More than $73,000 donated to EPC churches through online giving provided by Office of the General Assembly

 

As churches began to suspend in-person worship services this spring as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, 32 EPC churches inaugurated an online giving option provided by the Office of the General Assembly. As of June 24, parishioners have made 381 donations through the EPC’s platform totaling $73,080.59.

OnlineGiving-JeffersonEllis

Jefferson Ellis

Jefferson Ellis, Pastor of Hanover Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Pa., said the church has received online contributions “almost every week since we put it on our website. We even have some folks giving from other parts of the country who had roots or family in our church. It has been a positive thing for our small congregation.”

Oak Island Presbyterian Church in Oak Island, N.C., reopened for in-person worship services on June 14. David Paxton, Ruling Elder and Finance Committee Chairman, said providing online giving in the months that they were not able to meet was very helpful.

“Many of our congregants are retired,” Paxton said. “During this difficult period, we have been blessed by contributions exceeding our expenses. Thank you for providing this service to us.”

OnlineGiving-GradyDavidson

Grady Davidson

Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been holding drive-in services for several weeks, and the opportunity for people to give online has been “a great success.”

“Each Sunday there are a few people who make an offering which probably would not have been given without it,” said Pastor Grady Davidson. “Thank you so much.”

For many of these churches, the EPC’s platform—provided at no cost to churches—was their first time they offered online giving to their congregation.

“We have considered this in the past, but we were not motivated—primarily due to the size of our congregation,” said Bryan Little, Treasurer and Elder for Evangelical Presbyterian Stone Church in Caledonia, N.Y. “Online giving has allowed us to accept donations that would probably not be received otherwise. Members are pleased to have this option and have said the process is very easy.”

OnlineGiving-BrynMacPhail

Bryn MacPhail

Bryn MacPhail, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau, Bahamas, noted that “the mechanisms for online giving are not as user-friendly” in the Bahamas.

“This extended period of not gathering in person has challenged us in a number of ways,” he said. “Even more challenging is trying to receive contributions in a foreign currency. Once again, the EPC has come through for us with a helpful remedy. We are so grateful for this practical help and the ongoing support we receive from our denominational office.”

Some of the 32 churches had offered online giving previously, but with mixed results.

OnlineGiving-Guinston“Guinston had previously offered online giving through a company specializing in this type of service,” said Arlina Yates, Treasurer for Guinston Presbyterian Church in Airville, Pa. “Setting it up was laborious and communication after setup was difficult, so we decided to discontinue our contract. Because of that experience, I was hesitant to take up the offer of the EPC online giving tool, but I have found working with the EPC to be a delightful experience. The setup was so easy that I thought I must have missed some steps. Since day one, communication has been prompt, helpful, and kind. You’ve made a difference. Give yourselves a pat on the back, you deserve it and much more!”

Pat Coelho, EPC Chief Financial Officer, said the program will continue as long as it is needed.

“I know a big obstacle for many churches is trying to figure out how to choose an online giving solution and deploy it well,” Coelho said. “It feels good to be able to help like this.”

He noted that all donations are forwarded directly to the church each week.

“The Office of the General Assembly has not kept any of these funds,” Coelho added.

Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah noted that many churches faced unprecedented financial pressures as shelter-in-place orders became commonplace.

“When the shutdown started in March, none of us knew how long we would be unable to hold public worship services,” he said. “I recall many thinking we would be back by Easter, but of course that did not happen. I am thankful that we have been able to provide this financial lifeline for our churches, many of which are among our smallest congregations.”

Churches that requested the service received a page on the EPC website that included the form to make a secure donation, said Brian Smith, EPC Director of Communications.

“They can add a ‘Donate’ button to their website that links to this page,” he said. “For churches that do not have a website, they can share the address of the page on the EPC site with their congregants in all the usual ways they keep their attendees informed.”

EPC churches interested in more information about using the denomination’s online giving platform are encouraged to contact Smith at brian.smith@epc.org.

Small Church Workshop recordings available

 

SmallChurchWorkshopRecordingsIn May and June, the EPC Smaller Church Network presented a four-part series of webinars, “The Ordinary Church in Extraordinary Times.” Each week’s presentation focused on a key challenge that leaders of smaller churches faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how these could become an opportunity for greater ministry impact.

Recordings are available at www.epc.org/smallchurchworkshop. Also included are handouts, notes, and other materials.

Speakers were Zach Eswine, Lead Pastor of Riverside Church in Webster Groves, Mo.; Josh Modrzynski, Pastor of Riceville Community Church in Asheville, N.C.; Doug Walker, Pastor of River City Church in DeBary, Fla.; and Roy Yanke, Executive Director of PIR Ministries and a Ruling Elder for Grace Chapel EPC in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Yanke noted that the inspiration for the workshop was the forced cancellation of the EPC’s 2020 Leadership Institute.

“We thought it could be useful to explore and share what many of us in small—what I call ‘ordinary’—churches are learning about ourselves and our churches during this unprecedented time,” Yanke said.

Topics include:

  • A Pastoral Approach to Reconnecting
  • The Life of the Church—Inside and Out!
  • Facing the Financial impact
  • The Tech Challenge—Its Use, Purpose, and Value for the Future

The recordings also are posted on the EPC YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/EPChurch80.

June Jeremiah Journal discusses U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

 

In the June 2020 edition of The Jeremiah Journal, EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah discusses the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling on June 15 that the language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Jeremiah Journal is a monthly video blog hosted on the EPC’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/EPChurch80. Each month’s update also is posted to EPConnection and the EPC’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.

For a transcript of this month’s edition in printable pdf format, click here.

Memphis EPC churches gather for service of lament, prayer walk

 
MemphisPrayerWalk

Members of The Avenue Community Church and Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis participated in a prayer walk on June 10 in the neighborhood near The Collegiate School of Memphis, where The Avenue meets for Sunday morning worship.

