A compelling case of Christian unity spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding every Sunday at Hebron Christian Reformed Church in Whitby, Ont.
In light of the pandemic, Hebron has opened its doors, allowing Redemption — a nearby nondenominational church that had lost permission to meet in a high school — the opportunity to worship in its sanctuary.
“They approached us and asked if we might be willing to share our building on a Sunday morning,” said Darren Hoogendoorn, pastor of Hebron CRC, located just outside Toronto.
Under Ontario rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have canceled all rental permits for the time being. This left Redemption — a growing church with a large membership of young families — without a place to gather.
“When they asked if they could use our building, a request like that wasn’t even on my radar,” said Hoogendoorn. “I was so focused on our own regathering plans that I did not even think about churches who have no place to regather.”
At the same time, he added, he knew from reading Mathew 25 — which speaks of reaching out to people in need and stewarding our talents, that one resource the church had overlooked at this time was their building.
Hoogendoorn said he brought Redemption’s request to the church council “with some fear and trembling,” unsure how they would react. But after considerable discussion, the council decided to go forward, believing the arrangement was workable and a good idea.
“We talked and prayed this through, asking if this was wise. We decided not to let our fears handicap us,” said Hoogendoorn. “We realized that to love well is often not without a cost.”
Redemption Church, which promotes a significantly Reformed theology, has been meeting in the Hebron sanctuary for the past four weeks. Under Ontario restrictions, churches are limited in the number of people who can gather in person, so rows of pews have been taped off to maintain social distancing.
In many ways this is an attempt to show how churches can work together, said Hoogendoorn. “My hope is that doing something like this can help bring about a greater unity among churches. . . . We are all on the same team to spread the gospel.”
Paul Flannery, director of connections at Redemption, said the church has met for a decade in an area high school but found themselves without a place to worship because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“We weren’t sure what we could do. The people in our church watched the service over the internet, but there was a real hunger to gather and fellowship — to meet in person. We as a church were praying for options to open up since we had lost the rental permit for the school in April,” he said.
With this in mind, Flannery said, he began to ask himself if they could find a sanctuary in which they could meet once Ontario allowed church members to gather again.
He was driving by Hebron CRC one day when he wondered if that church, a spacious place built in the late ‘60s, could make way for Redemption once the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. “I called the church to see if meeting there might work,” he said.
Hoogendoorn suggested that they meet to tour the church and talk over the request. After that, things moved quickly. “It was such a blessing” that Hebron agreed to the request to use the church on Sundays, said Flannery.
“We created a formal agreement, allowing us to meet and to make sure to clean and sanitize the sanctuary when we were finished.”
Hebron’s sanctuary features a large pipe organ and a seating capacity of more than 600 people, and that has allowed a portion of Redemption members to meet face to face, even if people wear masks.
“We are so grateful to have a place in which we can worship,” even if it means not everyone who is a church member can attend Sunday services at this point, said Flannery.
In early July, Ontario allowed in-person gatherings for prayer and worship, but with such conditions as limiting the number of people to 30 percent of the space available in a building to allow for physical distancing.
“Just seeing people — even if we can’t hug or shake hands or mill around and talk — is still better than it was,” said Flannery.
Hebron’s church council so far has decided not to regather the Hebron congregation. Other than for the praise team and pastor, the sanctuary is empty for their Sunday service.
The church council, however, is in regular contact with members, many of whom are older, asking them if they are ready yet to return.
Recently Hoogendoorn emailed a number of pastors in Ontario, filling them in on what Hebron has done and wondering if they might be willing to open their church buildings to displaced congregations.
“I am learning from many fellow pastors who are running plants or renting schools that their permits have been canceled till September and most likely until November,” he wrote.
“Not only are these pastors sorting through whether to regather or not, but they are dealing with the anxiety of ‘where’ to regather.”
After the agreement of the Hebron church council, he wrote: “We moved our services to 9 a.m. to allow Redemption to meet from 10:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. . . . Since the time of that decision, another church has asked us if they might use the Sunday-night time slot when they decide to regather.”
He sent the email not “to toot Hebron’s horn,” he said, “. . . but I bring this up because I know that unity among the body of Christ is a theme that resonates.”
Many of the CRCs in Ontario, he added, as a result of the diligence and support of earlier generations, have spacious buildings. This made him wonder, he wrote, “if there is an opportunity here for a move of unity, not just among the CRC churches but among our sister churches simply by sharing our space that is often at this point not being used for much else.
“I think if your boards and councils are willing, the displaced congregations among us are fairly easy to find.”
Kevin DeRaaf, acting Canada director for Resonate Global Mission, said that what is happening at Hebron is something other churches might consider. “This is a great story coming out of Hebron CRC,” he said.
“This time of COVID-19 has created incredible challenges for many of our churches,” said DeRaaf. “But the Spirit of God has continued to shape our churches in amazing ways.
“I love how Hebron Church is listening to the whisper of the Spirit to serve brothers and sisters in their community. By making space in their building for these diverse families of believers, they are living out Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17.”
In fact, Hoogendoorn said he keeps thinking about John 17, which quotes Jesus as stating: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one. . . . May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (vv. 20-21).
Making room for displaced churches, especially those of different denominations, can illustrate the words of Christ, said Hoogendoorn.
“Whenever the non-Christian world sees us operating as one, it is an opportunity to show God’s glory increasing and making his works and value known among the nations.”