I waited patiently for the LORD; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit and set my feet on a rock and gave me a form place to stand.
- Psalm 40: 1-2
As we adjust to a “new normal”, we also begin the process of a new normal for Redeemer. In the next few weeks we’ll be beginning a new adventure of shared ministry with Our Savior, Stanhope. What form this will take and what the particulars will be are yet to be determined. But one thing we can know is that it’s time for another Self-study.
To know where we want to go, and how to get there, we need to begin with where we are and how we got here. Many times the Psalms speak of paths or guiding our footsteps. We might recall Psalm 23’s words about “You lead me in the paths of righteousness for Your name’s sake,” or if you’re a child of the 80’s you might recall Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith’s musical rendition of Psalm 119:105 where we sing, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” In more modern poetry, you may be familiar with the Footprints in the Sand parable. In all these examples, it is God who is setting our feet upon a certain path. Where this path leads we may have only a vague idea, but we trust Him who is leading us.
So how does a congregational self-study fit into all this? Before beginning a journey - or even part way through - it’s good to look at a map, or Waze, Streetwize, or other GPS guidance system. It’s really hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re starting from. This is the purpose of a congregational self-study, to take a snapshot of where we are at and to look at how we got here. Then we can chart a course for where we want to go, what we need to “pack for the trip”, and what milestones we pass along the way.
The last time we did a self-study was after the retirement of Pastor Diamond in early 2010. Have things changed at Redeemer over the last 10 years? You bet! We are not the same congregation we were 10 years ago. You are not the same as you were 10 years ago. Maybe back in 2010, you weren’t retired yet, or your kids were still at home, or your health was much better than it is now. Perhaps you weren’t even part of Redeemer back then. We’ve all aged and changed in the last decade. For myself, ten years ago I was single (and a single parent), fighting a losing battle against clinical depression, moving to a new city, and starting a new call.
The same changes affect us as a congregation. We have grown older and our energy level is reduced. It takes longer to get going in the morning, and we don’t want to drive at night. Most of us are now on fixed incomes and struggling with rising expenses. Our health and vitality may be diminished both as individuals and collectively as a congregation. We simply cannot do what we did a decade ago.
In the last 10 years, I have done 6 weddings (not including my own), 4 or 8 baptisms (4 for preschool families who are not active members), confirmed 23 catechumens (of whom 2 are still active), received 8 transfers in or professions of faith, signed 23 transfers out, and officiated 42 funerals (7 of which were for family members of Redeemer members or other non-members). As many as have passed away have also moved away, some to be with family within NJ, but most out of state. Some others have simply stopped attending or transferred to other local churches. We are not the Redeemer of 2010 anymore - and haven’t been for some time.
So now it’s time to ask, “Who are we?” as a congregation. “What have we got that’s worth holding on to?” and “What are things that are keeping us from reaching our goals?” “What do we have to offer others?” A crucial question might be, “What would motivate someone to become a member here?” In the business world this is known as a SWOT analysis - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. What do we do well? What could we be doing better? What needs exist in our “target group” (the unchurched around us)? What would we need to overcome to reach them? Once we have the answers to these questions, then we can start to walk down this new path. If we skip this step we’ll be walking in the dark and it will be as “blind guides leading the blind” (Mt. 15:14).
This is also a critical step before joining together (even temporarily) with another congregation. What strengths might we have that can benefit another congregation? What strengths does the other congregation have that can support our weaknesses? Are we starting from a similar place and walking to the same goal? Without a self study there’s no way of knowing if the two congregations are even able to work together - but more on that next week. Doing a self study is usually the first step in the call process and is done within weeks of a vacancy. While Redeemer is not vacant - at least not yet - it is still a good exercise to go through as we prepare for the next chapter of Redeemer’s story.
It is my hope that the Redeemer leadership will be starting this soon. When the time comes, please give us your input. We don’t know if this will be by congregational mailings, phone interviews, or surveymonkey.com or some other method. We will need everyone’s response and thoughts on these matters so we can plan appropriately for our future together. If you’d like to help out with this, just drop pastor a line or speak to any member of our ministry board. I’m hopeful this can be completed on or before Reformation Day, but we’ll see how it goes.
Until next week, stay safe. Join us on Facebook Live Wednesday nights, worship with us either in person or via Zoom Sundays at 10:00, and keep an eye and an ear open for further updates. God’s peace be with you all.
- Pastor Brian
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work may be a joy and not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. -Hebrews 13:17
This coming Sunday (Aug. 2) we will have the honor of having our District President, Rev. Dr. Anthony Steinbronn, leading us in worship, preaching, and then staying around afterwards for a “talk with the President”. This post-service talk will be focused on the stated goals of this triennium (2019-2022) for the Synod as well as ministry plans for our New Jersey District. Especially poignant at this time will be a discussion about church organization and the lack of pastors for the growing number of older and smaller congregations. But just what can our District President do in regards to these grave facing the Church today?
To understand that we have to join Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the way-back machine and look at the founding of our Synod. Our journey begins at the 300th anniversary of the Reformation in Prussia, 1817. Throughout the 18th century, borders for countries were pretty fluid and by 1817 a (relatively) new kingdom comprised of the various German territories, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, part of the Czech Republic, and various bits and pieces of other Northeast European nations were all joined in the Kingdom of Prussia. This new(ish) kingdom also included the German territory of Saxony, was predominantly Lutheran. As with all other European nations, the State took care of the Church - maintained the buildings, appointed clergy, paid clergy salaries and the like. This is still a common practice in many parts of Europe today, the priests of the Church of England are paid by the taxes collected throughout Great Britain. These civil rulers did a pretty good job of assigning Lutheran preachers to Lutheran congregations and Calvinist preachers to Reformed churches and the like. All that changed in 1817.
That year the King of Prussia decreed that there would only be two church bodies “in all Royal Prussian lands”, namely a Roman Catholic body and a Protestant body. This meant that a Calvinist could preach that there is no forgiveness to be found in the Lord’s Supper (it’s just bread and wine and a memorial meal) and one cannot be certain of one’s salvation as God has already predestined who is saved and who is damned and there’s nothing you can do to know or change that predestination. And this errant teaching could be proclaimed from a Lutheran pulpit, since there was no longer any recognized distinction between Protestant bodies. As odd as this seems to us, it is still pretty common - the United States military has Catholic and Protestant chaplains and services, not Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, etc. Well, the Lutherans in Saxony who held to the clear teaching of Scripture, as systematized in the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, would have none of that.