In response to the EPC’s call to observe June 8 as a Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer, several EPC churches in Memphis, Tenn., gathered for a public service of lament followed by a prayer walk through the adjoining area on June 10.

MemphisLamentService-Johnson

Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson, Lead Pastor of The Avenue Community Church facilitated the service. Also participating were Lee Adams, a volunteer leader at The Avenue; Barton Kimbro, Assistant Pastor of Young Adults at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis; and Denny Catalano, Regional Director of Campus Outreach Memphis.

“Lord, we acknowledge that we are fallen and that we are led astray by our own desires,” Adams prayed. “Even our pursuit for justice can be shortsighted, but Lord, give us your eyes to help us to stay fixed on you. And Lord, give us your heart, so as we cry, ‘How long,’ that we are not forsaken.”

In addition to his prayer, Adams read passages from Habakkuk 1, Psalm 113 and Psalm 143.

Catalano prayed that God would heal broken hearts and bind up their wounds, provide comfort to the families of those who have died in recent weeks, and “bring conviction and courage to our non-African-American brothers and sisters to enter into the fight and speak truth in love and to promote unity in the family of God.”

Kimbro reminded those gathered that “only the Lord is big enough, good enough, wise enough and powerful enough to do anything about what ails people in this world.”

“Oh Lord, we long for the day to come for the new heavens and the new earth,” Kimbro prayed. “We pray for your deliverance from evil around us, particularly racism, bigotry, and systematic injustice.”

At the close of the service, Johnson asked the congregation to stand, raise their hands, and clap.

“He’s worthy of our praise!” Johnson exclaimed. “He is to be trusted. He is the solid Rock on which we stand. All other ground is sinking sand. And I’m not worshipping the God of woke-ism, I’m not worshipping the God of patriotism—I’m worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who’s coming to get me!”

The prayer walk was originally scheduled for immediately after the service but was delayed two days by rainy weather. It was designed to demonstrate love and understanding for the community amid the racial unrest of the past several weeks.

“The indictment against the Church is that they don’t care, that their love does not have feet, and that whatever they talk about—whatever they do—has no tangible impact on the world around us,” Johnson said. “The indictment is so bad, especially for me being an African-American pastor and a person of color.”

He described the part of Memphis in which The Avenue meets as an “edge” neighborhood. The area is located between Highland Terrace—which has some of most expensive real estate in the city—and a district dubbed “The Nations,” which includes the highest concentration of Hispanics, refugees, and low-income black and white families in Memphis.

“The nations are there,” Johnson said. “Our church sits in the middle of that, so we aren’t necessarily out to be a niche church for multi-ethnicity. Rather, we believe that if we preach the gospel indiscriminately up and down the street without skipping over people, that we will be diverse.”

He said the prayer walk in the neighborhood represented that belief.

“For me, the Church has got to step up and demonstrate—even if they don’t understand—that it does care about the anguish and the grief of society.”

Rob Liddon, a Ruling Elder for Second Presbyterian Church and member of the EPC National Leadership Team, said the service of lament helped meet an important need.

“For some time I have felt we need to learn to lament all that is happening, and especially so after these killings,” he said. “Our worship services are ordinarily joyful—rightfully so—but we need to do a better job of weeping with those who weep.”

During the week following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Johnson said he had reminded the church of its core values, where the church sits in the Memphis community, and how the people who make up The Avenue could be the catalyst to bring together divided communities.

“Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father is one,” Johnson said during the prayer service. “We need to pursue that like never before. It’s the biggest apologetic to the world. We have to get to know people, allow ourselves to be known, and pull together and not fracture into several different groups.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Reopening the church: doors continue to open despite restrictions

 

ReopeningTheChurchFourth in a series

As protests and more violent demonstrations continue across the U.S.—potentially hindering economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic—a nation desperately in need of spiritual direction is seeing churches slowly reopen their doors to worshipers. In that context, EPC congregations are balancing local, state, and federal guidelines to protect parishioners who choose to return to on-campus worship services and other activities.

Chris Parnell, Pastor of Bishopville Presbyterian Church in Bishopville, S.C., said in-person worship services resumed on May 3 following a unanimous vote by the session. He reported about half of their normal Sunday attendance of 70 were present for the first service.

ChurchesReopening3-Parnell

Chris Parnell

“For those in attendance, and the elders, the mood was quite positive,” Parnell said. “We’d been closed except for online worship services from mid-March through April—including Easter—and the elders and I felt a positive, uplifting response to our meeting again in-person.”

He said that neither his state nor local authorities had issued any guidelines on churches reopening, “so we looked at the CDC recommendations for guidance,” he said. “We are also blessed to have several healthcare workers and doctors in our congregation to give us local guidance.”

Parnell said other activities continue to be closed—such as choir practice, on-site Bible studies, Sunday School classes, and other gatherings—and looks forward to fully reopening. He explained that navigating ministry during the pandemic included conducting a graveside-only funeral service.

“Other than the family and me, the funeral home sent two facilitators and a local musician who played and sang the Lord’s Prayer,” he said.

Following 14 years as Associate Pastor, Joyce Harris was installed as Lead Pastor of First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kokomo, Ind., on March 8 as the first cases of COVID-19 began to sweep across the nation.

ChurchesReopening3-Harris

Joyce Harris

“This season has been very overwhelming to learn new ways, and the brunt of the responsibility for assuring conditions are met are on the church, session, and pastor,” she said. “We were able to meet March 15 because the state had a limit of 250 at that time, and then on the following Tuesday, we were shut down. We were not streaming before that time; we did our first live video stream on March 29.”

The church resumed in-person worship services on May 10, with attendance and social distancing restrictions as recommended by Gov. Eric J. Holcomb’s “Back on Track Indiana” guidelines.

About 60 of the regular 175 congregants attended the May 10 service, with everyone doing their part to social distance and sanitize, Harris said.

