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Reflections on Gathering Again

 June 12, 2020

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

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 —

“It is our best work that God wants, not the dregs of our exhaustion. I think he must prefer quality to quantity.”

George MacDonald