But what were they to do? The only place in the world where they could practice according to their beliefs was the newly formed United States of America - a country only about 30 years old at that time. To finance his coming wars, the French Emperor, Napoleon sold a vast tract of land to Thomas Jefferson in 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase). This opened up vast tracts of land on either side of the Mississippi River to settlement and immigration. In 1838 a group of 665 Saxon Lutherans left Germany on 5 ships for the new world. Only 4 of the ships arrived in the port of New Orleans (the Amelia was lost at sea), and these Lutherans headed up the Mississippi to the French trading town of St. Louis.
They were led by a bishop named Martin Stephan. He took the title of Bishop for himself as he was the main organizer of the expedition to start a new Confessional Church body in America. The passengers agreed with his taking the title and also gave him much of the authority European bishops had over their flocks. He was in charge of the finances, the food, the places for settlement, and the supreme leader for all matters of faith and life. But it was not meant to last, by the end of 1838, bishop Stephan was caught in the act of adultery. He repented and was absolved, but the sexual misconduct soon resumed. In 1839, he was found to be embezzling funds from the settlement and so was banished to the other side of the Mississippi where he lived out the rest of his life. From that point on, the Missouri Lutherans have not trusted their bishops (even 180 years later) not used that title.
Rev. C.F.W. Walther was now the ranking clergyman and took over the spiritual care of the group, though the finances were now handled by an elected exchequer (treasurer). He refused to take the title of bishop as that had too many European connotations. In 1841 the question arose if they were even a church or part of the Church universal as they were not under the oversight of a duly appointed bishop. This question was settled in the Altenburg debates where it was determined that ecclesiastical forms do not make the Church, only the pure teaching of God’s Word and the administration of the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution. Bishops are nice to have, but not necessary to be the Church.
As Walther and others came to form the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and other states in 1847, they wrestled with how they would see that purity of life and doctrine was maintained and who had oversight of what the pastors were being taught, preaching, and teaching. Their solution, based on the United States democratic model, was to elect a President of the Synod and the Districts that make up said Synod followed suit in their District constitutions.
Okay, enough of the history lesson. But in knowing our denominational history we can begin to understand what we can expect of our ecclesiastical leaders. Our District Presidents (all 35 of them) are charged by our governing documents (constitution and by-laws), with preserving sound doctrine and furthering the aims of the Synod as set forth in the minutes from the most recent Synodical Convention. The purpose of a District President is to act as the representative of the Synod for the congregations within his district and any other churches we are in fellowship with.
The duties and authority of the District President are fairly limited in scope. Their purpose is to inform and advise. They have little compulsory power. For example, let’s say St. Mark’s Lutheran Church has a pastoral vacancy. The District President, as outlined in the by-laws, furnishes a list of names of pastors who have expressed interest in taking a new call. These names are given to the congregation, but the District President cannot compel St. Mark’s to select a certain pastor for the call. He can recommend and strongly advise one candidate over another, but he cannot force them to take a particular pastor nor can he simply assign one to St. Mark’s. The exception to this would be a 1st placement coming out of the Seminary. Likewise, the District President cannot order a congregation to close, form a dual parish, or otherwise reconfigure. Again, his powers are limited to presenting the best possible information and advising the congregation on what he sees as the best course of action for the congregation’s future in keeping with the ministry emphases of the Synod. In large part due to the history of Bishop Stephan, the District has no power whatsoever over the finances of a congregation. They cannot unilaterally acquire property or seize the assets of a congregation, nor can they disperse district funds to a congregation without special circumstances approved by the district Board of Directors.
The exception to this is in matters of doctrine. If a pastor is found to be preaching or teaching false doctrine and does not submit to brotherly correction, he may be removed from office. The process for this is not solely the purview of the District President and is much too lengthy to discuss here. If a congregation adopts practices outside of the doctrine of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and is not open to repentance and conformity with Scripture, then the District President can remove that congregation from the roster and Synod membership. This too is a long and complex process and is rarely needed. So the District President really only has the one arrow in his quiver - he is there mostly to inform and advise.
So why should we listen to him? As the District President, he has his finger on the pulse of congregations throughout the District. If Redeemer is facing some issue, odds are one or more of the other 45+ congregations in the District is wrestling, or has dealt with the same issue. As part of the Council of Presidents, he also meets 3x / year with all the other District Presidents. Who knows, maybe the Central Illinois District has figured out a viable solution to the issues we’re facing? He also meets and is in regular contact with Synod officials and the President of the Synod and can glean useful information from what is happening Synod-wide. He, and he alone, has this wealth of information and the mandate to deliver that intelligence to the congregations over which he presides. Beyond the knowledge, there is also an accumulated wisdom from decades of service to the Church. The District President is, generally speaking, among the oldest active servants of the Church (sorry Tony). There is much to be learned from such a long tenure and the advice should not be lightly dismissed. We should think of our District Presidents as a wealth of information and sound guidance, a great resource to help us plan how we can be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, ears, and especially mouth in our time and place.
So I hope you will join me in welcoming Pres. Steinbronn this Sunday to our worship service and further that you will stick around after service to hear what he has to say about the state of affairs at Redeemer, New Jersey District, and the Synod at large. Bring your questions and “put him on the spot”, that’s what he’s here for. With God’s Holy Spirit ruling our hearts and minds, guided by His Word, and with the counsel of our District President, I’m confident we can launch into a new and bright chapter of ministry in our little corner of New Jersey. See you on the 2nd!
- Pastor Brian
John, To the seven churches of the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth. - -Revelation 1:4-5a
For the last couple of weeks we’ve looked at what it means to have a pastor part time. If you haven’t read the “Part Time is Plenty” book by G. Jeffrey MacDonald yet, I highly recommend you go to Amazon or Nook and order it. Much of what has been presented these last few weeks is better explained there. We saw how some churches have their pastor working in another field throughout the week and only doing “church work” on Sundays. We also explored how sometimes two churches can work together to share a pastor. Today we’ll look at some ministry configurations which one might say are “out of the box”. These, to my knowledge, have not been implemented anywhere in the Synod, but they have been talked about a lot. Given the shortage of pastors and the increasing number of churches unable to support a full time pastor (even if linked with one other congregation) some of these may be coming soon to a Church District near you.
The first of these ministry options is what I like to call a Triad. This is when 3 churches call a pastor and support ministry staff. This support could be a vicar (pastoral intern), a deacon or deaconess, DCE, DCO, or other commissioned minister. This pairing, with lay staff support (Sunday School teachers, secretaries, elders, etc.) would then serve the ministerial needs of 3 congregations with each congregation keeping its own building, worship time / style, and traditions. These three would form one congregation from a District, political, perspective with one clergy and one lay vote in total at District Conventions. Also one of the churches, usually the one most centrally located, would become the administrative center for the triad.
