James Pence

James James Pence is minister of Pleasant Grove Christian Church of Martinsville.

As the state is now in Phase One of reopening gyms, salons, outdoor dining and churches, many churches are pondering whether it is time to worship together again or not. All have been eager to get back together as one body of believers.

The Bible commands us to do so. Hebrews 10:25 tells us to "not forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the habit of some is," but instead we are to assemble and encourage each other all the more as we see the day coming that will herald the return of Jesus. It is hard to encourage one another from Facebook, Zoom, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and yet the church is adapting in these unprecedented times.

I would be the first to say that the use of Facebook Live, which I have chosen for our church's weekly worship, leaves me missing something. No, it leaves me missing a lot of things. I have learned, from this sheltering, what I do and do not miss about being a preacher of the gospel and gathering with church folks.

I don't miss church members who tell you on Sunday morning a concern they have. There are, respectfully, six other days of the week and a very good phone system to let a preacher know what may be bothering you. When you are focused on the service and the sermon you are like a baseball player up to bat and you don't want anything to distract you.

Likewise I don't miss the "busy" work of making a bulletin weekly and a newsletter every month, and yet these tools do seem to be necessary evils that help us to stay in touch with one another. I can, at least, admit they have some value. Funny, how you can announce something from a pulpit, put it in a bulletin, call people about it, write it up in the newsletter and you still have one or two people say I didn't know that event was coming up! Even though I have substituted a prayer list, sermon outline, news of the week to our church's Facebook page and have sent one quarterly newsletter, these chores are not as well liked as some of the others that a minister performs.

But what I do miss far outweighs any negatives.

I miss smiling faces when I preach.

I miss brows that furrow when they are deep in thought about God's Word, or don't understand something I have said.

And yes, I even miss it when a senior saint catches "forty winks" when I am preaching. Didn't think I noticed, did you?

I miss seeing believers sharing their joys and concerns at prayer time and I miss seeing all the interaction between members as they catch up on the news of the week and whose arthritis or sinus troubles may be bothering them more than something else.

I miss hearing the crystal-clear clanking of a communion cup as it rests back in the holder as the communion is passed, and the way the old wooden floor creaks as deacons carry it and the offering up and down the aisle.

I miss the choir specials and the way they encourage us in song from week to week.

All of these things we treasure and we will, one day, be able to do them and enjoy them again. I have been imaging my first Sunday back with a crowd at church, whether it be small or large, and every time I imagine it, I doubt I will be able to get through the service for the happy tears I will shed. And that is as it should be.

But, I would rather wait to share tears of joy than tears of grief. In our rush to get the economy, the world we know back, and to return to as much as normal as possible, I fear we are making a big mistake. Just recently newer cases are being discovered in Wuhan, China where the virus began and they have been unrestricted for only a month. The fact is we, as a nation, did not have the stringent measures they had in lockdown. How can we possibly think a second or third wave of disease and death will not occur here in our homeland?

I am concerned that we have little, if any, federal guidance after all this time. I don't want to argue the politics, but the fact is our government and leaders have chosen to pass the buck to the individual states while at the same time arm-twisting them to get their local economy up and running as fast as possible. But at what cost? All the money in the world will not replace the pain and suffering of lost lives that could have been saved if we had waited a little longer. You can live on rice and beans a long time if you have to. And so we have a three-phase plan in our state while the governor of Illinois has opted for a six-phase plan that would likely keep churches sheltered until a vaccine is found. There is a lot of interpretation and murkiness in those respective decisions. Is the governor of Illinois being too Draconian or is Gov. Northam being too loose? Sadly, only time will tell. Simply because we are allowed to do a thing, I am wondering does it mean we should do a thing?

The majority of the pastors in our area serve elderly, older congregations like I do. I would love to be "assembling together" as the Word tells us too. But, as I stated before, I am not convinced that it is the right time. This is a matter of determination for each church body and I understand that. But I would hope and pray we wouldn't be in such a rush to return to normal, when the truth is we are far from normal, that we endanger the lives of those we hold dear and the souls that we, as pastors, are entrusted with. 2 Timothy 1:7 and the apostle Paul tells us, " For the Spirit of God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline, " (NIV). The NKJ says, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and sound judgment."

I am certain there are preachers reading this who will conclude you are letting your fear stand in the way of your faith by not gathering when the State says we can now. I would respond by saying concern is my response, not total fear. I do fear and respect a new virus that seems to show no respect to age, health or condition and is an equal-opportunity killer, despite the majority of people who can and do survive it.

I have faith that we have the assurance of God that He will go with us through whatever comes along, even if we catch this virus and may die from it, but I also have the 'sound mind' Paul tells Timothy to have to trust the data that is before me and to realize that until we have proven treatments, cures ,or vaccines there is no way to insure this virus has been defeated. Until that time comes there is no way to totally ensure that any place we would gather at for whatever reason is totally safe, whether it be at the grocery store or in a church building.

It is my conviction that it is your right to decide when the time is right to gather together again, but also it is my conviction and right to wait a few more weeks to see if new cases are on the rise or declining in our area especially. At the least, I would pray we all agree we would rather do what is necessary to ensure we will one day experience those tears of joy rather than regrettable tears of much sorrow.

James Pence is minister of Pleasant Grove Christian Church of Martinsville.

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