“Below 250 participants where possible”: Church leaders respond to latest advisory on social distancing
Gabriel Ong and Gracia Chiang // March 13, 2020, 7:31 pm
From left: Redemption Hill Church's Lead Pastor Simon Murphy; Bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore Rev Dr Chong Chin Chung, Calvary Assembly of God's Senior Pastor Timothy Eu
Most of the churches Thir.st spoke to are making plans to adjust their worship services in response to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s address to the nation yesterday and additional guidelines announced today by the Ministry of Health.
At least one church is suspending services, while others are decentralising services.
Grace Assembly of God, which announced it was working towards resuming services this weekend after more than a month’s break, has also decided its services and activities will remain suspended. The church was one of the biggest COVID-19 clusters in Singapore.
Redemption Hill Church (RHC) shared that it would be “closing services this Sunday” in the light of the new advisory.
An official announcement on RHC’s website explained the rationale: “Whilst gathering with the church under normal circumstances is a priority for God’s people, due to the many new developments since 12 March 2020, we feel the need to close our Sunday services effective this Sunday, 15 March and instead, move to a 10.00am livestreamed service for the whole church.
“Many of you have written to express thanks that we have not shut down our services until this point, so we do not take this decision lightly. However, we believe this is the wisest move as we join the Government in delaying the spread of the virus in Singapore.”
On the extraordinary decision, Lead Pastor Simon Murphy penned a separate exhortation to members, which further detailed the decision to have services livestreamed.
“I know that participating in service via a screen can feel strange, but let’s remember that God is the primary actor when we worship together — whether in private or public, in person or remotely,” he urged.
“Let us not forget the importance of engaging in worship and sitting under the Word, especially at times like this, whether we do this alone at home or in smaller groups.”
RHC is allowing its cell groups to continue to meet at the discretion of the leaders because these groups are smaller in size.
“In fact, continuing to enjoy fellowship with other brothers and sisters from RHC will become a crucial way we love one another during this time,” said Pastor Murphy.
Let us remember our identity as Christ-followers and hold onto the sovereignty of God.
Another church that is making changes to its services this weekend is Hope Singapore.
To comply with the new guidelines, measures include splitting its youth and tertiary services into smaller groups to ensure that gatherings are capped at 250 people.
There will also be adjustments to reduce the congregation size of its adult and children services at Axis (its main auditorium) and its North East Centre.
The upcoming Hope Conference may also be postponed, while the church will advise on more long-term measures in the weeks ahead.
A note from the pastors’ team to members said: “While the adjustments may be in place, we encourage everyone who is streaming online to gather in your LGs (cell groups) to worship together. Let us not give up meeting together and spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25a).
“Above all, let us remember our identity as Christ-followers and hold onto the sovereignty of God through this situation. In such times, let us proactively love and intentionally pray for those around us and for the COVID-19 outbreaks around the world. The salvation we have in Christ is our eternal hope in such times.”
There will also be changes to how Methodist churches across Singapore conduct their services this weekend.
In a letter issued by Bishop Rev Dr Chong Chin Chung and the Presidents of The Methodist Church in Singapore (MCS), churches were advised to cut back on the number of actual attendees even as services continued this Sunday.
Representing 46 Methodist churches with over 44,000 members, the leaders of MCS said this can be done through a number of ways including:
- Contacting members where possible to stay at home and watch the livestream or recording of the service, or tune in to another Methodist church’s livestream.
- Reducing the number of attendees to 50 per cent of the venue capacity or lower, and perhaps directing overflows to a separate room with similar ‘density restriction’.
- Encouraging members from the more well-attended services to attend the less-packed ones.
- Making plans to conduct additional services since every doubling of services halves the density of worshippers, with the possibility of asking members to attend a weeknight service instead of the Sunday service.
- Suspending senior ministries and activities for those aged 60 years and above.
Services would also be shortened “without compromising on the proclamation of the Word”. Measures that would impact the nature of services include:
- Limiting contemporary services to 10 minutes of songs and traditional services to two verses per hymn.
- Stopping choral anthems and special items in the interim.
- Ensuring adequate seating distance (at least 1 metre) between family groups. Families should sit together and worshippers should not mingle between groups. Non-contact forms of greeting are to be used.
The rationale for the changes in worship time is because “congregational singing has been shown to be the most likely activity in a service when respiratory secretions are dispersed into the air”.