“A large part of our congregation is over 60,” she said. “I still am trying to walk the balance of respecting the choices of when someone will return, with a lot of grace and truth. It’s hard when you know someone goes to the local store, or now gym, but is not in church. And I have to be OK with that, and yet pray. The work of discipleship needs to continue in order that others may see the work of the church is essential in their life.”

Harris said the decision to reopen has been well-received.

“I’ve not been told that we were crazy to reopen,” she said. “A longtime member and doctor who has worked in Indianapolis with infectious disease and control for over 12 years was part of our session meeting, and has been available to me throughout our decision-making process. Right after announcing, people agreed that it was a reasonable plan, which gave people choices. It’s been affirming because even as I’ve seen other churches larger than us open up after us, they have basically used similar types of things.”

ChurchesReopening3-Crawford

Bill Crawford

Bill Crawford, pastor of two congregations in Louisiana—First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux and First Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Houma—said services at the Houma location resumed on May 17, with 25 percent capacity per state guidelines. The two churches are about 30 miles apart.

“Twenty mostly young families and some widows attended,” Crawford noted, adding the pre-shutdown attendance was about 60 for both churches.

“The mood was somber, but it lifted as we continued,” he said. “We asked participants to wear a mask and to be seated by ushers, and installed UVC lighting in the air return.”

Crawford said feedback on the reopening has been mixed, ranging from “‘I won’t come to church until masks are given out,’ to ‘This is a government conspiracy,’ to ‘Thank you, I’m coming no matter what!’”

In Ohio, where churches were exempted from Gov. Mike DeWine’s order for non-essential businesses to close, Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon reopened May 24 after relying on live streaming its worship service for eight weeks.

ChurchesReopening3-Larson

Peter Larson

Senior Pastor Peter Larson said in the county where the church is located has had 340 confirmed cases and 21 deaths—but no confirmed cases in the congregation.

For the church with a typical worship attendance of 380, the plan is to reopen in phases in order to provide a safe worship environment.

“Due to social distancing, our capacity is limited to 80 people at each service,” Larsen said. “For that reason, we have encouraged people to stay home and continue to watch the livestream unless they have an urgent need to be in the church building. On the day we re-opened we had a total of 65 people in the first service and 35 at the second.”

The overall mood of the first on-campus service was “very positive and joyful, but also kind of strange,” he said. “The pews are divided by duct tape to provide social distancing. Also, the live streaming equipment stands directly in front of the pulpit for now until we can install it permanently. Clearly, these things were awkward and distracting. Nevertheless, it was great to gather in worship and to preach to actual people instead of preaching into the cold lens of a camera.”

At Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Va., almost every member of the church has told their pastor they are eager to get back to an in-person worship services, Senior Pastor David Weber told the Lynchburg News & Advance.

ChurchesReopening3-Weber

David Weber

They got their wish on May 24, as the church reopened for two services on campus: an 8:00 a.m. service requiring face coverings and an 11:00 a.m. service that didn’t require masks. The sanctuary was limited to 150 people in spaced-out seating arrangements, and a pamphlet from the church lists other measures taken—such as limited singing and removal of pew hymnals and Bibles.

“Our expectation is that we’ll see a slow start to people coming back,” Weber said. “People are kind of waiting it out and seeing how it goes and slowly re-engaging.”

ChurchesReopening3-Morefield

Stephen Morefield

Stephen Morefield, pastor of Christ Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Leoti, Kan., said the church returned to indoor worship on May 31 with about 80 percent of its regular attendance of 115 after conducting outdoor services the previous four weeks.

He described the return to in-person worship as “jubilant and enthusiastic,” with the congregation being understanding of special considerations that had to be taken.

“Because we haven’t had a case in the county, our challenge was getting folks to take reasonable precautions, especially to honor those in the body who were deeply concerned,” Moorefield said. “We had painted boxes for family units on the church lawn, moved an offering box, and practiced communion with pre-packaged elements handed out by gloved elders.”

ChurchesReopening3-Chivers

Ken Chivers

Lighthouse Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Mooresville, N.C., reopened on May 17 with an outdoor service following social distancing guidelines.

Pastor Ken Chivers said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper continues to recommend that churches don’t meet inside yet, in spite of a federal judge’s ruling that churches could worship as they chose.

“Everyone understands the situation, so they were good with them for the most part,” Chivers said. “Not everyone wore masks, but most people followed our recommendations. About 60 people—roughly 75 percent of the church’s regular attendees—were at the May 17 service.

“We were very joyful and thankful,” Chivers said. “I teared up with joy when we all started saying the Lord’s Prayer together.”

by Tim Yarbrough,
EPConnection correspondent
with additional
reporting by Rachel Mahoney, The Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance

Monthly EPC budget report: May fiscal-year-to-date PMA contributions remain ahead of 2018, reduce gap to 2019 projected budget

 

As churches begin to reopen following shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, Per Member Asking (PMA) contributions to the EPC are rebounding. As of May 31, the Office of the General Assembly has received $2,163,300 since the July 1, 2019, start of the EPC’s fiscal year. PMA in May was less then 6 percent less than the EPC’s monthly operating budget, and year-to-date contributions are only 3.4 percent ($76,749) below the $2,240,049 budgeted projection to support the EPC’s Collaborative Ministries, Connectional Support, and Custodial Operations.

PMA support continues to be higher than last year despite the economic effects of shelter-in-place orders throughout the country. The amount received in the first eleven months of the EPC’s fiscal year is $9,336 more than the $2,153,964 received from July 1 through May 31, 2019.

“I am extremely grateful for the continued commitment to Per Member Asking of our churches,” said Jeff Jeremiah, Stated Clerk. “We all hope and pray that conditions continue to improve, and our churches don’t suffer any long-term economic effects. We have continued to restrict our spending at the Office of the General Assembly as much as possible, so our expenditures year-to-date are about 12 percent below budget.”

