Winter Storm Harper forced some churches to cancel services from the Midwest to the Northeast in the U.S. last week. Church leaders kept an eye on the storm and faced sometimes gut wrenching decisions whether to cancel services or not.
Many questions arise when inclement weather looms. When should the church cancel services? Or, if not, what should it communicate to members? How do we balance the need for safety of body and soul? What weight of moral obligation do members have to attend when the elders issue a call for worship but travel seems too risky to an individual? How should guidelines generated by government agencies influence the decision?
It can be an emotional subject. So many differences of physical abilities, risk-aversion levels, and conscientiousness within a church exist. And, every congregational situation differs from another. Almost always, leaders make a judgment call on whether to cancel services or not, and not everyone will agree with the call.
Whatever the decision, elders must exercise oversight humbly, not domineering over those in their charge in either the decision itself or the attitude in which it is conveyed (1 Peter 5:2-5). Those under the charge of the elders in the congregation are to submit with joy and give humble feedback as they make their own needs and desires known to their leaders (1 Peter 5:5, Hebrews 13:17).
Without pretending to have definitive answers for other congregations, here are basic guidelines our elders use at Second Reformed Presbyterian Church (2RP) to inform our weather-related decisions:
- Physical safety and spiritual safety are both concerns at 2RP. We do not want to unwisely expose members to physical risk on roadways and in cold temperatures. On the other hand, we do not want to unnecessarily expose members to the spiritual risk of missing God’s weekly gathering with his people (Hebrews 10:24-25).
- The elders of 2RP desire that, ordinarily, saints know and feel their obligation to worship God with the congregation. At the same time, they want people to take seriously encouragements or orders to stay home in certain situations even when public worship goes forward.
- The elders at 2RP want to make sure that, as far as possible, they work in harmony with civil authorities who are God’s servants for our good (Romans 13).
How is this worked out at 2RP? We live in an enviable circumstance in which enough members of the congregation, including the pastor, live within walking distance of the church such that weather-events would probably only cause a cancellation when power-outages accompany them. Further, thanks to the faithful work of our deacons, we have in-house snow-removal services, and we livestream services for shut-ins and can encourage people to join in worshiping the Lord online. As an aside, we recognize the potential dangers of providing a livestream. However, most people who must watch from home express that the livestream experience gives them a greater longing to join with the body in person. Even small churches with limited resources could explore the possibility of using a smartphone to broadcasting the service in bad weather over Facebook Live, or a similar platform. Overall, during inclement weather, 2RP faces the same sensitivities most churches do since the large majority of members drive to worship.
Our elders find that it is useful to follow the Indiana Department of Homeland Security travel guidelines in what to communicate to members. Their work of evaluating road conditions across the whole area provides public information to help keep judgments as objective as possible (though we also check the road conditions around the church building personally). As civic leaders do their work well, it promotes the peaceful and quiet life of the church (1 Timothy 2:2).
The Indiana Department of Homeland Security has three travel status levels:
Advisory means that there could be restrictions to be cautious. The church may send a notice to members encouraging them to do what is wisest in their situation to stay safe and encourage them to use the livestream if they need to remain home.
Watch means that travel conditions are threatening to the safety of the public and that only essential travel is recommended. The big question for Christians, and there will be disagreement, is whether or not worship is essential on any given week. Major sporting events usually go forward under a watch, though most who attend are able-bodied; few babies or elderly people attend in such circumstances. Under such a watch, we encourage driving members to stay home and join the livestream as is best in their situation. The elders hold worship for those who can walk to the building and to engage folks on the livestream, but they are not expecting or encouraging people to engage in dangerous driving conditions to attend in person. Many saints do come at their own risk.
Warning means that auto travel is restricted to emergency vehicles. Other drivers can be ticketed. The church will still conduct a service for those who can walk to church, and we will livestream to the rest. We order everyone to refrain from driving to church.
In summary, we do not want to burden anyone’s conscience or encourage unwise, risky behavior. And yet, at least as much as able-bodied sports fans make remarkable efforts to attend sporting events in bad weather, we want able-bodied people to make efforts to prioritize the worship of the living God together, whether in the flesh or, as necessary, by the less-optimal but still helpful livestream.