For example, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church is in a demographically shifting suburb and the congregation has been declining the last 10 - 15 years, but they have a vibrant preschool and many young families in the community who are not (yet) part of the congregation. Their pastor of the last 22 years, now 67 years old, has announced his retirement. St. Mark’s Lutheran Church has an aging congregation and has not had a baptism (adult or infant) in the last 7 years. They are surviving by a large endowment fund, but their pastor has just taken a call to Indiana. St. Luke Lutheran Church had a congregational conflict which caused the pastor to resign and many of the members to leave the church, leaving them too small and financially distressed to consider calling a full time pastor. There are not three churches within their circuit (dual parishes generally do not cross circuit lines) for them to partner up with. St. Mark and St. Luke could partner, but then St. Matthew’s would have to close their doors. So what’s to be done?
After talking to their District President and working with their Circuit Visitor and District Vice-President, these three churches decide to become one church body. As there are three churches forming one “ministry unit” they thought the name Trinity Lutheran Church was appropriate. Each congregation will release itself from its current constitution and the leadership of all three churches will meet monthly, under the oversight of an interim pastor and District representatives, to set forth a new constitution binding upon all three of the congregations making up Trinity. They gave themselves “a year and a day” (must be Celts) to get this done. Once the new constitution is voted on by the congregations and ratified by the Synod, they would become a new congregation and able to issue a call. Until then they have been assigned an intentional interim pastor and a retired pastor from the District will also help with pastoral needs. Once they are able to call they plan on calling a pastor with 15 years+ experience and a Director of Christian Outreach. Should a Vicar become available, they may call one of these pastors-in-training as well. As St. Luke’s just completed a building drive and has a large, new office wing, the congregational “headquarters” will be there with a St. Mark and St. Matthew campus.
While this is a hypothetical example, given the demographics of our Synod and especially the New Jersey District, it’s not really so far-fetched.
Another way of organizing multiple congregations under one pastor is the Episcopal model. Episcopas is Greek for “bishop” or “overseer” and that is how the term is being used. All the churches, vacant or being served by pastors, come under the oversight of the episcopas - bishop. We see this in New testament times as Paul writes as “overseer of your souls'' to ALL the churches of Galatia and in the passage cited above we see John as the bishop of the seven churches of Asia. This would be one, called, ordained, trained, pastor overseeing 4-7 small churches in a particular geographic area. These churches would likely be too small to call on their own and pastoral needs are being handled by laity trained for the task (like our Leaders and Learners program of years past). The bishop rotates through the churches in his diocese on a regular basis and takes care of baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other functions calling for “a called and ordained servant of the Word.” The individual parishes contribute to the care and upkeep of their buildings, local ministries, and each contributes proportionately to the salary and benefits of the bishop. This model frees up most of a congregation’s time and finances to do the work of the church in their local community in whatever way works for that community. Of course the big drawback is Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession which states, “No one should preach, teach, nor administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” So how to do Holy Communion apart from the bishop’s visitation? We’re still working on that one.
There was quite a bit of “buzz” some years back about “House Churches” and this too falls under the episcopal format. Even if it is the “head of the household” teaching and preaching to his family and friends, oversight would still be needed. In the case of House Churches this oversight would be done by the local pastor, who would, in effect, become a bishop if there were but 2-3 house churches under his jurisdiction. Here to our understanding and practice of Article XIV is an issue.
The fact of the matter is that Scripture is silent on how congregations are to be organized and served. There is no command, nor prohibition against, how believers come together to do the work of the Church. Most of what we now practice has its roots in the Council of Nicaea (part 2) in 326 AD. THAT proper doctrine is to be preached and taught, certainly. HOW that is to be done, not so much. So we have incredible Christian freedom to organize in the best manner for the proclamation of the Gospel.
On August 2nd, after our 10 AM service, our District President, Rev. Dr. Anthony Steinbronn, will be joining us to further explore Redeemer’s next steps moving forward. This is not a voter’s meeting and no decisions will be binding, but it gives us an opportunity to explore some of these “novel” ways of “doing church”. I hope you’ll join us for this informal discussion time. Next week, in preparation for Pres. Steinbronn’s visit, we’ll look at what our Synod and District can and cannot do for congregations when they face a time of major transition. Until then, may God’s peace be and remain with you all.
- Pastor Brian
What, after all, is Apollos? What is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe - as the Lord assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.
I Corinthians 3:5-7
As we continue looking forward to the probable future of Redeemer, we saw last week that due to external and internal factors Redeemer as a sole pastor, independent congregation will not be possible in the near future. We began to look at what it means to have a "part-time pastor" last blog and we’ll continue that exploration this week.
There is one option of merging congregations I think I may have omitted last week. This would be two small congregations deciding to leave their buildings (sold or redeveloped) and buying a new parcel and constructing a new building equidistant to the two former locations. For example, if Redeemer, Newton and Prince of Peace, Hamburg were to merge / combine, they would each sell their church buildings and parsonages and then use those funds to purchase land / buildings in Sparta (roughly 1/2 way between the two) and start a new congregation with new articles of incorporation, constitutions, by-laws, and officers. This option is rarely done due to an “edifice complex” where people are attached more to the building than to the Lord whose building it is, but it does remain an option.
The most typical way of transitioning to part time pastoral coverage is to form a dual-parish arrangement. This method has a long history in our Synod and is fully recognized by Synodical officers. My first call was to such an arrangement in rural Nebraska and now many dual parishes have moved from rural to more urban centers.
In short, two congregations would “share” a pastor and the costs associated thereof. The division may be 50/50 (typical) or 80/20 or anything in between. How much of the pastor’s time “belongs” to each congregation would need to be sorted out before a call is issued and the particulars as to who is responsible for what laid out in the supplement to the vocation which accompanies the call. Both congregations would keep their buildings (and the expenses pertaining thereto) and non-pastoral staff (organists / musicians, janitorial, school, etc.). Both congregations would need to work with each other instead of against each other as so often happens. For example, if the pastor is to be at Church A on Thursdays for the ladies’ aid Bible study, but has a funeral for a member of Church B that same day / time - how do you handle it?
As can be seen above, the main “problem” with this arrangement is the unrealistic expectation of full time pastoral coverage with part time compensation and prior commitments. One of the biggest questions to be dealt with is the Sunday morning schedule. The pastor cannot be in two places at 10 AM every Sunday. If the churches are close enough together (as most dual parishes are) it is possible that the pastor could lead service at Church A at 9 AM and then (traffic permitting) lead services at Church B at 11 AM. Sadly, many churches would rather close than adjust their service times. This happens both formally and informally, Formally, one church removes itself from the dal parish agreement (called a Concord) and then closes its doors. More often it happens informally as some members of church A decide that 9 AM is too early to get up and be ready for church, so they stop coming. Or church B decides 11 AM is too late and that “church takes up the whole day” and so go elsewhere or nowhere. The result is the same, there are too few people (remember the critical mass blog?) to keep this dual parish operational. This is especially true of “special services” like Easter morning and Christmas Eve. BOTH congregations need to be flexible as to their service times for this to work.
