could engage from a distance,” said Pollnow. And before long, “it snowballed. Other churches started their own ‘Isolation Olympics.’”
Washington D.C. Christian Reformed Church
At Washington, D.C., CRC, young people have a chance to tap in every weekday at 10 a.m. for a short, kids’ story time.
“A variety of people have volunteered to do different things. For instance, we have a kids’ exercise class on Monday,” said Meg Jenista, one of the pastors.
Like so many churches, she said, they at first struggled over using the internet for church programs and teaching, but it didn’t take them long to embrace it for the communications tool it is. Key is communicating the ongoing, everflowing gospel and keeping people linked in as a community.
To that end, the church holds “Let’s Have Lunch” at 12:15 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Linking with their computers or smartphones, everyone can chat and eat and especially share the time together.
“Many people are working from home, so we thought, ‘Let’s have lunch together,’” said Jenista. “The people in our church like getting together and talking. It’s pretty informal.”
In the evening people can connect with the church site to take part in evening prayers recited from an Anglican prayer book.
“None of this is ideal,” said Jeinsta. “I don’t think we will come out on the other side of this pandemic doing church this way. What we’re doing is using stop-gap measures, because this is how we need to do church for the time being.”
First CRC in Chatham, Ont.
Nate Van Denend, pastor of First CRC in Chatham, Ont., is using the livestreaming capabilities of nearby Grace CRC in Chatham to offer some music and a sermon on Sundays. Although First CRC has no capability to livestream and Grace CRC has that ability, but is currently without a pastor. So Van Denend has been able to step away from his Sunday duties at First CRC and fill the role of online pastor for now.
As for the first online sermon he gave at Grace, said Van Denend, he considers his subject matter providential.
In researching sermons for the season of Lent, he read about how Christians were among the only ones to tend to the needs of people dying from plagues that hit Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries. Reading about those situations and considering what we are facing today, he decided to name the series“Christian Preparation for a Difficult Time.”
That preparation comes in living close to God and acting with the realization that God is always with us, bolstering and guiding us. And in this process of support, said Van Denend, God offers strength to help us cope.
“We realize that, as Christians, we have important principles to use in times such as these,” he said. “Even as things look dark and bleak, we have faith, love, and hope — and it was Jesus who gave us this — to fight back against despair.”