Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. – 1 Corinthians 1:10-11
I once decided, in a very brave moment, to preach through the book of First Corinthians. It was some of the most difficult Scripture I had ever tackled! The church in Corinth was one hot mess! There were divisions and conflicts happening everywhere, over all kinds of issues. The Apostle Paul is swimming in dicey waters. There is no way he was going to make everyone happy (nor does he try!)
And so, Paul begins his letter to the church in Corinth by reminding them who they are, and what is really the most important thing. Did you see that he addresses the church as “brothers and sisters” not once, but twice in this very short passage? And did you catch that their agreement is to be, not in specifics, but in mind and purpose? This mind and purpose, Paul goes on to explain throughout the letter, is none other than the mind and purpose of Jesus Christ. It is from this letter, written in the midst of conflict, that Paul describes the “Body of Christ” – and the importance of honoring and caring for not only each individual part of the Body, but also for the whole of the Body. It is not about “winners” and “losers.” First Corinthians is the book of “both/and” – and it lays out a way through the divisiveness.
I once served a church which bumped into this kind of “both/and” in a very surprising way. The Church Council discussed whether or not to move the summer worship service to an earlier time. There were some good arguments for an earlier service, and also some good arguments for keeping the time as it was. When the vote was taken, the eight Council members present cast their votes: 1 for 9am, 3 for 9:30am, and 4 to leave the service at the current 10:30am time. In our American culture, the 10:30 time slot would have been declared the “winner.” But this is NOT the case in the “both/and” world of Christian community. The vote was far from being a consensus, and therefore, needed further discernment so the health and well-being of the whole Body could be carefully considered, based on the varying opinions and concerns of the individuals of that Body. The questions were asked: “What might God be up to? What was the mind of Christ? Was there another way to hear the varied voices?” In the course of listening carefully a second time, a new idea emerged: the church would offer TWO summer services: the regular 10:30am service in the sanctuary, and an informal “Early Bird” service at 9:15am in the fellowship area. Those who wanted an early start to their summer day could come with coffee cups and worship God while sitting at the fellowship tables. Those who liked the later, more traditional service came at 10:30am. It was very counter-intuitive, as many churches reduce the number of worship services in the summer, not increase them!
The results were even more surprising: worship attendance (and offerings!) did not suffer the traditional “summer slump.” And, the church actually gained some new members who were more comfortable coming to a smaller, more intimate service. It was a win-win all the way around!
As I write this, the 2020 elections are around the corner, and the division in our country is worsening. The response to COVID is also deeply divided, even at FUMC. Some believe we should not be open until we have a vaccine. Others just as strongly believe we should be open, for a variety of reasons. I have been lectured by both sides, each believing the other side is crazy! The reality is, we will be living with COVID for some time to come, even when a vaccine does finally get approved. So, what might God be up to? What is the mind of Christ? Is there another way to hear the varied voices?
There is a way through this – and the time has come to take some steps forward. Effective September 27th, FUMC will be offering both on-line only (8:30am) and in-person only (11am) services on Sunday morning, provided the COVID rates stay low. The on-line only service is the baseline for these COVID times, and will remain on-line only until we are ready to return to full in-person services. The in-person only service will be at 11am, and will close and re-open with the rise and fall of the COVID rates for Story County. Our metric will be the Ames Consolidated Schools: when the schools shift to on-line only learning for any given Friday, then FUMC will shift to on-line only worship that weekend, and there will be no 11am service. When the schools return to in-person learning on a given Friday, the 11am service will be re-opened that Sunday.
Of course, the in-person worship will not be like worship before COVID – there will be some differences. We will start with some basic safety requirements – like masks, social distancing, no fellowship – and we will tweak the service as we learn how to worship God with COVID present in our community. People will have the flexibility to worship on-line or in-person, depending on how comfortable they are with each option. We will continue to offer on-line programming, with in-person programming for adults as each group is comfortable, and as we evaluate how to safely open our building without adding a significant cost and time burden to keep the building use safe.
In the meantime, brothers and sisters, deal gently with each other. Respect the differences in how we see and understand the world around us. Pray for our church and our country in these turbulent times. And, no matter which candidates you support in November’s election, please vote! We will survive this chaos, and God will use it to God’s glory at the end of the day.
May we learn to love one another even more through these challenging times!
Yours for the Journey,