Another thing to remember is that these are two independent congregations, each with their own demographics, histories, traditions, and needs. It is not uncommon for them to have two very different worship styles. In my first call the “old” church used Lutheran Worship (LSB wouldn’t come out for another 7 years), the “new” church was still using TLH from 1941 (remember page 5 or 15?). One may have traditional worship and the other a contemporary service. One may be primarily young families with children and the other more mature members. Thus the pastor would need to craft two very different worship services and two completely different sermons, even if the two churches shared the same text. This doubling of preparation time would take away from the pastor’s availability for other ministries throughout the week - remember, he is still working the same # of hours, just in / for two or more locations. There may be 2 shut-ins at one church and 7 at the other, so how do you arrange for a “prefect” 50 / 50 split? How do you deal with Confirmation Class? What about administrative meetings (council, board, voters)?
There are many things that go into forming a dual parish, any one of which could dissolve the agreement / concord. Thus while an attractive option, it works out on paper more often than in reality.
Another model gaining some headway in districts and the Synod as a whole is the “Circuit Rider'' model, which was used by our Synod in its earlier years so there is historical precedent for it. In this model the pastor is called by the Circuit, not one or more congregations. He is then “vacancy” pastor for all congregations in that circuit which called him. At any given time there may be 2-5 vacancies in a circuit and this number is expected to grow as more pastors retire, fewer enter or complete seminary training, and more congregations fall below that “critical mass”. The Circuit Ride would, well, ride (though drive would be the term in the 21st Century) to each of the churches in rotation. The first Sunday, he may be at church B and the second Sunday at church D, and the third Sunday preach and consecrate at church A and so on. While he’s in town, he would visit the sick and shut in and perhaps lead a Bible study or attend an administrative meeting. His compensation package would be split between the 3-4 churches he rides to and possibly with some help from the other churches in the circuit or the district.
So what do these churches do the other 3 Sundays of the month? Well that seems to be the biggest impediment to implementing this plan. Many churches have gone to Communion every Sunday, whereas in the past a monthly reception of the Lord’s Supper was more the norm. Pre-consecrating the elements is not in keeping with our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as laid out in Holy Scripture, and is therefore discouraged. Video streaming (e.g. Kairos) could be an option, as could lay led services. However the non-Communion service happens, the congregations in the Circuit Rider’s zone would have to be comfortable receiving Christ’s body and blood only once a month or be willing to travel to where the pastor is that week.
The other issue with the Circuit Rider is political. Do the 3 or 4 congregations served by the Rider = 1 congregational delegate for District conventions? Can the Rider serve as the circuit’s pastoral delegate for the Synodical convention? Do each of the congregations get a vote for their Circuit Visitor? These and other issues are generating much discussion right now in Church Polity classes at our seminaries, but as of yet no formal statements have been made by the Synod as to suffrage.
Next week, we’ll look at some “out of the box” options when it comes to pastoral coverage. Until then, check your mailbox at church (now open with Covid-19 safety protocols in place) for a letter to help prepare you for our District President’s Sunday which will be August 2nd at our normal worshiping time.
These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven lamp stands…You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.
- Revelation 2:1, 4b-5
Warning: If you are easily offended, shocked, or scared you may wish to skip this
blog. If you think you can handle the truth, even if painful, then read on.
Last week we looked at the ongoing challenges to the Church presented by Covid-19 and the governmental response to it. Stay at home orders, restrictions on public gatherings, social distancing, and many other responses to this pandemic will likely be with us for a few years to come. Even if (and its a big if) a safe and effective virus can be developed, it will still take a year or more to make over 300 million doses for the US, distribute them to doctors, and give them patients. It is estimated that we would need 70-80% of the population vaccinated to create “herd immunity” and thus be safe (a relative term) against this pathogen. This assumes the virus does not mutate - which viruses are well known to do. So we may be dealing with this external “threat” for some time.
But there are also internal issues, ones we have some control over, that also should make us question whether reopening is the best thing to do. I think a good way of describing this is to look at the church like a nuclear power plant. I know nuclear physics is far more complex and nuanced than I’ll explain here, but bear with me.
In its most basic form a nuclear power plant is a controlled thermonuclear bomb. Instead of all the energy being released at once, it is a controlled reaction. An amount of fissile (splittable) material, usually Uranium235, is split by neutrons into the lighter elements of Krypton (sorry Superman) and Barium. This splitting releases more neutrons which impact more atoms of U235 and a large amount of gamma, x-ray, and infrared (heat) radiation. This infrared radiation or heat turns water into steam which drives turbines which generates electricity.
The first problem is that U235 is very rare in nature - less than .035% of all uranium. More than 98% of the uranium in the world is U238, which can be split but does not shed extra neutrons to sustain a reaction. So the uranium must first be enriched. Usually this is done by spinning the ore in a centrifuge and the heavier U238 is separated from the lighter U235. For every ton of uranium put in the centrifuge only 2 - 4 ounces of U235 emerges. It is only enriched uranium that is capable of sustained fission reactions.
So what does that have to do with the Church? As you know the Church is made up of believers, but not all believers are the same. Some are labeled as being more “mature” in their faith or more “practiced”. I prefer the term “enriched”. Those that practice the disciplines of a disciple tend to be more “energetic” in living out their faith. Things like frequent and regular worship, prayer, tithing and / or giving of time, talents, and treasures, service to congregation and community are all hallmarks of this enrichment process. How many members of Redeemer are actively involved in these enrichment activities? Without a certain amount of these enriched disciples, the church will lose power and eventually grow cold and shut down. This brings us to our next point.
Not only does a reactor need enriched uranium to operate, it needs a certain amount of it, known as a critical mass. If there are not enough atoms for the newly freed neutrons to collide with, the reaction will slow or cease altogether. The same is true of a congregation. There needs to be a particular number of people connected to that congregation for the congregation to be sustainable and viable. Church demographers vary in their opinions as to how many are needed to support a full time pastor, organist, and other staff and also do the work of enriching and reaching out that the Church is called to do. Numbers vary but most seem to think that 50-75 average attendance in worship is what’s needed to keep a church running (keep the reaction going - the critical mass). Sometimes it may be less if there are endowments or other resources or if the fewer than 50 is especially “enriched”, but this is rare. We just had our reopening service with 33 in attendance. Can we keep our building, programs, and staff at current levels with only 33 people? Probably not.
