The reality of COVID 19–instead of just a dreary recitation of statistics–came home when an outbreak took place at the Westmore Church of God in Cleveland, TN. Things haven’t gotten any better, with the passing of two of its members. All of this led to this message from its pastor, Kelvin Page:
We are members at another Church of God in Cleveland, North Cleveland. Westmore was formed in the late 1960’s when several members of our own church left to start it. The two churches are in many ways sister churches; members from one visit the other for special occasions, and not infrequently the two trade members. We’ve been on road trips with their senior group, including the Billy Graham museum outside of Charlotte, NC.
The sanctuary that Westmore used for many years was nice but the property was very vertical; not only was expanding it difficult but it was a nightmare for handicapped people. They had planned for many years to move (with commendable financial planning to go with it;) however, their move coincided with the full impact of COVID in March. After years of work their new facility was idle.
Like most of the larger churches in the area, Westmore went in with an ongoing online outreach, which proved handy when things shut down. Going through drive-in services through April, at the end of May they resumed in-person services while formally opening their new facilities. It should be noted that resumption of in-person services varied among the Churches of God in the area, and that includes how things like how social distancing was handled.
Westmore had several large events in June. We went to a couple of these, wearing masks, practicing social distancing. The last one was an event organised by the Church of God state office (diocese, if you please) on 22 June. Westmore had made provision for a remote room where those of us who wanted to be especially careful could go and spread out away from the sanctuary proper. We opted for that, and were led up there by one of the young people of the church. We got up there to find ourselves in a large room with a big screen tv to watch the service, large couch in front of it…and by ourselves. We had the best seats in the house.
They were best all around; our diligence paid off, we avoided COVID, but many of those in the sanctuary for this and other meetings didn’t fare so well. The disease is no respecter of persons: it got Cleveland’s mayor, many of our church’s officials (the “Vatican” for the Church of God is in Cleveland) and of course many of the members. The fallout is ongoing and it has affected many people near and dear to us. Our own church has shut down again, going back purely online.
It’s worth stopping and asking the question Evangelicals hate more than any other: why? It’s hard to get to the bottom of things in a country which is having a nervous breakdown, the second in my lifetime. But at least for the benefit of my Anglican and Catholic readers, who have supported this blog with visits, I think some kind of explanation is necessary. There are two things going on here.
The first is the sacramental nature of Pentecostal/Charismatic worship. I don’t know of any other word to describe it. Catholics grieve at being barred from the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, but for Pentecostals worship in churches like Westmore is a sacramental event. It’s the special place where God’s real presence comes and dwells. It’s not an understatement that our ministers are obsessed with our worship, and I have long lost count of the sermons on how important worship is, how we need to come together to it, and do it properly. “Properly” can be tricky with the music wars; advocates of two styles of music and worship are as adverse to each other as TLM and Novus Ordo types. But coupled with the convivial nature of Pentecostal churches (certainly more so than their Anglican and Catholic counterparts) Kelvin Page’s appeal to get back together again had a powerful appeal.
The second is our “no fear” culture. I’ve talked about the theodicy issue before and won’t belabour the point, but our culture has pushed for a long time that life should be perfect and without adversity. The church has responded with things like prosperity teaching, we like to think of ourselves as invincible. It’s the same mentality that drives people to crowd bars. (Bars and churches are really both houses of worship, just to different deities.) We’ve been conditioned to believe that it won’t happen to us.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that “it” can and will happen to us. We’re at the beginning of a bumpy ride for our country, and for Christian churches in particular. Beyond this present plague churches are going to have to prepare themselves for a different environment. Many of our brothers and sisters overseas have experienced this for a long time (as this missionary to the Middle East attested) and now “it” has come for us.
If they can endure to the end, why can’t we?