Of the $2,163,300 received, $432,660 (20 percent) was contributed to EPC World Outreach.

In addition to PMA contributions, $5,546,483 in designated gifts have been received since July 1, 2019. This total was $630,355 (12.8 percent) higher than the $4,916,128 in designated gifts received in the same period in the previous fiscal year. Designated gifts include support for World Outreach global workers and projects, and contributions to EPC Special Projects such as Emergency Relief, church planting and revitalization initiatives, and the EPC’s holiday offerings.

Of the total, $4,800,143 was designated for World Outreach workers and projects, and $746,340 was designated for EPC projects. These amounts only reflect gifts received and distributed by the Office of the General Assembly, and do not reflect donations given directly to WO global workers or other projects.

‘Leading EPC Sessions and Congregations in Issues of Race and Justice’ webinar recording available

 

On June 10, a diverse panel of EPC Teaching Elders and other leaders presented a 60-minute webinar, “Leading EPC Sessions and Congregations in Issues of Race and Justice: An Online Seminar on These Times and a Biblical Response.” The recording of the presentation is available below.

The webinar was hosted by Case Thorp, Moderator of the 39th General Assembly and Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. Panelists were:

The recording also is posted on the EPC website at www.epc.org/issuesofraceandjustice and on the EPC YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/EPChurch80.

Church Pivot: The coronavirus crisis and opportunity for the church

 

CaseThorpChurchPivotby Case Thorp
Moderator of the 39th General Assembly

Last month, pastors of Romanian heritage in Illinois declared they will begin gathering for corporate worship despite the governor’s orders. Meanwhile, they filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the orders in defense of religious liberty. Some Presbyterian pastors in my own denomination share similar convictions, while others have said they will delay reconstituting on Sundays for worship. Motives range from fear of the coronavirus’ advance to being blamed for its spread. One mother in my own congregation shared another valid take concerning coming back to corporate worship: “We do not want our four-year-old son to have to wear a mask or see his little friends or their parents hidden behind masks for the sobering image it would see her into his memory.”

Whatever practice a church embraces for restarting Sunday morning worship, this global pandemic will be a turning point for the future of Christianity.

Pastor Chad Scruggs at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville recently reminded his congregation that when it comes to opening up for Sunday worship they have a “fixed theology, but flexible methodology.” Pastor Scruggs recognizes disruptive events like this one challenge methodologies, but do not change the core beliefs and convictions of Christians. As seen in history, individual churches either died out or shifted and thrived through such calamities as the black plague, enemy invasions, or governmental oppression.

Yet, the methodology of most American churches is an epidemic of its own. For the last generation, scholars and a minority of practitioners have questioned the amount of energy and resources that go into Sunday morning worship. Too many churches operate, so they think, as an attraction among many in a community. Rather than the beach, a theme park, your backyard, or little league baseball game, if church is an entertaining enough experience, you’ll come.

Certainly, gathered worship on the day of Christ’s resurrection is central to the Christian experience since the first century, and will be theologically important into the future. Yet, in many churches who thought they were evolving well with the times, Sunday morning corporate worship has become an overproduced performance mimicking the cultural attention we place on lights, cameras, and action. The Sunday event has become an expensive, less-than-average vehicle for discipleship, and a lightning rod for criticism as pastors are seen in slick, overproduced settings following more the ways of the famous than Jesus. Take this away, and many pastors feel naked and out of the driver’s seat. It reveals a reality many church leaders have forgotten: there is more to the church than going to church.

The scale at which the Sunday morning worship service dominates a church’s methodology is being radically disrupted with stay-at-home orders. Pastors are flummoxed with next steps in reopening, thinking that it’s the only move they have. But is it? Is returning to the event-driven, performance-esque Sunday morning corporate worship service the best way to be the body of Christ in this pandemic—and in the 21st century?

Allen Hirsh, an Australian theologian and leading missiologist, recently compared this moment for churches to the game of chess. He provides what he calls a working parable in which the sermon, the very center of the Sunday event, to the queen on a chessboard. We think she is an all-powerful gamepiece and the best reason the game is won. Hirsch says too many churches have over-relied for too long on their queen, and due to lockdown, “now the queen is taken out. They don’t know what the other pieces can do.”

Here he brings the parable full circle with both a vision and a challenge for how churches use this global disruption to reconstitute themselves in a much more effective way. Chess masters will coach new students to play chess without the queen so that they learn the power and potential of all the other chess pieces. Hirsch suggests taking away our queen as Christians is the best thing that could have happened to the church because it will force the issue of effective discipleship, transformative mission, and intimate, authentic outreach. He concludes, “What you were going to do is you’re going to learn what all the other elements of the chess table can do on the chessboard, and then you put the queen back in. At that point you’ve actually learned to become a champion without over-relying on a singular function.”

The opportunity before the leaders of the church offered by coronavirus is to learn to play the game relying on the other moves on the board: effective conveyance of the faith from one person to another, truly teaching biblical literacy rather than ethical vignettes, sound and clear theology, spiritual habits that shape the rhythm of a flourishing life, transformative works of benevolence in a community that last and they are witness to God’s common grace, and a worship expression build not on performance and production, but on intimacy and confession. May church leaders not waste the opportunity of this crisis, and perhaps usher in yet another great reformation of the church.

Case Thorp is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. He serves as Senior Associate Pastor of Evangelism for First Presbyterian Church in Orlando.

Reopening the church: pastors, congregations take cautious early steps

 

ReopeningTheChurchThird in a series.

As the country slowly reopens following a three-month onslaught of the COVID-19 virus, EPC congregations are cautiously resuming corporate worship and other on-campus activities.

Middle Smithfield Evangelical Presbyterian Church in East Stroudsburg, Pa., lost the husband of an elder and son of a deacon to the virus. Despite the tragic death of a beloved member, Pastor Jeff Brower reported that they reopened public worship on May 15.