The other way critical mass manifests itself is in offerings. While the church is not and never has been a business with finance as its primary concern, funds are needed for the church to do what it is called to do. We have done a fairly good job of limiting expenses and our operational costs are much the same as they were 10 years ago. Yet we have a bit less than 1/2 the people we did 10 years ago. That means to pay for operations at 2010 levels (and we know prices have risen for everything from what they were in 2010) each person would need to give twice as much as they did in 2010. If we stay at an attendance rate of 33, then each person would need to give 3x what they did 10 years ago - and that’s if expenses are able to be kept at 2010 levels. As we see from the financial reports, this has not happened and by the end of October we will be unable to fully pay our bills or compensate our staff - both called and hired. It’s not really a matter of “people not giving enough” it’s more a matter of “Not enough people giving.”
So what can we do about this? How can we avoid either a meltdown or a cold core? There are many options, all them carrying differing levels of risk and discomfort as we move into this “new normal”. Some may not work out as planned due to forces beyond our control which we have no foreknowledge of - like a second shut down with a “2nd wave” in October / November or some other natural disaster. Our District President will be with us in early August and after leading the service, he’ll be having an open discussion on transitioning to a part-time pastor. We’ll look at some of these part-time pastorate models in next week’s blog.
Whatever the future holds for Redeemer, there is one thing we can count on. That one thing is that God will never leave us or forsake us. Congregations come and go, but the Church will endure until Christ’s return. The love of God in Christ Jesus is not bound to a place, time, or particular way of doing things. Even in challenging times such as these, we can look forward in the sure and certain hope that we are not on our own, but that God is with us wherever we may go, so we go forth without fear. May God’s peace remain with you all.
- Pastor Brian
These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven lamp stands…You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.
- Revelation 2:1, 4b-5
Warning: If you are easily offended, shocked, or scared you may wish to skip this
blog. If you think you can handle the truth, even if painful, then read on.
On June 15, Governor Murphy set forth the guidelines for indoor gatherings. Now we, provided certain safety measures are met, can gather for worship once more. While we can reopen, the question remains if we should reopen. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that it is the best thing to do - see I Cor. 6:12
While we have measures in place to reduce the rate of viral transmission, there is no way of eliminating viral spread. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, and it will do what a virus does, which is to mutate and spread until it has infected every person it possibly can. Even if we were to mask at all times and stay home for weeks on end; the virus would still find a way to get to you - that’s just what viruses do. We saw that the infection rate (# of positive test results, hospitalizations, and deaths) continued to skyrocket even after businesses were closed and people told to stay in their homes. If the corona virus is still “a clear and present danger”, why then are we gathering for worship?
Well, it really boils down to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper and what it means to be the Church. I know of some churches in our area that already have reopened, others (like Redeemer) that are opening soon, and others which will not reopen until much later. Those that are holding off reopening until August or September (or later) are doing so, in part, to see if gathering for worship leads to a “spike” in Covid-19 cases or not. Also the guidance for reopening seems to shift from week to week and many are waiting for “the final word” of which mitigation measures are effective and which were wishful thinking. One of the unifying traits of all the churches that are delaying reopening is a Calvinistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper - be it Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed, or other.
In these church bodies, the Lord’s Supper is seen as merely a memorial meal; it is an “object lesson” given to help us remember what Christ has done for us. This is due to a magisterial use of reason which says that “is” must mean something other than “is” because Christ’s physical body and blood could not be present in, with, and under the earthly forms of bread and wine. This bread and wine (or grape juice for Methodists) cannot be Christ’s body and blood because that wouldn’t make sense. Since it is not Christ’s body and blood, the words of John 6:53-59 do not apply and God’s gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life are not given through the Lord’s Supper. Thus skipping the Lord’s Supper is no big deal.
It’s entirely different for we who hold to God’s Word as infallible and doing what it says it will do. When Jesus said, “This is my body”, He meant this IS His body - we don’t know how it is His body, but that is what He said. If He meant that it only “represents” His body and blood, He would have used words such as like or as - this bread is like my body, which is given for you. That’s how He did it with the parables and many other teachings, but not at the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Here there is no like or as or metaphorical speech, so we must accept that what He said is true or make Him to be a liar.
If this really is His body and blood, and, according to John 6, only those who eat of His flesh and drink of His blood have eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and salvation from everlasting death, then we would have to physically eat and drink of His body and blood to obtain those gifts. Simply watching it on Zoom or remembering His Passion is not enough; we must “take and eat, the body of Christ, broken for you.” and “take also and drink the true blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” This is the primary way that the forgiveness of sins becomes real to us. Yes, we also receive the forgiveness of sins through the pronouncement of absolution by Christ’s representative, but it is through the Sacrament of the Altar that we can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear the forgiveness of sins given to us through Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.
Given the importance of this Sacrament and the fact that it cannot be live streamed or delivered in any other way than in person, we gather to receive the gifts of God. How long can one go without receiving the Sacrament? That’s going to vary person to person. There were times in our LCMS history where once a month was considered enough. Other times in our history we opted for quarterly or every other week - as we did with our drive through distribution. But if we open up our Bibles and Small Catechisms we’ll find that the Lord’s Supper was the central point of God’s people gathering together and Luther instructs young and old to partake of the Sacrament as often as it is offered. In Luther’s time that was daily! So we make the decision to resume gathering, in part, due to the necessity of offering the Lord’s Supper to souls in need of God’s grace and mercy.
The other reason to reopen has to do with our understanding of worship as a participatory event. Worship is not passive, where you just sit back and absorb what’s being “performed”. Bible reading and prayer can be done alone, singing of hymns and songs can be done solo or in small groups, but worship requires the body of Christ to assemble at a set place and time. We looked at this is past blogs and there explained how Zoom services and podcasts and other “stay at home” worship-like events aren’t really worship at all. We are commanded to worship in the 3rd Commandment and other places in Scripture.
Worship is not optional for a Christian. Those who claim to be Christian but say they do not need to join with others for worship “deceive themselves and the truth is not in them”. (I John 1:8b). While we were forced to suspend gathering in person for 3 months, some congregations in the mission field often only gathered for worship on a quarterly basis- usually for the great feasts of the Church year; Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week / Easter, and Pentecost; but this was always seen as less than ideal and the model of gathering on the Lord’s Day was to be preferred. We cannot simply disregard the Third Commandment and think that there are no consequences to us as individuals and as a congregation.
