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In Canada, churches balance in-person worship with COVID-19 restrictions

Police politely disrupt New Brunswick church, which met in violation of that province's coronavirus protocols.

When police officers knocked on the door, Stephane Maillet was preaching at a recent Sunday assembly of the Riverview Church of Christ in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Maillet put on his mask — he had taken it off to speak — as he encouraged  the small congregation on Canada’s East Coast to start recording with their phones.

With Maillet’s permission, two officers came into the church building and politely engaged with the minister, who explained that members were just trying to worship.

But the COVID-19 pandemic had turned that otherwise normal Lord’s Day assembly into a violation of a provincial mandate against churches meeting.

The River View Church of Christ

The Riverview Church of Christ, in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

All across Canada, Christians are dealing with various regulations as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the provinces north of the U.S. border. 

“We all thought, a couple of months, we’ll hunker down,” said Darrell Buchanan, minister for the Gravelbourg Church of Christ in Saskatchewan.  “Here we are a year later.”

The Gravelbourg church — a rural congregation in western Canada — stopped meeting in person after the government restricted gatherings to 10 people or less. 

The local health authority allowed in-person meetings to resume in June,  but attendance had to be kept below 30 percent of seating capacity. For the Gravelbourg church, which averages 50 to 60 worshipers, that was no problem.

“They were Zoomed out,” Buchanan said of the congregation. “It was just good to see people’s faces, even from 6 feet away.”

“It was just good to see people’s faces, even from 6 feet away.”

Others chose to remain home and keep worshiping online. 

“Nobody is expecting things to resume to whatever the new normal is quickly,” Buchanan said.

Ray and Laurie Fisher serve two churches in Nova Scotia, in eastern Canada. 

They, too, have done what they can to make worship accessible, even through government restrictions. 

“We all look forward to the day when restrictions are lifted, but we are willing to make the sacrifice of following them for the long-term good,” Ray Fisher said. 

Stéphane Maillet

Stéphane Maillet

Back in New Brunswick, Maillet said the Riverview church believes the government is taking things too far. 

“We have deep concern and compassion for all affected by COVID,” Maillet said. “We don’t take this loss of life as something to be dismissed.”

The small group of believers, less than 20 people, knew their meeting was in violation of the government mandates.

In that area of Canada, those orders do not allow for religious groups to meet indoors. Outdoor meetings are allowed, with drive-in services, according to the New Brunswick government website

But Maillet said, “We’re not meant to be forever confined in a computer screen.”

New Brunswick, a province of about 780,000 was reporting 267 active coronavirus cases at the time Maillet spoke to The Christian Chronicle.  

In most provinces, the cases are far below the numbers seen in the United States. According to the Canadian government’s website, the country has seen just over 808,000 total infections since January 2020, with 20,835 deaths reported at press time.

“This has pushed us to think more holistically about what the church would look like if we were to care about families in their everyday lives.”

In the western province of Alberta, where the active case count is much higher than the national average, churches are meeting at about 15 percent capacity. 

“We are doing what we can to follow the guidelines,” said Stan Helton, president of Alberta Bible College, which is associated with the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Among the biggest challenges facing churches in Canada, Helton said, are these:

  • How to engage with Christians unable to use technology to connect.
  • How to bring back members who seem to have disappeared as the pandemic has dragged on. 

“This has pushed us to think more holistically about what the church would look like if we were to care about families in their everyday lives,” said Helton, who formerly served as a minister for Churches of Christ in the U.S. 

Buchanan said the Gravelbourg church has done what it can to stay connected. The congregation typically offers a Vacation Bible School that draws in many from the community. Last summer, leaders had to make the tough decision to cancel VBS. Since the congregation couldn’t be together, leaders instead filled VBS boxes with Bibles and sidewalk chalk and offered activities for the kids to do with their families. 

Darrell Buchanan

Darrell Buchanan

Later in the year, the church had flower arrangements delivered to the community long-term care facility. Then, in December, members sent “Cups of Encouragement” — mugs filled with hot chocolate, tea and candy canes — to seniors in the French Catholic prairie town.

The Gravelbourg church looks forward to the future, even knowing that it’s unclear what that will hold. 

“We’re hoping. We’re dreaming,” Buchanan said. “We’re like explorers, pressing forward to new land and not knowing what’s over the next rise, but knowing God is with us.”

Following the interaction with police a few weeks ago, the Riverview church dispersed, moving the rest of the service online. Maillet prefers not to disclose if his congregation will keep meeting in person. 

“We need not die on every hill, but there’s coming a hill that we must die on for Christ.”

He does hope the government will reconsider its restrictions and allow churches in the province to meet indoors. 

“For us here, we’ve entered territory in which a line in the sand is quickly forming,” Maillet said. “We need not die on every hill, but there’s coming a hill that we must die on for Christ.

“This is love,” he said of the desire to gather and worship God. “This is compassion. This is understanding. This is a balanced and reasonable position.”

Filed under: Canada Church of Christ Coronavirus COVID-19 covid19 International New Brunswick News restrictions Top Stories

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