After earlier placing restrictions on the size of public gatherings, today Wisconsin governor Tony Evers issued an even more restrictive “Safer at Home” directive. The directive effectively closes all Wisconsin businesses and entities other than those that are deemed essential. Other states have issued, or likely will issue, similar directives.
Already after the first restrictions were imposed, many WELS congregations found ways to continue to serve their members with God’s Word and with new and different types of worship formats. I am thankful at the way so many of our congregations have put these things into place with only brief notice, and pray they will be able to continue in those efforts.
On Sunday, my wife and I worshiped via an online worship service provided by my home congregation. The service that was broadcast was a complete service with the normal liturgy, hymns, and prayers. Before we began, we wondered just how “worshipful” such a service would be. But by the time the service was over, we agreed that it was one of the most meaningful and moving worship experiences we had ever had.
First, we were reminded that the power of God’s Word and the comfort of the gospel is not in any way diminished by the way it is delivered. We heard law and gospel. We were assured of our forgiveness in Christ. We were directed as always to the cross and empty tomb. Our faith was nourished and our trust in God’s unchanging promises was strengthened.
Second, I couldn’t help but think that being prevented from gathering physically with other believers helped to renew our appreciation for corporate worship, where believers gather not only to be strengthened by the means of grace, but also to provide encouragement and love to each other. Perhaps God will use this experience to lead our WELS members to never take public worship for granted again. Perhaps he also will use this entire crisis as a time to draw many in our nation to see the value of faith and the Word of God.
Finally, we were not alone in this experience. Congregations around the synod moved quickly to see to it that the Word of God would not be silenced. Worship services were streamed live in many places. Devotions and sermons were posted online. Materials and words of comfort and instruction were sent via e-mail. Pastors assured their members that they continued to be ready to serve their flocks whenever called upon to do so.
I pray that the need for online remote worship will end soon. In the meantime, I will join you in thanking God that his Word will not be silenced. As he told us, “[My Word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
Guideline for pastors and congregational leaders
In a time of crisis or national emergency, it’s vitally important to find ways to communicate with your members to keep them informed, especially those who are at high risk. Many congregations have very quickly taken steps to do this. If you do not have the means to communicate in place, it is important that you put one into place that includes telephone, e-mail, text messaging, website, and social media. You may wish to identify members of your congregation who have expertise in information technology. If you have the means in place, congregational leadership should map out specific timetables and strategies to communicate with members.
- E-mail: If you do not have a complete or up-to-date listing of members’ e-mail addresses, begin efforts to gather that information as soon as possible and create an e-mail list for your congregation. Encourage members who do not have an e-mail account to set up a free account and learn how to use it.
- Church website and social media: If your congregation has a website or has a presence on social media, be sure to take full advantage of these tools. Place important notices in a prominent place on the home page of your website. You can include links to a special webpage that provides information on your plans and contingencies. All types of social media should be considered, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
God’s people naturally desire the comfort and guidance of God’s Word as well as the encouragement of fellow Christians. This is especially true in times of crisis. However, because of government efforts to halt the spread of the virus, mandated limits to the size of public gatherings have resulted in the need to suspend regular worship services in many congregations.
This does not mean that worship needs to stop. Congregations are already finding creative ways to keep their people connected to the Word. Live streaming worship, Facebook Live, and sermons posted on websites are being used to serve members. If your congregation is still trying to determine how to do that, I suggest you contact other congregations that have found appropriate ways to continue serving the worship needs of their people. It’s a time when we can learn from and help each other.
Since restrictions on gatherings vary from place to place, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper will in some places need to be modified, depending on government restrictions and medical guidelines. Some congregations, if allowed by state and local authorities, are gathering in small groups and taking great care to practice good hygiene and recommended “social distancing.”
In other places, even small gatherings are not allowed. There have been questions about how we should proceed when it comes to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper when members cannot gather at church.
Regardless of the specific situation in which your congregation finds itself, here are a couple of things to remember. First, while Christians desire to be strengthened and comforted by the Lord’s Supper, we also recognize that there are times when the normal celebration of Communion is not possible. For Christians serving in a war zone, for church members who are in a medically induced coma, for believers who are home-bound because of sickness or infirmity, the normal celebration of the Lord’s Supper with other believers may not be an option. But in those cases we take comfort in knowing that we have the means of grace in two forms—Word and sacrament. The forgiveness conveyed and assured by the written or spoken Word of God is no less powerful and effective than the sacrament. In some cases, private Communion may certainly be available.
Second, we also recognize that there is no scriptural definition or requirement for how frequently Christians should celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Jesus simply encourages us to receive the Lord’s Supper regularly and often. There may be times such as this that, temporarily, the Lord’s Supper may not be available as often as we would like or desire. For that reason, the Conference of Presidents is urging patience with the following advice:
“We encourage our congregations at this time to reserve the distribution of the Lord’s Supper for its regular and normal use within the gathering of the body of believers (realizing that some changes in procedure may be made) or distributed privately by the pastor to individuals in need, as is the customary practice. We urge congregations to refrain from initiating novel approaches for celebration of the sacrament.”
If you have specific questions, please contact your district president.
There is no real substitute for in-person pastoral care. But pastors can communicate with their flocks and communicate the comfort and guidance of God’s Word in ways that do not violate quarantines or require physical contact. Videos, podcasts, and e-mail are some of the ways that pastoral contact can be maintained.
Of course, pastors do have the responsibility to minister to their people even when it may put them at risk. Common sense will guide a pastor in not taking unnecessary risks involving his own health or the health of those he serves. When it becomes necessary for a faithful pastor to carry out his pastoral responsibilities, he will place himself firmly into the hands of a gracious God for protection.
Outreach to the community
Another article in this issue of Together will give some practical suggestions of ways that congregations and their members can show Christian love and be salt and light in their communities.
Finally, continue to trust in our gracious God and in his promises. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
Serving with you in Christ,
WELS President Mark Schroeder