While these are the two primary reasons why we reopen earlier rather than later, there are many other reasons why we should pause and ask “Should we reopen?” Is this corona-virus and the changes wrought by it the final “nail in the coffin lid” and so is it time we consider closing out church doors for good? We’ll look at these next week and President Steinbronn will be coming to Redeemer soon to further explore these issues. Until then let us take advantage of the fact that we can gather for worship still to receive the blessings of Almighty God and know His peace. Amen.
- Pastor Brian
Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise Him in His mighty heavens; praise Him for His acts of power; praise Him for His surpassing greatness. Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise Him with the harp and lyre; praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. - Psalm 150
So how have you been spending your days while under the stay at home directives? I’ve been going through my CD collection and seeing what I can convert to digital or download into the cloud still haven’t figured out how to listen to the cloud in the car yet, so I’ll hold on to the CDs. I even found some “old” cassette tapes, better get out the q tips and rubbing alcohol and see if I can fire up a tape deck. No 8-tracks! I’m old but I’m not THAT old.
Anyway, my last few blogs have been pretty serious, so I thought I’d have a little fun with this one. Some of my favorite songs are songs that set a story to music. Thus a lot of my repertoire is of the folk music / 60’s protest genre. A good example of this is “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot. But dome of my favorites from all genres are those that are introduced by, interrupted by, or ended with a spoken monologue. So this week, I’d like to play “Name that Tune” using just the spoken parts of various songs - some of which you may know. I’ll post the answers at the end, but it’s no fair skipping ahead. Good luck!
#1 Breathe deep the gathering gloom; watch lights fade from every room;
Bedsitter people look back in lament, another day’s useless energies spent
Impassioned lovers wrestle as one, lonely man cries out for love and has none
New mother picks up and suckles her son. Senior citizens wish they were young
O cold hearted orb that rules the night, removing colours from our sight.
Red is grey and yellow white, but we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.
#2 On the side of a hill in the deep forest green
Tracing of sparrow on snow crested ground
In blankets and bed clothes the child of the mountains
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call
On the side of a hill, with a sprinkling of leaves
She washes the grave with silvery tears
A soldier cleans and polishes a gun
War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions
Generals order their soldiers to kill
And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten
#3 Oh my God, Becky, look at her butt! It is sooo big.
She looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
Who understands those rap guys? They only talk to her ‘cause she looks
like a total prostitute, okay? I mean, her butt, it’s just so big. Ughh.
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s out there, I mean, uggh, gross!
#4 O for a voice like thunder, and a tongue to drown the throat of war
When the senses are shaken, and the soul is driven to madness, Who can stand?
When the souls of the oppressed fight in the troubled air that rages, who can stand?
When the whirlwind of fury comes from the throne of God, when the frowns of
his countenance drives the nations together, who can stand?
When Sin claps his broad wings over the battle,
and sails rejoicing in the flood of death;
When souls are torn to everlasting fire, and fiends of Hell rejoice upon the slain.
O who can stand?
O who hath caused this? O who can answer at the throne of God? The Kings
and Nobles of the Land have done it! Hear it not, Heaven, thy Ministers have
#5 Darkness falls across the land The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood To terrorize your neighborhood
And whomsoever shall be found Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell And rot inside a corpse's shell.
The foulest stench is in the air The funk of forty thousand years
And grisly ghouls from every tomb Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist The evil of the thriller (maniacal laughter)
Have you guessed yet? Song #1 never made it very far on the billboard charts, but it always places in the top 5 of make-out songs - Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues, released in 1967. The second song came out in 1966 as the US was becoming embroiled in a war in southeast Asia. The songwriters wrote a “canticle” which Paul Simon sung / spoke as Art Garfunkel carried the melody to a medieval ballad called Scarborough Faire. #3 I wasn’t sure if I was going to put on, but one cannot hear this intro and not know “Baby’s Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot. You almost have to hear it in a Valley Girl accent. The fourth is one of my favorites and is actually part of a poem written by William Blake in 1810. It is read by Lord Douglas Campbell of the Royal Edinburgh Shakespeare Company. It is an epilogue to Loreena McKennitt’s “Lullaby” which was released in 1985. I highly recommend you-tubing this to hear it read properly. The last one I hope you got. If you need a clue, think Vincent Price, for this is the epilogue from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” of 1982.
So why these five? I’m sure that you may have other songs which have monologues before, during, or after the music. The point is that music can move us and lift our hearts and imaginations to places we’d never otherwise go. The Psalmists also had this heart of a poet, though it gets a bit lost in translation sometimes. Music, poetry, the arts in general have a special place in our hearts and minds and every so often we may hear an echo of heaven. Happy listening.
- Pastor Brian
I rejoiced when they said unto me, “Let us go up to the house of the LORD!”
- Psalm 122:1
So are you ready to go back to Church? This may not be the right question to be asking. It might be better to ask, “Is the Church ready for people to come back?” The CDC recently released interim guidance for houses of worship planning to reopen. This can be found at the CDC website - CDC.gov and in the search box type in “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith”. This guidance was published May 28 and as it is interim guidance, we know it will likely change before final guidelines are issued. In the meantime, there are several questions that need to be asked and answered to see if we are “ready” to start in person worship services again. Some of these have already been addressed by the ministry and executive boards, others will be taken up at our next meeting a few weeks before we reopen.
The first thing to note about guidance - whether from CDC, Governor Murphy, District or Synod - is that every congregation is unique and not all guidelines will apply to all congregations equally. The first thing that needs to be established is how high on the risk scale does Redeemer fall. Is our congregation mostly older members (55+) and/or comprised of people with underlying risk factors. The average age of those in the pews prior to Covid-19 was 61.3 years old. MOST of our members are in the “high risk” category, so we would want to be more cautious than a congregation of fit and healthy 30-40 year olds. With a vaccine 6-18 months away, and no effective treatment for Covid-19 yet (though some drugs are showing some promise), gathering for worship to lead to more harm than good.
Also within our demographics, do we have enough low-risk people to handle what would need to be done to safely reopen? Someone will need to clean and sterilize the facility after each worship service - are they sufficiently low risk as to not get infected / hospitalized in carrying out this function. Do we have enough gloves and / or other PPE for those tasked with preparing and/ or cleaning the facility? Someone will need to handle the offering envelopes and communion-ware. Greeters, ushers, and choirs will likely not be part of worship in the foreseeable future - but more on worship changes next week.