ChurchesReopening2-Brower

Jeff Brower

“We announced the re-opening on May 8 with very little fanfare on our live feed and via email—we just said the doors will be open if you’d like to come back, but we were sure to make it as low-pressure as possible,” Brewer said. “We said, ‘Come if you want, but continue to watch the live stream if you’d prefer.’”

He said the church’s leadership prepared 13 policies for re-opening, and about 10 people in a congregation of 200 attended the first week—which included Brower and the praise team.

“I roped off every other pew so there would be no mistakes, and we provided masks for anyone who forgot theirs.”

He said attendance at the May 24 service doubled to about 20, including several from a nearby Reformed congregation that they participate in many activities with.

“The mood of the people here was great,” Brower said. “Everyone was very excited to be able to worship together, but also disappointed that we can’t stay and fellowship afterward. We normally have a small meal every Sunday after church and a big meal once a month—we’re very big on fellowship here.”

In Texas, Covenant EPC in Lake Jackson used a “soft opening” on May 10 to “iron out procedures,” said Senior Pastor Alan Trafford. He noted that they followed suggested guidelines such as maintaining social distance, providing hand sanitizer, encouraging worshipers to wear masks, and not to serve food.

ChurchesReopening2-Trafford

Alan Trafford

Though Gov. Greg Abbott did not require churches in Texas to close, Trafford said they held online-only services for seven weeks as a precaution, so the first service was “emotional and that of relief” for the congregation of about 200.

“The call to worship was from Psalm 84, ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.’ The praise team led with ‘Praise Belongs to You’ followed by a traditional hymn on the organ, ‘Come, We that Love the Lord.’ There was barely a dry eye in the place.”

He said 66 people attended the first service, and attendance has grown steadily in the weeks since.

“We can only get about 70 in our sanctuary with social distancing, so we are live streaming to our multi-purpose building,” Trafford noted. “Some have chosen to worship there since distancing is easier in the gym.”

He also said Covenant continues to stream its worship service on the church website, Facebook, YouTube, and a local cable TV station.

In Florida, Faith Community Church in Seminole also reopened on May 10 after Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed retail and restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity.

ChurchesReopening2-Thornton

Dillon Thornton

“When that happened, we followed suit,” said Lead Pastor Dillon Thornton. “Our thinking was that most people spend at least 45 minutes in a restaurant, so offering a worship service of 45 minutes or so is consistent with the governor’s permission.”

He said they marked the pews with tape so that social distancing could be easily practiced and made face coverings optional.

He said the reopening of in-person gatherings has been met with “only positive feedback. I suspect this is because we have taken a hybrid approach—we offer both an online gathering and two in-person gatherings—and we have encouraged all gospel partners (how Faith refers to its members) to return in person whenever they feel ready to do so. No pressure.”

Worship attendance has ranged from 95 the first week to 108 on May 24. Prior to the shelter-in-place orders, the congregation had an average worship attendance of about 300.

“The majority of our gospel partners are not yet ready to return to in-person gatherings, so they join us online each week,” Thornton said. “Additionally, we’ve seen significant growth in online viewers.”

Thornton added that current services are abbreviated in length, and include prayer, praise, and communion.

“We intentionally made the first week back concise, and only the sanctuary is open at this stage,” he said. “Families worship together, but there are no children’s or student activities yet.”

Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in Wilson, N.C, resumed public worship with outdoor services on May 17 and worship in the Sanctuary on May 24.

ChurchesReopening2-Greenwood

Chris Greenwood

Pastor Chris Greenwood said the services have been well received, with more than 60 attending the outside service and 30 attending the first inside service. He said average attendance prior to the shutdown was 60 to 70—which has increased from about 35 just a few years ago.

“We spaced the chairs for social distancing and asked people to arrive in masks through the end of the musical worship time,” he said. “We then suggested they remove them for the sermon and put them back on from the benediction until they depart.”

Greenwood said the impact of COVID-19 on the Wilson area—about 50 miles east of Raleigh in the eastern North Carolina—has not been widespread. As a result, he hopes the church can soon return to some semblance of normalcy.

Back in Pennsylvania, Brower said the impact in East Stroudsburg has been much greater so returning to how things were before the coronavirus took hold may prove more difficult.

“We are in the Pocono Mountains just across the river from New Jersey, so we’re a vacation destination for folks from New Jersey and New York—and many of our parishioners commute to both,” he said. “The member of our church who died lived in New Jersey, and a couple with three small children tested positive but have recovered. Overall, our area has been relatively hard-hit.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Lamentos y oraciones sugeridas para el 8 de junio Día de Lamento, Ayuno y Oración disponible en español

 

June10LamentosOracionesUna lista propuesta de Lamentos y Oraciones para el Día del Lamento, el Ayuno y la Oración del EPC el 8 de junio está disponible en español en www.epc.org/june8lamentprayerfasting. La traducción es gentilmente proporcionada por nuestras congregaciones EPC en Puerto Rico.

 

Suggested Laments and Prayers for June 8 Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer available in Spanish

A proposed list of Laments and Prayers for the EPC’s Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer on June 8 is available in Spanish at www.epc.org/june8lamentprayerfasting. The translation is graciously provided by our EPC congregations in Puerto Rico.

June 10 webinar to explore biblical, congregational response to racial injustice

 

June10WebinarPanelistsOn Wednesday, June 10, at 4:00 p.m. EDT, a racially diverse panel of EPC Teaching Elders and other leaders will present a 60-minute webinar, “Leading EPC Sessions and Congregations in Issues of Race and Justice: An Online Seminar on These Times and a Biblical Response.”

The webinar will be hosted by Case Thorp, Moderator of the EPC 39th General Assembly and Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean.

“Several EPC Teaching Elders of color and the Co-Chairmen of the EPC’s Revelation 7:9 Task Force will discuss racial injustices, congregational leadership, and a Reformed and biblical response,” Thorp said. “Our panelists will discuss these timely topics, and there will opportunity for question-and-answer.”

