June 4, 2020

Dear FPCB members and friends:

This week is full of challenges and transitions. We are all struggling to figure out how to respond faithfully and effectively to the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers, and to respond to the widespread protests that have arisen in response to them and to the underlying systemic issues of racial injustice in our country. I will be sending another letter before Sunday about these terrible events and urgent concerns, and how our congregation is beginning to respond.

But in this message, I am writing on behalf and at the request of Session to update you on our congregational approach to life and ministry during the pandemic, now that Northampton and surrounding counties are entering the “yellow phase” of the governor’s “Process to Reopen Pennsylvania” tomorrow.

The yellow phase is described by the state as one of “aggressive mitigation,” meaning that while there is no longer a stay-at-home order in place, there are still significant limitations on what kinds of businesses and activities are permissible and/or wise, and individuals are still expected to be engaging in strict practices of physical distancing (e.g., a minimum of 6’ distance from anyone you are not sheltering with, face masks in public, rigorous hand washing and sanitizing, etc.). So this period is still a long way from the pre-pandemic definition of “normal life.”

The Session, like everyone, is eager for the resumption of in-person worship and ministry for our congregation. We all miss being in the same room, seeing each other face to face, sharing table fellowship, and all the other joyful activities of being in physical community with one another. However, in reviewing the prevailing guidance of medical science and public health experts and the guidelines of the yellow phase for Pennsylvanians, the Session began to realize how radically different in-person worship, in particular, would be from what we know and cherish in terms of our normal Sunday morning worship practices.

First and foremost, only about 20 people would even be allowed to worship at a time, since it takes about five people to lead worship and run sound and video equipment, and assemblies of more than 25 people are prohibited in the yellow phase. But even setting that significant limitation aside, the precautions required to safely gather even 25 people for worship are both daunting and highly disruptive to our normal worship practices. And finally, we would still need to ask those in high-risk categories to stay home anyway, including not only people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart/lung/renal issues, but also those who are simply 65 years old and older.

All of this effectively means that all but a few people would be excluded from worship on a weekly basis, and quite a few would be excluded every week, and the experience of worship itself would be such that it would likely produce a much greater sense of anxiety and isolation than of joy and community. It would also make digital worship, which we plan to continue permanently in any case, far less effective because of the disruptions to the order and practice of worship.

Furthermore, we are aware that churches have been the source of many of the worst outbreaks in the pandemic so far, including churches that were practicing rigorous physical distancing. In other words, there have still been churches who have “done everything right” and still allowed many congregants to get infected and some to die as the result of attending a single service.

Given all that, the Session has determined that our Sunday morning worship services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. will remain digital-only during the yellow phase. Similarly, it has been decided that we will not be holding in-person meetings or events inside the building during this period. We feel it would be far better to continue instead with our current practice of digital-only Sunday morning worship and other activities in the yellow phase, and look at the possibility of reconvening in person in the green phase, when limits on assembly go up to 250 people, for example.

Again, the Session has made this decision only for the duration of the yellow phase, which is not clear at this time. Many, many churches in Pennsylvania and across the country have decided not to reconvene in person until a set date: most have said not before July at the earliest, many have said not before September, and more than a few have already said not before the start of 2021.

To us, though, it is not a question of timing so much as question of conditions and what is necessary to ensure safety in those conditions. We believe the conditions under the yellow phase are such that in-person gatherings are not prudent, and out of love for both our neighbors and ourselves, we should continue with digital-only activity during this time. We will now be turning our attention to the question of conditions under the green phase, because it is not clear how long the yellow phase will last and we want to continue to be prepared.

However, the Session has opened the possibility of convening in person outside the building for special worship services or other programs in the yellow phase. The scientific consensus is that outdoor gatherings are significantly lower risk, though they still require practicing physical distance. So the Session’s committees are considering what, if anything, they may want to try along those lines, and you may hear more about this after a few weeks.

In the meantime, as I have said before, our building may remain closed, but our congregation’s life and worship and ministry has never been more open. It has been one of the most meaningful seasons of my ministry to journey with you through these challenges, to see the ways in which we have met them together with courage, perseverance, compassion, wisdom, faithfulness, and love.

Truly, as my sermon series after Easter put it, this has been a season of “Love in the Time of Coronavirus.” As we continue into a new season with its own difficulties and opportunities, let us continue to do so in the spirit and practice of the love which we have received from God in Jesus Christ, and which we share in our life and ministry together.

Grace and Peace,
The Rev. J.C. Austin
Senior Pastor