We also need to consider our building / physical plant. Do we have enough space to rope off every other row of pews and establish 6ft of distance between family groups within pews? Given we normally worship 50 in a sanctuary with seating for 150, this shouldn’t be a problem for us. One of the guidelines calls for “unidirectional flow of foot traffic”. In other words, are our entrances and exits set up such that we can have one-way movement of people entering and exiting the building? Redeemer’s sanctuary is not really built for that, but by staggering entrance and exit times, we can make sure people can safely enter and exit the sanctuary - it just may take a bit longer to get everyone in and out. Also recommended is signage showing flow of traffic and postings about Covid-19 and its symptoms and where to go for testing. That can be easily achieved.
The next set of questions has to do with worship particulars and we’ll address this more in next week’s blog. Can we worship without hymnals? (paper is very difficult to disinfect) Can we worship without bulletins? Should we or should we not sing? Singing apparently produces more “respiratory droplets” which is the chief way Covid-19 spreads. Is it worship without hymnody? Can we do a contact-less offering (no passing of a plate)? What about Communion - can you take Communion in a mask? How do we take attendance in case contact-tracing becomes necessary?
The next series of questions has to do with providing for proper hygiene and sanitation. Should the bathrooms be open during worship? The best suggestion to date is “do your business before you come” and keep the bathrooms closed. They would need to be re-sanitized after each user which would be difficult as worship is happening. What about frequently touched surfaces like door handles? Maybe we should just leave the doors open and take our chances of a squirrel running in. BTW I now have Ray Stevens’ “The Great Mississippi Squirrel Revival” running through my head - you should YouTube it if you want a good laugh. Do we have enough hand sanitizer for the expected number of worshipers? Where do we put it? This may lead to a new church tradition not entirely unlike having a trough of holy water to use upon entrance to the sanctuary. Should the congregation purchase masks for any who may show up without one? Will we usher out anyone who refuse to keep their mask on? What else might the church have to do to create a “safe space” and who will be tasked with making it so?
So, are you ready to come back to church? If you’re like me, you have been itching for the day when our exile from the Lord’s house is at an end and God’s family can gather around His table of grace again. Once Gov. Murphy lifts the restriction on gatherings of up to 50 in enclosed areas I will very likely respond the way the Psalmist did as cited above. But is the church ready for you to come back? Well, we’re working on it. We hope to have all these (and many other) questions resolved before Gov. Murphy lifts executive order 107 - or the NJ Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional. It is our hope to go above and beyond the minimal guidance from the CDC and other authorities so we can worship and enjoy at least seeing each other (while staying 6 ft, apart) once more. Keep checking out this blog and other announcements on our website and make sure your Redeemer emails aren’t going to your spam folder as we’ll try to keep you up to date as conditions change.
As one of our old hymns says, “God be with you til we meet again”. Remember we have Facebook live at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and we alternate Zoom services and regular podcasts (podcasts are also available Zoom weeks). I look forward to being with you again soon (hopefully).
- Pastor Brian
He said to me, “It is finished. I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” - Revelation 21:6
How does this end? It’s a good question to ask before undertaking a task, what is the “end game”? How are we to know when something is finished? As we continue our look at the ending of this current pandemic (and how plagues have ended in the past), it might be helpful to review last week’s blog. We looked at the medical ending - when there are no more cases or very few and the pathogen has finished sickening and killing the bulk of the population. We looked at the political ending, when the governing authorities say it is “safe” (relatively speaking) to go to the beach, get a haircut, go to church, and otherwise reopen stores and resume life in a new normal. But there is a third way, and this way is by far the most common. This is the popular ending - when the populace decides to come out of hiding.
Throughout history, most plagues struck quickly and were resolved quickly - usually within a month. In that time either you got sick or you didn’t. Those in your village either recovered or died. But the plague (of whatever pathogen caused it) would not linger more than a month or so before moving to the next village. At some point, the residents of that village would do what we call a risk / benefits analysis and decide that the risk of contracting the plague was less than the benefit of resuming work or other activities. For example; say you were living in England in 1349 and the bubonic plague came to your little village. You made your ring of roses, and filled your pockets with pansies (posies), you have no “achoo’s” or other symptoms of the plague, and your crops are awaiting harvest in the fields. If you leave the safety of your home, you might catch the plague, but if you stay quarantined from the world your crops will rot in the fields and you’ll have nothing to feed yourself with. There is a small window for making hay, bringing in the sheaves, etc. So do you go out and harvest (go back to work) or do you stay home and maybe starve? Most would probably go back to their vocation as the risks of the plague are less than the risks of starvation or economic ruin by resuming one’s vocation.
The same is happening in our world with all the “reopen ____” protests. Even though the medical advice says to stay home and the government has not authorized reopening, many are doing it anyway. In their minds, the risks of staying at home and not working are greater than the risk that they would catch Covid-19 or the risk that if they did get the virus that it would seriously harm them (less than 30% need medical intervention). We see this with worship as well. This weekend (5/31) as the Church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, some 1,300 congregations in California have signed a petition stating that they will be open for services (following safety protocols as directed) - whether the governor lifts the stay-at-home orders or not. These 1,300 congregations have come to the conclusion that the harm caused by continued lack of worship is greater than either the legal harm from the state (fines, etc.) or harm to the health of their members and communities (why safety practices are in effect). As of yesterday (5/25) the governor yielded to the will of the people and lifted the ban on church gatherings - so long as social distancing and other safety protocols were met.
This is the traditional way a pandemic comes to an end. SARS-CoV2(a,b,&d) might be with us for years to come; just like influenza virus and pneumococcal bacteria and a host of other microscopic pathogens. Eventually we learn to mitigate the risks these microbes impose and go about our lives again - with some changes as we’ve already seen. Eventually the “non-essential businesses” will become essential, as they would already have closed for good if they served no needs; I’m thinking haircuts at the moment. These businesses will reopen with or without Governor Murphy’s say so. They will resume providing the goods and services they do with or without the CDC declaring an “end” to this pandemic. We see this in the “phased re openings” and in news stories about businesses defying lock down orders and serving their customers. We saw this at the outset of stay at home orders where liquor stores and abortion clinics were deemed “essential” even if churches and delis were not. Throughout history it has been the will of the people crying out “Enough!” that makes governments change their tune and the populace determining just how much risk they are willing to take.
As President Trump last week declared that houses of worship are essential for a healthy society and the CDC itself has estimated some 75,000 “deaths of despair” (suicide, overdoses, alcohol poisonings) caused by a 65+ day lock down, it seems that worship as a congregation will resume shortly. I have not yet heard whether Gov. Murphy shares the President’s opinion that churches are essential and it is up to the one who issued Executive Order 107 to rescind said order. Some states have placed limits on executive orders (30 or 60 days then they automatically expire). So while we have not heard a date when worship is allowable (i.e. no fines / jail time for worshiping as E.O. 107 dictates), there is some talk of the next phase of relaxation of restrictions coming June 5th. We can only wait and see when we will be able to worship without penalty once more and take such steps as to ensure the health and well being of both our worshipers and our community is preserved. We will look at how we can worship AND stay safe in next week’s blog.
