From March to Sept 2020, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Wharton did not offer in-person worship for its members or community. We broadcast our services with a local radio station as we have done for years, and had special recordings on our website.
As of September 2020, we began to gather for in person worship again, with some changes to reduce the spread of the Corona Virus. The previous page outlines the hygiene protocols we have put in place, and on this page we share the broad outlines of how we make the decision to meet in person or not.
How do we make these decisions?
The decision to meet or not is never made lightly. Each week the Elders and Pastor look at several pieces of information.
In April 2020, guidelines were given by a Federal Task Force on three conditions that should be satisfied before public gatherings happen.
- There should be two weeks where cases of COVID symptoms are decreasing.
- There should be two weeks where people are tested for the virus, and the percentage who test positive decreases.
- Hospitals should be able to treat all patients without crisis care. In other words, that they have room, staff, and facilities to treat those who are sick with both regular injuries and with COVID.
Where do we get this information?
- We don’t have good information on the first condition. We don’t know how many cases of COVID are showing symptoms or not.
- We do have information for testing. Information for the county of Wharton is drawn from the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Wharton County Office of Emergency Management. Pastor Lutjens has a spreadsheet that tracks this data for Wharton and several surrounding counties.
- A group of hospitals that include CHI St. Luke’s, Harris Health System, Houston Methodist, MD Anderson, Memorial Hermann, Texas Children’s, and UTMB put out a daily report that includes the capacity of the ICUs, and the number and percentage of COVID cases they are treating.
It is important to note that item 2 (positive percentage of those tested) tends to lag a week or two behind current situations. In other words, it gives us a snapshot of infection rates from about two weeks ago.
Item 3 (hospital capacity) lags behind a further two weeks, giving us a snapshot of the severity of the virus spread from about three to four weeks ago.
Now…what do we do with this situation?
Let’s start with the obvious. I want to meet in person.
You want to meet in person. When we don’t meet, I miss seeing my friends and church family. I know you do too.
Not meeting drives up the feeling of isolation. For years, I have gathered weekly with other Christians to hear and soak up God’s Word, to draw comfort from my community.
There’s also one of the commandments that emphasizes this:
The Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. (Small Catechism)
I know that God wants us gathering around His Word. Jesus tells us that “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20, ESV)
And yes, even if we don’t meet in person, the church services are broadcast by radio. But it’s not the same. And there is a concern that when this whole virus thing is over and done, people may be so used to listening to the radio only that they won’t come back to church in person.
On top of this – currently most of the people getting sick are between 20-60 years old. We do not want to neglect the spiritual care of our more mature members, who ARE staying home and being careful. We did not meet for several months, and it simply added to the feelings of frustration and isolation we all felt.
With all of this being said, isn’t it reasonable that we have a church service with social distancing, and masks, and while there may be a risk to gathering those who are uncomfortable about it can stay home, and those who really miss the church gathering can have it again?
After all, God is in charge of all of this, and He tells us to worship. So let’s do that.
When we don’t meet, there is a strong desire for routine, community, and comfort, and a growing feeling of isolation and being lost or forgotten.
And I want you to hear very clearly that I and the elders feel every one of those things with you.
Going strictly from what we see in our own daily life, we too are eager and to open the church doors for in-person worship. To embrace the community of believers.
So while we desire to gather and follow the Third Commandment (Honor the Sabbath Day) we also balance this with another commandment.
The Fifth Commandment: You shall not murder.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need. (Small Catechism).
Our congregation is part of the community of believers. We are also part of a larger community within Wharton County. In our actions we strive to and must care for both.
The only way to stop the spread of a virus is to change a community’s behavior – hence the need to physically distance, wash hands, and wear a face covering.
And if members get sick and need hospitalization – we might be tempted to state that they took a risk and it is on them if they are ill.
But if a member gets infected without symptoms and passes on the infection to another, and that person gets sick and needs hospitalization – that is something that goes beyond our personal decisions.
In both cases, the medical staff that care for COVID patients in the hospital put their own health and lives at risk even with all possible precautions being taken.
Right now our neighbor needs us to not spread this virus.
Our desire to gather together again is so we have community to combat the feelings of isolation that come from a situation that is outside any of our experiences or memory.
Our desire to care for the community compels us to balance the need for physical isolation, while finding ways to nurture and comfort our church community.
We are balancing the Third and Fifth commandment.
Is God in charge or not? Will he not protect and care for us? Yes, he absolutely is and will! But he has also in his mercy given us doctors, health officials, and experts on viruses, pandemics, and diseases to advise and guide us in our actions. We have reached out to medical staff who deal with COVID, and every one has pleaded with us to take the upmost caution.
Even now, we continue to monitor and assess current conditions. No matter what we do, we are bound by common circumstance and our Lord Jesus’ love for us into a holy community that cares for each other and the secular community of Wharton County.