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Reflections on Gathering Again

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
– Isaiah 43:19

Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020

Dear St. Philip the Deacon Friends,

I write to let you know that, as we prepare to begin our fall programming at St. Philip the Deacon, we have determined that the most faithful and responsible way forward for us right now is to continue our pattern of having a single live stream service on Sundays at 9:45 a.m., and not to gather yet for in-person worship.

As indicated in the companion podcast to this letter, I am reminded of what a member told me last week—namely, that “this stinks.”

This is true.

2020 isn’t how any of us would have drawn it up, and not being able to worship as we’re used to do does indeed “stink.” Despite the success of our virtual service—summer attendance has been double what it is during a typical summer—we recognize that virtual worship does not, and cannot, replace in-person worship.

That same person went on to say that “we just want to get things back to normal,” and then quickly added: “but I know we can’t.”

This is also true.

No matter how we approach the fall—whether we continue our current pattern of livestream virtual worship only, or try to cobble together some smaller in-person services with strict protocols and limitations—none of them are going to feel anything close to “back to normal.” And, as noted in our Vision document sent earlier this summer—which provides our framework for an eventual return to in-person activities—in-person worship right now would be lacking in many, if not all, of the things that make it feel like worship.

Given all of this, after prayerful and careful reflection, the Pastoral Team, Church Council and Executive Team have decided that this is not the time to begin in-person worship. Not yet, when our sense is that doing so remains an unnecessary risk—one of the things Martin Luther wrote that Christians should avoid during a time of pandemic.

As the fall begins, we are committed to exploring ways that we can stay in community virtually, and will also work to find responsible and safe ways to have smaller in-person gatherings. These gatherings will continue to include Individual Prayer in the Sanctuary, as well as baptisms, funerals and weddings. We will also continue to accommodate groups of people outdoors—gatherings, for example, for our high schoolers, families of “littles,” recent fishing retreat, and upcoming Habitat for Humanity build. We’ll continue to reach out to our members who are feeling isolated, and as the school year begins, we’ll work to find ways to support our young families.

We continue to monitor the circumstances related to Covid-19 and will adjust our plans accordingly when we feel it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we ask for your ongoing prayers and support. There is no question that this is a strange and unusual year—a year that “stinks” in any number of ways—but it is also a year in which we are still called to be the Body of Christ, and a year that is filled with opportunities for us to live our mission: to Reach Out, Proclaim, and Inspire.

God Bless,

Tim Westermeyer, Senior Pastor
twestermeyer@spdlc.org, 763-475-7136

on behalf of the entire pastoral team, the Church Council and Executive Team

Pastors: Pastor Mark Schmid, Pastor Cheryl Mathison, Pastor Valerie Strand Patterson

Church Council: Tom Abrahamson, President, Ben Bienert, Tim Dagoberg, Claudine Galloway, Heidi Hukriede, Alyssa Porubcan, Beth Jacob, Sarah Johansen, Jason Scherschligt, Ed Wasz

Executive Team: Mike Braun, Lana Jones, Bob Paulson, John Schultz


June 12, 2020

Dear St. Philip the Deacon Friends,

This letter is, in part, a response to the question “When are we going to return to in-person worship?” This is a pressing question precisely because all of us so deeply love St. Philip the Deacon, and we miss it. We long to be together. We long to celebrate the community at St. Philip the Deacon we have worked so hard to build together for more than 60 years.

We also recognize that, during these challenging times, churches are responding to this question differently. Some have started to gather for worship again with strict limits and protocols, while many other congregations—and our own Synod—are choosing to wait.

At St. Philip the Deacon, we have determined that the safest, most faithful and most responsible way forward right now is to continue to refrain from in-person worship through at least the end of July. We will continue to assess circumstances, and will base future decisions about an eventual return using the three priorities we have outlined from the start of this pandemic: 1. Christian love for all of our brothers and sisters, including our congregational members, our staff, and the larger community; 2. Following the best medical advice available; and 3. Taking no unnecessary risks.