As far as pandemics go, this is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. We now need to figure out how we are to live with this new corona virus strain and lessen the risks of infection. It will be a new normal in our schools, churches, businesses, places of recreation, and all other aspects of life. We will not be going back to the way things were in February.
But even with all these changes, we keep in mind Him who is both the Beginning and the Ending of all things. The Alpha and Omega, our Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We place our hope and our trust in His almighty hand, knowing that He loves us and will never forsake us no matter what calamity might befall. To Him be glory and praise forever and ever. Amen.
How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?…But I trust in Your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me. - Psalm 13:1,5-6
What began on March 16 as a 14 day voluntary suspension of activity has now morphed into a complex and confusing series of CDC guidance, federal recommendations, state executive orders with sporadic enforcement, and a “reopen” protest movement. Now on day 63 (as of this writing), those first 14 days when we had hoped to “flatten the curve” by “stay home, stay safe” seem a distant memory. The number of new positive test results and hospitalizations and deaths has been at a plateau since the end of April. Beaches and boardwalks are able to reopen - with certain restrictions, yet graduations, funerals, weddings, and other events where more than 10 people gather are still outlawed. And so we wonder, how long until we can worship again? When will this pandemic and the mitigation factors come to an end?
That all depends on how you determine the “end”. Historically, plagues (pandemics) have ended one of two ways - either the pathogen “burns itself out” or the people decide that the risk of infection is not as great as the consequences of continued isolation and economic impacts. In 21st Century America we have a third option which has not been used before in Western history - a political end. We’ll look at each of these and see if they give any guidance to “how long?” questions.
Pestilence, pandemics, plagues, etc. Have been with humankind for our entire recorded history. Those who hold to the theory of evolution state that bacteria and viruses are among the oldest life forms on earth - predating humans by billions of years. While we didn’t know about these pathogenic life forms until the invention of the microscope in 1625 and didn’t know how to treat them until Louis Pasteur’s work in the mid 1800’s. Penicillin, the first of all antibiotics was not available to the public until March of 1945. In only 75 years we have created hundreds if not thousands of antibiotics to deal with plagues. Yet viruses, being a genetic strand surrounded by a protein coat, are constantly mutating. That’s why we need a flu shot every year because there’s always a new version of a virus looking for a host. The same is true of SARS-CoV2. We now have SARS-CoV2a (Wuhan), SARS-CoV2b (Seattle), and SARS-CoV2d (New York) - I don’t know what happened to variant c. And this is in just the 5-6 months this virus has existed.
The way plagues have worked in the past is that a pathogen would enter an area by some means (vector) - insect borne, humans from abroad, shifting climate patterns, etc - and then infect a local area. Those people may travel to a neighboring village or even internationally (Crusades, exploration) and bring the pathogen to a new place.
Infection would spread quickly through the population and those infected would have 2 responses. They would all get sick, but some would recover and develop immunity and others would die of the microbe. Either way the pathogen would no longer have anyone new to infect and so the plague would end for the survivors of that generation. This is the “herd immunity” model that we hear about on the news. In an age with vaccines and antibiotics this historical way of plague formation may not repeat itself.
So looking at the medical method of determining an end, it’s really hard. Only 2 pathogens have ever been declared “ended” by the medical community - smallpox and polio. Smallpox still exists in bioweapons labs, and a variant of polio exists that still affects deer and goats but is not transmissible to humans. For a pandemic to be “over” from this perspective, there must be ZERO new cases in a year worldwide. The bubonic plague (aka Black Death) that ravaged Europe in 1348-1350 and caused about 80% mortality in those who were infected (40-50% of the entire population of Europe) is still with us. There were cases of yersinia pestis in Arizona and New Mexico just this past December. It is now easily treated with antibiotics, but the disease causing bacterium is still alive and well on fleas on rats just as it’s ever been. I don’t think the medical / infectious disease community will be saying Covid-19 is “done” anytime soon.
This poses a problem for the modern way of determining when a pandemic is over. The political model is a relatively new way of dealing with the spread of disease. Never before has the government issued executive orders curtailing the Constitutional freedoms of Americans due to a medical crisis. The last time the US had a pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. The government asked churches to close and public gatherings to be suspended. As we still trusted the government back then, most businesses, bars, and churches willingly shut down for a few weeks or months. We should also note that back in 1918 we were just getting out of WWI and over 90% of the population still lived on farms and were “socially distanced”. Now with executive orders determining which businesses are “essential” and which are not, and with the power to compel compliance through prison and / or fines, we find ourselves in uncharted waters. Wisconsin, like many other states, limited the power of the executive branch to 30 days. A governor can take up emergency powers and do as he (or she) pleased, but only for 30 days or the end of the incident prompting the emergency. For anything more than that, the state’s legislature (the branch responsible for making laws) would have to weigh in and extend them. New Jersey has no such prohibition. Historically this has always been bad. There is usually some “emergency” that drives the leader to take on emergency powers, always with the assurance that those powers will be laid down after the emergency is over. The problem with this is that the emergency never ends. Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Machievelli, and many other dictators throughout history have followed this pattern. Even Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars uses this model.
Given the criteria for the medical community declaring an end to the emergency situation, it is unlikely that a government where “Data determines dates” is going to call an end to the pandemic anytime soon. Another issue with this way of ending a pandemic response is the determination of data. As we have more testing done, there will be more confirmed positive cases. We still have an average of 62% of those testing positive having NO symptoms, and another 26% listing the symptoms as mild or moderate. Of the remaining 12% requiring hospitalization, the mortality rate is staggering (over 75%). The listing of “deaths due to Covid-19” is also problematic. If a 76 year old, obese, male with history of heart disease and diabetes (type 2 progressing to type 1) passes away after testing positive for Covid-19, what is listed as “cause of death”? The way reporting is done now, that heart attack would be listed as a Covid-19 death - even if the Corona virus was just a contributing factor. So waiting on the government to say the pandemic is past may be a long wait.
The last way a pandemic ends is when the populace says “enough is enough”. This happens when the common man decides that the risk of catching or suffering from the pathogen is less than the risk of harm that would come from continued quarantine. The farmer has to bring his crops to market, or they will rot in the field and lead to famine - which is worse? The baker needs to fire up his ovens and bake bread for the village or people will starve - what is the greater danger? Many of the protests we see on the news and businesses reopening in defiance of executive orders fall into this category. We’ll look at this in more detail and how it applies to churches resuming their “business” of Word and Sacrament next week.
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.