In-Person Sunday Worship Service Canceled
Harvest Community Church,
I am sure you have been watching the growing concern in response to the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. This has been a strange few weeks, especially with the drastic cancellations that have happened through our nation. And yet, as believers, we are reminded that our God is still on his throne. We find the assurance of God’s strength in the midst of our uncertainties throughout Scripture, even with specific reference to God’s sovereign control over deadly pestilences (that is, diseases):
 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
 I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
 You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. (Psalm 91:1–6)
In light of our security in Christ, we have nothing to fear. Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of Christ—not COVID-19, and not even death itself (Rom. 8:38–39). As we consider how to respond to this crisis in our nation, we may approach this issue with clarity and prudence—not fear and panic.
Canceling In-Person Sunday Gatherings
Today, I am writing to inform you that Harvest’s leadership has made the very difficult decision to cancel our in-person gathering this Sunday. We are currently working on arrangements to prepare a worship service through video technology over the internet, and we will share more information about how to access that streaming worship service as soon as we have it. We do not have a timeframe for how long we will continue using virtual worship services only. Our intention is to evaluate this on a week-by-week basis and to communicate actively with the congregation each week.
There are several factors that have led us to make this decision:
- Earlier today, President Trump declared a national emergency in response to the spread of the virus.
- This morning, Governor Ricketts reported that there have been 13 cases of COVID-19 in Nebraska. One new case reported today was from a worker at the main headquarters of Mutual of Omaha, just blocks away from Harvest.
- Throughout the United States, sporting events, conferences, and other public gatherings have begun to shut down indefinitely.
- Colleges, universities, and seminaries around the country have moved to online instruction only for the remainder of the semester.
- Public schools in the Omaha area have closed down temporarily to give public health officials time to evaluate how the spread of this virus progresses.
Why We Believe it Prudent to Cancel In-Person Services
The concern about COVID-19 is less about the severity of what we see now, and more about how this disease spreads over time. As we understand it, COVID-19 has an incubation period of as long as 14 days. During that time, an individual may contract the virus and begin to spread the virus, without experiencing any symptoms whatsoever. As we considered this information, we determined that waiting to act until the number of confirmed cases rises sharply would mean waiting far too long. We are seeking to play our part in attempting to limit exposure and spread of the virus, especially to those who may have underlying health concerns that make recovering from COVID-19 more difficult.
You may have seen the statistical models about the importance of “flattening the curve” of the spread of coronavirus:
If people in our community continue living as though nothing is happening—especially by continuing to hold public, in-person meetings—the virus may spread rapidly. If this happens, hospitals may be overrun with more cases than they can treat. Already in northern Italy, where COVID-19 cases have exceeded their country’s medical capacities, doctors are having to focus their medical attention on only those with the highest likelihood of survival. By God’s grace, our community can perhaps avoid this scenario, but doing so would require limiting public, face-to-face contact immediately.
Love, Not Fear
Therefore, canceling church is not a reactionary response out of fear, but a proactive approach out of love. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and we confess that the positive requirements of the 6th Commandment not to murder include doing everything lawful we can “to preserve the life of ourselves and others” (Westminster Larger Catechism, #135).
In places where Christians must worship in secret to avoid persecution, this duty means that Christians don’t carelessly publicize their worship services. On the Sunday mornings where snow or ice makes driving conditions unsafe, this means canceling in-person worship services to avoid putting members at risk as they travel to church. When a deadly infectious disease is spreading quickly through the world, killing as many as 6% of the people who contract it (the figures in Italy), we believe this means canceling our in-person worship services to stop the spread of that virus. Churches in the United States closed public worship services in response to the Spanish flu in 1918, and, a little over one hundred years later, we think it prudent to follow suit.
Our Requests of You
That said, we have a few requests of you in the short-term:
- Please practice “social distancing” by staying at home as much as possible, especially if you are even mildly sick. When you are in the presence of others, observe the recommended prevention measures from the CDC. Preserve your life, and preserve the life of others as this virus begins to spread in our community.
- Stay in contact with others in the church—from a distance. Call people. Text people. FaceTime or Skype with people. Especially make a point of contacting those in your disciple groups, the elderly, and the single. Losing the in-person community we have at Harvest is a huge blow; let’s not let our relationships with one another languish in the meantime. Indeed, this is an opportunity for the whole body to grow in our relationships with one another.
- Be much in prayer for one another, for our national leaders, and for the world during this time. While we can take precautionary measures such as canceling large, public gatherings, we must never forget that the Lord is in control. We must always seek his mercy, but especially during seasons of heightened danger that we are experiencing now.
- Please continue supporting Harvest financially. We understand that for some of you, this pandemic may already have adverse financial effects on you and your family. Yet even though we will not be meeting in-person, our ongoing financial needs have not changed. You can mail your tithes and offerings to Harvest (3903 Cuming Street, Omaha, NE 68131). Or, you can give easily online, by following at this link. (Personally, I use Harvest’s online giving service regularly—it’s very simple and safe. Also, any donations sent through this online giving platform will be tracked for tax purposes, just as giving by a check would be.)
- Please contact the elders (email@example.com) or the deacons (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have needs during this time. This is especially the case if you have health conditions that make this situation all the more risky for you. The elders and deacons rely so much on our church’s in-person gatherings on Sunday to stay in touch with people in our congregation, and in the absence of that, we would ask that you be proactive to inform us about how we can pray for you or care for you in other ways. Even as we stay physically isolated, we want to be in contact by phone or even by video conferencing. Praise the Lord for the technology that allows us to continue to communicate, even beyond great physical distances.
We love worshiping together in person, so we grieve to make this decision. God calls us not to neglect meeting together (Heb. 10:25), and corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is a joy, the highlight of our week. In light of our sorrow in making this decision, let me pass along an appropriate quotation that someone else shared, originally written by Charles Spurgeon in 1885: “Banished from the public means of grace, we are not removed from the grace behind the means of grace. The Lord who places his people where they feel like exiles will himself be with them….God himself, in Christ Jesus, is the sanctuary of mercy.”
Until we meet again, may the Lord bless us and keep us. May the Lord make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us. May the Lord lift up his countenance, and give us peace.
Pastor Jacob Gerber
For the Session and Diaconate of Harvest Community Church