In addition, the leaders cautioned churches to redouble efforts at travel and health screenings now that there are additional countries on the list, as well as to be very certain that all screeners are properly trained to use the thermometers and read the questionnaires.
All the above are to be treated as interim measures, as MCS will be meeting with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth next week, where more information would be given.
The Bishop and Presidents concluded the letter with the following message:
“Watch and pray with your Presidents and Bishop as we seek and wait for further clarifications from the authorities. Pray that the Lord will grant us wisdom, discernment and insight during these uncertain times.
“Continue to minister to those in need, and to those who have understandable anxiety during this crisis.”
Meanwhile, smaller churches are less affected, such as Calvary Assembly of God.
Senior Pastor Timothy Eu revealed that his church would not be “cancelling or suspending services” as the average attendance is “below 250”.
“We’ve already changed to pre-packaged communion and ceased altar calls,” he explained. “But since the latest news, we’re shortening our services to 1.5 hours from 2 hours and increasing the distance between our rows of seats.”
In addition to the measures which were already in place like “temperature screening, travel declaration and contact tracing”, Pastor Eu also shared that his team had “stopped all pre and post-service refreshments and monthly lunch fellowships”.
He emphasised that the church is focused on responding well to COVID-19, aiming “to be rooted in God’s Word, to love one another and to preach the gospel.
“To be an example of peace, compassion and boldness in a time of uncertainty and sickness.”
As most church leaders deliberate on plans in response to the new guidelines, at least one church has already been practising smaller group meetings – and there have been notable positive effects.
Yio Chu Kang Chapel’s Lead Pastor Rick Toh of elaborated on his church’s approach: “Since February 22, YCK Chapel has suspended her large-size group weekend worship services and mid-size group ministry meetings.
“Members are now meeting in their Small Groups – like house churches (SGHC) – for their weekly worship. Most of these SGHC are hosted at members’ homes. Some of them are held in the church premises, but in different rooms. They meet on Saturdays or Sundays. These Small Groups have a max size of 25 pax.
“Each SGHC has their own worship, prayer, offertory and communion. However all will view the same recorded announcement (with exhortation from the church leaders) and a recorded sermon.
“Each SGHC will have a time of discussion after viewing the recorded sermon before ending with fellowship over a meal. Some of these SGHC have their own children’s programme too.”
Pastor Toh offered four guiding principles that have helped his church make their decisions. Sharing this with Thir.st, he talked about:
- Stewardship. “We are concerned for the welfare of our members. Our calling is to protect them from danger. Meeting in smaller groups will lessen the risk of exposure to infection.”
- Social Responsibility. “We want to practise what is proper to minimise the risk of spreading the virus.”
- Obedience. “Our obedience to God and His Word calls us to meet in whatever way possible. Rather than uni-directional live streaming, we see that Small Groups will help us obey the one-anothering mandate in Hebrews 10:24-25.”
- Opportunity. “We look at the opportunities for kingdom growth. We see the chance for the church and her members to grow spiritually in personal, communal and outreach dimensions.”
Speaking on the good that has come out of YCK Chapel’s response to the COVID-19 situation, Pastor Toh said: “When we suspended our large-size group worship services and had our members meet in SGHC, we saw members rising forth to serve.
“Members volunteered to host their Small Group at their homes. In each Small Group, members take turns to lead in singing and breaking the bread. Viewing the recorded sermon ends with discussion, thereby encouraging response to the Word.
“There is more time for prayer and fellowship. Some Small Groups even work on outreach projects to bless the community. All in all, we see the deepening of community.”
Pastor Toh urged church leaders to be ready in terms of precautions and procedures in this season, while also being rooted in faith and scripture.
He said: “We need to process our fears before God and let our actions be inspired by faith and guided by sound theology. Let not disease or (earthly) decree but doctrine guide our decisions.”
“Our faith is not one of self-preservation but self-sacrifice,” he reminded.
“In a time like this, we are called to be salt and light to the world. We must look out, excel in good works, serve the poor and needy, care for the sick and bless the community. Let our light shine in such a way that God our Father may be glorified!”
THINK + TALK
- In light of the new advisory, what are some other ways we can continue to do church together in meaningful and safe ways?
- Reach out (no hands!) to your church leaders – support and encourage them this weekend.