Panelists include:

For more information and to register, go to www.epc.org/june10webinar.

Resources available on EPC website for June 8 Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer

 

June8DayOfLamentFastingPrayerA message from Tom Werner, Moderator of the 38th General Assembly, calling for June 8, 2020, as a Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer:

Recent events surrounding the wrongful deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minnesota demonstrate the persistence of severe racial injustices in the United States. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church laments the turmoil our nation is suffering as a result of these and other injustices, and the hurt—property loss, injury, and death—that is visited on those who are responsible by their actions and those who are not responsible but who are hurt as a consequence of sin. In times of national crisis and tragedy, the EPC turns to God and His Word for direction and encouragement.

Genesis 1:27 declares God created man in His own image. As bearers of God’s image, all people share in divine dignity and are equal before Him. Racism is an abomination to God. It distorts, diminishes, defames, and destroys those whom God in His goodness created in His image.

The idea or ideology that one race is superior to another is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s love in Jesus Christ casts out the fear that generates hatred (1 John 4:18). Christ’s work on the cross has torn down the dividing wall of hostility and hatred so that we are no longer enemies of God and no longer enemies of one another (Ephesians 2:14-18). A key calling of the church of Jesus Christ is the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-20). The church looks forward to the day when believers “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” will join as one and celebrate the redeeming work of Jesus Christ together (Revelation 7:9-10).

Because of the clear testimony of God’s Word, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church unambiguously declares that racism in any form is an abomination to the God who created all races and is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church condemns racism and calls to repentance all individuals, groups, and structures that advocate it.

In response, the National Leadership Team has called all members of our churches to a Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer on Monday, June 8, 2020.

A proposed list of Laments and Prayers to lift to the Lord on June 8 is available at www.epc.org/june8lamentfastingprayer.

EPC issues Call to Lament, Prayer, and Fasting for Monday, June 8, in response to killings, racial unrest

 

In response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and subsequent protests nationwide against police brutality, the EPC has issued a Call to Lament, Prayer, and Fasting for Monday, June 8.

“I am profoundly grieved by the tragic events unfolding in our country in recent days,” said Jeff Jeremiah, Stated Clerk. “The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—and countless others over the years—followed by protests, riots, and destruction have again exposed the vein of unequal justice that has existed for far too long in our society.”

The Call: All members of EPC churches set aside Monday, June 8 as a day of lament, fasting, and prayer to cry out to God for His help in the midst of this crisis in the United States.

Jeremiah noted that a key difference between the June 8 emphasis and previous EPC calls to prayer and fasting is the addition of “Lament.”

“I read two short articles on lament recently, which I believe are especially relevant to this time in our history,” he said. Those resources are:

“As social unrest escalates, it is appropriate for the church to lament this crisis to the Lord, to fast, and to pray about how we as believers in Jesus Christ can be part of the solution to the racism, inequality, and injustice that violate the ideals enshrined in our Constitution and laws,” Jeremiah said. “I hope that all of our pastors let their congregations know about this call to humble themselves and pray to almighty God for His grace, mercy, and love to heal the divisions in our country—and especially for God’s people to repent of the sin of racism.”

Specific prayers and other resources will be available on the EPC website soon.

In related actions, the EPC National Leadership approved two motions in a special called meeting on June 1 to encourage EPC Teaching Elders during the crisis.

The first recommendation is for Teaching Elders “to address this week with the congregations they serve the tragic and senseless death of George Floyd and the extreme indifference to his life demonstrated by the police officers who have been disciplined and/or charged with his murder. Mr. Floyd’s death is emblematic of a pervasive historical pattern of disproportionately aggressive policing in far too many communities of color.”

Jeremiah noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words “are just as applicable in our time as they were in his: ‘Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’”

The second recommendation is for EPC Teaching Elders and congregations “to consider acting, as the Lord Jesus Christ leads, to speak out for justice and equality; to speak against racism, injustice, and inequality; and to work to arrest the origins of civil unrest—namely, poverty, racial separation, immorality, and a lack of radical love.”

Teaching Elder and NLT Member Case Thorp, Moderator of the 39th General Assembly, noted that protests in response to Lloyd’s death “carry with them a sincere understanding by the greater public like I have never seen before.”

“We get it,” Thorp said. “The anger and rage of so many are not without cause. Likewise, I am grateful for the vast majority of our men and women in law enforcement who get up every day to serve the citizenry in faithful ways. This is not an ‘either/or’ moment, but a ‘both/and’ opportunity in America’s journey. My hope is we have peaceful assemblies crying out for justice, and those causing violence find their energies best expressed in a peaceful political process.”

An additional NLT action on June was for a Zoom meeting designed for EPC Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders to be scheduled for after the June 8 Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer.

“This event will include leaders of color in the EPC who will address the appropriate ongoing response to this crisis,” Jeremiah said. “The goal is to help provide insight to the questions many of us may have.”

Additional details will be announced soon.

“What is going on has demanded a response from us as a denomination,” Jeremiah said. “May we be the voice of peace, love, and reconciliation that our communities, country, and world so desperately needs today. Now is not the time to be silent, but to speak out for justice and equality, and against racism, injustice, and inequality.”

Memphis, Tenn., EPC pastors collaborate with local faith leaders on reopening churches video

 

ReopeningTheChurch

Second in a series.

George Robertson, Senior Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn.., and Rufus Smith, Senior Pastor of Hope Church in Cordova, Tenn., contributed their voices to “Memphis Faith Leaders Stand Together,” a one-minute video on the decision to love their neighbors by waiting for in-person worship.

Smith said the video has received significant viewership and “emboldened many churches to predicate reopening based on data, not dates. It also reinforced implementing safety protocols now and whenever we regather.”

