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A Pastor’s Heart: A Theological Approach to Navigating Social Distancing

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This is not a letter from Heartland’s Response Team; it’s a letter from your pastor’s heart. Over the last several weeks I’ve had the privilege to serve you in ways I never imagined. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a pastor in recent weeks is navigate and serve a beloved community of believers with strong opinions on both sides of the Covid-19 health issue. My fear is that Satan will use our strongly held beliefs about social distancing to divide us instead of allowing our even stronger belief in the gospel to unite us. There are several points to consider but first some clarifications:

Restrooms: Are the restrooms open for your use? Yes, but it is wise to limit their use. What does that mean? Restrooms are one of the places in our building that germs can spread the easiest. It is a confined space that has lots of different surfaces that are touched by a lot of different people. This inherently makes it easier for germs to spread. The limiting of restrooms applies to the number of people in the restroom at one time (posted on the door to each restroom), and also the type of use. In other words, we would discourage using the restrooms for non-essential business (fixing your hair, straightening your tie, visiting with a friend, having a “talk” with your child, etc.) as a way to limit germ spread. Again, the goal is not to stop you (or your children) from using the restroom but simply keep you safe by limiting its use to what is essential.

Masks: Why are masks highly recommend? Again the goal is safety. Because singing in an enclosed space would increase the rate of spread and the distance germs could travel. A mask will not keep you safe, but wearing a mask will help cut down on the ability of your germs to be broadcast throughout the sanctuary and will help keep others safe. We also would NOT encourage young children to wear masks. Older children can handle a mask, but for young children it becomes a hazard. Again, the goal is to promote safety in worship not to bind your conscience. We know not everyone can wear a mask. This is why it is recommended. Lord willing, this provision will only last for a season.

Children: Can children come to in-person worship? Yes. However, we want them to stay safe and keep others safe. I probably won’t bring Caroline to worship for a few more weeks because she doesn’t know how to social distance. As soon as she sees one of her friends or her favorite SS teacher (I won’t tell you who that is) she will end up tackling them with hugs and kisses, which isn’t good for her or them. If your child is able to social distance, if they understand public hygiene safety or they are young enough you are able to keep them with you and help them safely navigate worship then they could come to worship with you. Again, this decision needs to be made by your family according to your convictions.

Is your Covid-19 Response Team making decisions based on fear? Not at all. As I’ve heard these men talk, discuss, debate (yes, even your response team has a wide range of opinions) no one has been motivated by fear. The theology that drives us is love. A great love for Christ and a great love for His people. A love for Christ in wanting to see people worship Christ corporately in-person at Heartland as soon as possible. A love for our brothers and sisters in Christ that wants to serve them and keep them healthy. Our decisions are based on both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man (something that scripture holds together). The sovereignty of God teaches us that if He wants to call us home or allow us to get sick no mask will protect us, no amount of hand sanitizer will cleanse us and no amount of space will keep us safe. Just like a seat belt only offers a certain amount of protection against a car crash. Likewise we also realize that God calls us to use wisdom and be responsible for our actions. We take precautions like wearing a seatbelt and not allowing our kids to chew on the grocery cart handle, we wash our hands because we are responsible for our actions and our inactions. As we make decisions we make them fully relying on the Lord’s sovereignty, fully asking the Lord to protect and fully trusting Him even in asking.

How do we live life in community with people we don’t agree with all the time or who chose to act in ways that we don’t agree with? This is hard, there is no doubt, but scripture is clear: Romans 14:13 (read the whole chapter), “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” 1 Corinthians 8:9: “Be careful, however, that your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself." Romans 14:3, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” We are to put others before ourselves. Will it destroy me to sacrifice my own opinion in service to you?  No, it will actually strengthen the kingdom. I hate wearing a mask. It’s uncomfortable, it’s distracting, it fogs up my glasses, and last week my mask actually broke my glasses. Why did I wear a mask? Because in wearing a mask I was protecting you from getting my germs (a mask doesn’t protect me). Can we serve one another by social distancing for a few more weeks until this thing goes away? Absolutely! Will it be hard? No doubt. I will hate every minute of it. Can we use this opportunity to unite the church instead of divide her? That is my prayer and my hope. 

Will the next few weeks be hard? Could they be discouraging? I would argue that the next few weeks could be harder on us than the previous two months of social distancing. Just like it can be harder for a missionary returning home than it is moving to another country. We come back expecting certain “normals” and when we arrive for worship we don’t get them. Our expectations are disappointed. Ezra 3 speaks of these mixed feelings when the foundation of the second temple was completed. Some wept and some rejoiced: “And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” 

May we as God’s people in the midst of wrestling with our disappointments, in the midst of dying to our own opinions, in the midst of sacrificing so we can love others, may we rejoice in the truth, “For He is good, for His steadfast love endures for ever.”

Your Brother in Christ,

Richard Brueck