Sent May 26, 2020

As our world takes “baby steps” toward normal, allow me to share some info and perspective for Westsiders.

There is much discussion and some conflict (much of it politicized) around the question of WHEN and HOW churches should resume public worship services. Some federal, state and local officials have issued dueling statements about it. Many people are choosing sides and joining the war of words.

Although you wouldn’t know it by the way some people frame the discussion, decisions related to church gatherings are very complicated. To reduce the discussion to any single factor (public health, religious freedom, etc.) is to oversimplify it. Yes, churches have important reasons for wanting to resume in-person gatherings as soon as possible. We also have important reasons for moving forward with great care.

What Are the Factors?

If it were left solely to West Side’s leaders to determine when we would gather again for public worship, the simple answer to the “when” question would be: we don’t yet know. We anticipate gaining clarity on a timeline over the next month, but we are not yet ready to announce a plan/schedule. Why? Because, as of today…

  1. It wouldn’t be the kind of “West Side experience” we want to offer. With social distancing still needed, we do not see a way to offer a high quality, on campus experience at this time. Trust me, no one wants us to worship together on campus more than West Side’s leaders. But until we can welcome at least 50-75% of our room capacity, we can’t “do church” in a way that is compelling. We can minimize the number of surfaces we all touch and sanitize between gatherings, no problem. But we can’t host enough worship services to welcome thousands of people who are 6-feet apart.
  2. Most people are unwilling to attend church at this point. We’ve learned of churches across the country, who resumed public worship gatherings in recent weeks, only to host very small crowds. One church that seats 2600 people had one service with fewer than 100 in attendance. (However, WE DO ANTICIPATE RESUMING SMALLER GROUPS AND GATHERINGS SOON. Stay tuned.)
  3. Many of our neighbors would question our judgment. While we don’t intend to wait until the most cautious person in Springfield agrees that we should gather again, neither do we want to sacrifice the rapport we’ve established with our city by deciding prematurely that we will gather again. Titus 2:8 teaches us to consider what outsiders think of us and to strive to give them "nothing bad to say about us." By the way, we expect government officials to engage more actively with church leaders in the weeks ahead to maximize alignment and minimize conflict.
  4. West Side has never been in “shutdown” mode. Although we closed our building to normal activity, WE HAVE NEVER CLOSED OUR CHURCH. On the contrary…
    • MORE people have accessed our Sunday worship and teaching via
    • On average, we reached 1000 MORE people per week over the last 10 weeks
    • We have fed MORE hungry people… blessed MORE lonely people… loved MORE people on the margins
    • We have gained MORE experience and GREATER insight on how to use digital tools for ministry
    • Some are giving MORE of their financial resources to God’s work and to people in need
    • And we are MORE convinced that we will reach 10,000 people a week over the decade to come!

When We Do Gather Again

Because we are one of the larger churches in our area, we anticipate some scrutiny and commentary when we begin to worship together again. In anticipation of the questions and (perhaps) criticism that may come, I want to make it clear that our motives for resuming our gatherings WILL NOT include the following:

It won’t be for FINANCIAL reasons. While we have seen some decline in total giving during the last few months (due to reduced income for some of us), most Westsiders continue to give at similar levels. We are not panicked and financial motives will not be a factor in future decisions about on campus worship.

It won’t be a POLITICAL statement. Seasoned Westsiders know that we stay on mission regardless of what party occupies any given position. The reason we aren’t meeting on campus now has nothing to do with political ties or perspectives. When we move to gather again, the same will be true.

It won’t be a play for PUBLICITY. Over the years, we’ve been given many opportunities to comment on what’s in the news, which we’ve rarely done. When we serve our city or its people in some way, I ask our staff to never seek media coverage (although we sometimes receive it). That’s how we roll – and nothing we do from this point forward will be driven by a desire to become part of the media coverage.

The Test We Must Pass Together

While we wait for clarity on when to gather, my primary concern is how we discuss it. We should not be among those who hurl allegations at those who disagree with us. I know some sincere, godly people who are ready to worship with a crowd now. I know others, who are just as sincere and godly, who prefer to wait. We all must avoid attempting to invalidate those who disagree with us on these things.

That’s why I’m calling Westsiders to be patient, respectful of others’ views and fiercely committed to unity. Let’s embrace this guidance given by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:2-6, NIV): Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

During the unique season we're in, I’d summarize that verse this way: It is even more important that we stay together than meet together. Without unity, we are nothing. Let’s hang together, friend. And, when it comes to government officials, remember what Peter wrote (1 Peter 2:17), Show proper respect to everyone: love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. Thankfully, we don’t have a king. But we do have government officials with heavy responsibilities and God-given authority. I’m not pledging to always agree with how they use it, but I want to always communicate with/about them in a way that honors God.

Stay tuned tomorrow for another email about some important and encouraging developments at West Side.

Looking forward to good things,

Eddie Lowen & West Side’s Leadership Team