While Tennessee’s shelter-in-place order expired on April 30, Smith noted that most of the Hope congregation understands “the three factors of healthcare, economics, and loving our neighbors must all be considered before in-person gatherings resume.”

The idea for the video emanated from a weekly Zoom meeting of Memphis-area clergy.

“A coalition of churches is in partnership with the Church Health Medical Clinic and Christ Community Health Services, both of which provide quality healthcare for the uninsured and working poor,” Smith said. “The churches in the video have covenanted to care spiritually, materially, and emotionally for those who test positive for coronavirus in their ZIP codes while they quarantine for 14 days.”

The Hope Church Creative Team produced the video.

 

Reopening the church: ‘when and how’ the critical points for EPC pastors

 

ReopeningTheChurch

First in a series.

As debate rages about opening up the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, EPC congregations across the U.S. are weighing options on how and when to resume regular worship services and other activities.

Some churches have already started holding in-person services.

Sylvania EPC in Ward, Ark., reopened for services on May 10 with about half of its regular attendees—most of whom are age 65 and older.

James Pitts, pastor of the Sylvania congregation, said there is “no pressure on the others to return before they are ready.”

He added that they are attempting to follow Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s guidelines.

“Most wore masks,” he noted. “One wore gloves. We positioned offering plates near the doors and did not have bulletins. We practiced social distancing, streamlined the service slightly, and did not have a choir.”

Arkansas has been one of the outbreak’s least-impacted states, Pitts reported. “We are thankful that none of us have experienced serious symptoms associated with COVID-19.”

In Louisiana, which was one of the early “hot spot” states for the virus, First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge reopened on May 17 with two services—each of which had an attendance limit of 25 percent of the Sanctuary’s capacity.

ChurchesReopening1-Dawson

Gerrit Dawson

Senior Pastor Gerrit Dawson said plans for future meetings depend on what Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards outlines in phase one of the state’s reopening plan.

“Things change so quickly, the guidelines may or may not be what has been already announced,” Dawson said. “This defines the road ahead as ‘speculative’ and we must remain dynamic and be prepared to make changes to whatever plans we have made.”

Dawson said they asked the congregation to register online prior to Sunday. When the pre-determined capacity limit was reached, the system would not accept additional registrations.

“With pre-registration, we know the size of the families, groups, and individuals who will be coming and will be able to accomplish at least some strategic seat assignments to accomplish healthy distances,” he said.

Ruling Elder Jane Cooper said about 60 people attended each of the first Sunday’s services.

“Everyone was given a mask, and we were spread out,” she said. “We stopped the online signups after the first weekend, and this past week our attendance was about the same.”

Dawson said decisions on logistical matters—such as distribution of bulletins and order of worship, communion, fellowship, and helping attendees maintain social distancing while exiting the Sanctuary—required extra thought but were necessary to reopen for public worship.

“Those who come will be hungry to worship our Lord in Spirit and in Truth,” he said. “Gathering as God’s people is a privilege and one that is in our DNA as Christians.”

In New Mexico, First Presbyterian Church in Artesia reopened for worship services on May 24.

ChurchesReopening1-Phelps

Dan Phelps

Pastor Dan Phelps said maintain social distancing was not difficult for the congregation of about 25 individuals.

“We are in a building that would seat 250,” he said. “I have ordered masks and gloves to have on hand so that folks who would like to utilize them may have access to them.”

Phelps added that a team cleaned the building before the service, sanitizing doorknobs and other potential high-touch items.

“We did not pass the plate but had it at the back for folks to drop off their offerings. Also, we roped off every other pew so that folks would maintain six feet distance between families.”

Faith Presbyterian Church in Crivitz, Wis., began holding outdoor worship services after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a new five-week “Safer at Home” quarantine order in April that allowed for church gatherings with specific restrictions.

ChurchesReopening1-Pleuss

David Pleuss

Pastor David Pleuss said the church’s leadership felt it was time for the congregation to meet.

“We noticed a shift in people’s attitudes,” he said. “Discouragement was creeping in and relational intimacy beyond our online daily devotion was needed.”

Pleuss said that while Crivitz is located in one of the state’s largest counties by land area, it has had the smallest number of COVID-19 cases.

“After looking at the new order we determined we could in good conscience hold outdoor services with appropriate social distance measures in place. We ended up having somewhere around 50 people (out of an average attendance of 80) attend our first time,” he said. “We are still doing a lot of online presence, but this was a breath of fresh air that many of our people needed.”

He added that the church’s small groups are not yet meeting.

ChurchesReopening1-Myers

Tony Myers

Tony Myers, Senior Pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Somerset, Pa., said they will continue to make pre-recorded services available online through May, then consider reopening in June.

Prior to the shelter-in-place restrictions, the church held two services each Sunday—with about 250 people in each. He said the plan for in-person worship gatherings beginning in June is to require pre-registration for three Sunday morning services of no more than 100 each to allow for social distancing.

“During the month of May we are cleaning the building for the health and safety of the congregation,” Myers said, adding that Sunday School classes have been suspended through the summer.

In Indianapolis, where Southport Presbyterian Church Senior Pastor Rob Hock said there is a “healthy relationship between church and state,” churches “have been given a lot of latitude regarding public meetings.”

ChurchesReopening1-Hock

Rob Hock

Despite the leeway, Hock said Southport plans to continue digital worship and times of prayer by video conference for the time being.

“We have empowered our elders who have said ‘less is more,’ and we have provided connection,” he said. “Our people believe that gathering more than 10 people together would be immoral and irresponsible, so we are going to be more restrictive. Our values will drive what we do.”

Hock said those values include caring for both the “physical and the spiritual needs of people, caring for the whole community, and caring for authorities over us.”

Cedarville United Presbyterian Church in Cedarville, Ohio, is following much the same strategy as Southport.