I realize that this is disappointing news to some. But we are making these decisions out of an abundance of care and concern for everyone’s safety. And the danger is real. A couple from St. Philip the Deacon—Scott and Andrea Myers—recently both recovered from Covid-19. They are a young, healthy couple who are lifelong endurance athletes. They contracted the virus from a presymptomatic carrier, and—as they shared with me recently—Covid-19 was “the worst sickness we have ever had.” They and many others have been supportive of St. Philip the Deacon’s cautious approach to a return to in-person activities. As Scott and Andrea say: “We believe St. Philip the Deacon has a responsibility to show love and concern for all of its members and the community we touch with a prudent approach to reopening.”

In addition to the health, safety and logisitical challenges of a return to in-person worship, it is also worth noting how different in-person worship would look and feel if we returned right now. It would, of course, include some obvious differences from “normal” worship: facemasks; social distancing; limited numbers, which would mean signup sheets and turning people away; and an inability to gather over coffee and donuts.

What I’m not sure people realize, though, as they imagine a return to in-person worship is this: we would not be able to sing together. In a confusing sea of information and data about Covid-19, there is universal consensus that one of the most dangerous things we can do right now is get together in groups and sing. In our tradition, of course, congregational singing is a central—I would even say indispensable—part of our worship life, and not being able to sing the liturgy or the hymns would take away much of what makes worship, well, worship.

A Vision for the Future

I mentioned that this letter was, in part, a response to the question of “When will we gather for in-person activities?” It is, however, also about a more long-term, strategic question facing us right now, namely: “What will St. Philip the Deacon look like post-Covid?” Two or three years from now, we will have forgotten when, precisely, we returned to in-person worship in 2020. What we will not forget, though, is whether or not we have responded to the opportunity God has presented us to reach more people with the Gospel.

What do I mean by that? Well, last year, during our live, in-person VBS, we had approximately 154 children registered. This year, on the first day of virtual VBS, we had more than double that number—328—access VBS on computers, phones or tablets. Since, in many cases, more than one child watched VBS with another child (siblings, for example, likely watched together), that means perhaps 500 or more children participated—more than three times last year. And because those VBS activities can still be accessed on-line, those numbers will grow.

Similar statistics could be cited for other events over the last few months. This year, for example, we had a single livestreamed Easter service. More than 4,600 computers, phones and tablets tuned in—with many of those representing multiple individuals or entire families. If you assume conservatively two people watching per computer, that means we had almost four times as many people participate in one Easter service in 2020 compared to last year’s three Sunday morning in-person Easter services. Similarly, the concluding Faith & Life event with Ryan Saunders this year has been viewed by 25 times as many people as a typical Faith & Life event. Yes, 25 times.

I am not saying that virtual services or activities will replace in-person worship or activities. They will not. I am saying that, over the last few months, St. Philip the Deacon has seen in a new way the exponential power of virtual community. We recognize today—in a way we couldn’t have understood earlier this year—how our boundaries now go well beyond the four walls of our physical church building. And so, in the months ahead, we will need to lean into a future that celebrates both worshiping and gathering in person, while also investing in the incredible potential for sharing the Gospel in digital forms. Another way of saying this is that the church of tomorrow will be a “hybrid” church that encompasses both a physical campus and a digital campus.

With you, I look forward to this exciting “new thing” God is doing right now, and I trust that God will continue to lead us into God’s bright and hope-filled future. The document that accompanies this letter provides a roadmap that will help guide and direct us toward that future. As we live into it, I invite your prayers, and join you in celebrating how God will use us—today, tomorrow, and in the future—to continue to Reach Out, Proclaim and Inspire.

With Gratitude, Hope and Expectation,

Tim Westermeyer, Senior Pastor
on behalf of the entire pastoral team and the Church Council and Executive Team

Pastors: Pastor Mark Schmid, Pastor Cheryl Mathison, Pastor Valerie Strand Patterson
Church Council: Tom Abrahamson, President, Ben Bienert, Tim Dagoberg, Claudine Galloway, Heidi Hukriede, Alyssa Porubcan, Beth Jacob, Sarah Johansen, Jason Scherschligt, Ed Wasz
Executive Team: Mike Braun, Lana Jones, Bob Paulson, John Schultz

P.S. We invite you to view Pastor Tim Westermeyer’s podcast for additional context.

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— CHRISTIAN WISDOM —

“The greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection.”

Henri Nouwen