ChurchesReopening1-Horton

Anne Horton

Anne Horton, pastor of the Cedarville congregation, said they do not have a firm date for the church to reopen. In the meantime, the church will continue to offer Sunday morning worship and Wednesday evening Bible study on Facebook Live—a service they had not provided prior to the pandemic.

“We are committed first and foremost to the health and safety of the congregation,” she said. “We will rope off some pews and encourage people to stay at least six feet away from anyone not in their household. We have already removed the hymnals, praise books, and Bibles, and will encourage people to bring their Bibles and to download a bulletin from our website and bring it with them.”

She said hand sanitizer would be placed in the sanctuary, along with cleaning supplies in the restrooms. Congregants will be encouraged—but not required—to wear masks.

Horton said she has emphasized to parishioners that while services will be different from previous experiences, it also will be a joyful experience.

“It will be a very different experience from what we have been used to,” she said. “It will feel awkward. It will feel sterile. But whether we are in the sanctuary or in living rooms, we can glorify God together.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Church sewing groups answer call for masks for Michigan COVID-19 hotspot

 

Hamtramck, Mich., is an area that was hit hard by COVID-19. About five miles from downtown Detroit, 42 percent of Hamtramck’s 22,000 residents are foreign-born—giving Hamtramck the largest percentage of immigrants in the state and a longtime focus of EPC World Outreach efforts among Muslims in the United States.

Between January and March, as many as 300 families moved to Hamtramck from Bangladesh to join relatives. The March coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shelter-in-place orders isolated these immigrants in unfamiliar surroundings, in some cases even from relatives. So when a World Outreach global worker in the area put out an urgent request in April for masks to share with the Bangladeshi and Yemeni families in their neighborhood, women in sewing groups at two EPC churches jumped into action.

MasksForHamtramck

Paula Creamer

Paula Creamer, a Ruling Elder for Grace Community Church in Falcon, Colo., responded to the need after seeing it posted on the EPC Women’s Resource Council’s Facebook page.

“We have a women’s sewing group at the church called Stitchers of Grace,” Creamer said. “It actually started about seven years ago in response to a need for pillowcases at a local homeless shelter. We sew pillowcases every year now for the Salvation Army and the shelters.”

When COVID-19 hit Colorado and local paramedic, fire, and police departments requested mask donations, Stitchers of Grace stepped up to help. They were joined by two other women’s sewing groups in the Colorado Springs area: The Black Forest Craft Guild and Falcon Stitchers. The three groups were familiar with one another, having met at the annual craft show that is held at Grace Community Church each holiday season.

“Between the three groups, we have about 20 women who have given their time and efforts over the last few weeks to sew almost 9,000 masks,” Creamer said. “We have given them out to rescue workers, shelters, clinics, and hospitals. We already knew how to make them when the request came from Hamtramck. So, of course, we said we could help.”

Meanwhile, across the country in Findlay, Ohio, a group of women from Gateway Church also was rallying to sew masks for Hamtramck.

“The request came from one of our mission partners,” said Cody Ohnmeiss, who serves as Gateway’s Go Local Director. “We were already partnered with that area of Michigan and wanted to help in any way that we could.”

So he called Sandra Tietje, who leads a ministry team called Sew, Quilt, Share. When Ohnmeiss told her they needed 500 masks, her response was, “That’s a big number!”

But she knew that God would provide, as He always does. The group had already been sewing masks for local hospitals and nursing home facilities. In the previous month, they had distributed more than 2,000 masks—all made from materials they already had on hand or had been donated from local fabric shops.

“God knew that this moment was coming and what would be needed, and He had already laid the foundation so that this could happen,” Tietje said. “There were many, many hands involved in this process, and God is the one who has done it.”

The women’s group launched in 2003 when a few ladies from the church felt like God was calling them to start a sewing ministry as part of the church’s outreach ministries.

“We have a strong missional history at Gateway,” Tietje said. “I have a photo of my grandmother working on a quilt with her Ladies Missionary Society back in 1967. I’m actually in the photo, too—underneath the quilt! We grew up watching our mothers hold bake sales and sew things to raise money for missions. This is our heritage.”

Every month, people meet at the church to cut fabric and put kits together to distribute to women who want to participate in the sewing projects. Ohnmeiss serves as the runner, dropping off and picking up projects throughout the city.

“One of the beautiful things about sewing is that if you have a passion for it and you meet someone else that has a passion for it as well, it breaks down the barriers that divide,” Tietje said. “This is a fun, non-threatening outreach to our friends. There are ladies who have started coming to our church because of friendship evangelism through the sewing group.”

Creamer has seen the same thing at Grace Community Church.

“Some of the women have started praying together and a few have even been attending the Tuesday Women’s Bible Study,” she said. “This latest project—the masks for frontline workers—has connected us more deeply with the community. We’ve even had grocery stores providing us with twist ties from the produce section to make the nosepiece on the masks.”

Creamer knows firsthand what a blessing these masks have been. Her husband is an essential government employee, and she is a nurse in a local hospital.

Ohnmeiss noted that a perhaps-unexpected blessing from the effort was watching how God brought many different people together to serve those who are in need.

“One of our pastors made it a family project,” he said. “He and his girls had never sewed a mask before, but they put in a day’s effort and came out with masks to send to Michigan. It was beautiful to watch.”

All of the masks produced by the church groups have been sent to Hamtramck. Between the two churches, they were able to provide even more than the 500 that were originally requested.

Tietje understands firsthand how important it is to come together in this unprecedented time and be there for one another. Her father-in-law passed away in May, and they were unable to be with him in the nursing home when he was sick or give him the kind of funeral that they would have liked. While the experience was difficult, it also gave her a greater empathy for those who were suffering and a passion to get even more masks to those in need.

“God always lays the groundwork before something like this happens,” she said. “He knew the pandemic was coming long before we did, and was aware of every little need. He brought our sewing group together for such a time as this. What a joy and privilege to play a small part in His plan.”

By Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent