The pastor of a large Winnipeg evangelical church is calling on members of his congregation to not sign a petition calling for the unrestricted opening of places of worship.

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The pastor of a large Winnipeg evangelical church is calling on members of his congregation to not sign a petition calling for the unrestricted opening of places of worship.

"This petition is a terrible idea," said John Neufeld, lead pastor of The Meeting Place, a Mennonite Brethren church located in downtown Winnipeg.

"Please DO NOT SIGN this petition," he posted on his personal Facebook page.

Neufeld, who has been the lead pastor at the church for 12 years, first heard about the petition about a week ago.

"I was hoping that good judgment and lack of support would cause it to fade away," he said.

But he realized it was gaining steam when members of his church, which counts 750 to 800 people gathering for two services each Sunday morning, asked if they should sign.

"I told them please don’t," he said, citing two objections.

The first is the premise of the petition that the restrictions on the number of people who can gather is an infringement on constitutional freedoms.

"I profoundly disagree with this premise," he said. "I don’t see this as a Charter issue. Churches in Manitoba are allowed to gather. They must simply respect the public health guidance."

His second objection is how the petition may harm the witness of the church.

"This protest and petition is already bringing a terrible reputation on followers of Jesus and ultimately on Jesus," he said.

Noting a verse in the book of Acts that described the early followers of Jesus as people who "praised God and enjoyed the favour of all the people," he said by calling for special rules for churches, the petition damages the witness of Christianity in the province.

It shows Christians to be "people of poor judgment," he said, adding it could also harm the witness of the church by suggesting Christians are anti-science.

"The premier’s response was telling," he said, noting how Brian Pallister reminded the creators of the petition they are not experts in the area of health.

Neufeld is also worried that the petition doesn’t show people of faith as wanting to be "good citizens" by working in partnership with other segments of society that are also facing challenges as they adapt to the limitations posed by the pandemic.

As for worries the restrictions will hamper the ability of churches to serve their members, he said congregations just need to become more creative.

"The church is not a location, building or address," he said. "It’s about shared life, not events."

He noted the early Christians met in homes, and suggested churches in the province could do something similar by inviting members to meet in person in small groups in homes or backyards during the pandemic, while following social-distance and other health guidelines.

Churches finding that more difficult, such as those belonging to denominations that are more sacramental in nature and require a priest or minister to bless the elements during communion or Eucharist, could respond by providing multiple smaller services for small numbers of people during the week, he said, adding all churches could continue with online gatherings.

After posting his comments online, Neufeld said he received many positive affirmations, including from other clergy in the province.

While disagreeing with the petition, he understands the desire to gather in person again at church services.

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"There is a deep longing for community by people of faith and by others," he said.

Neufeld also appreciates the financial stress many churches are facing due to the impact of the virus; The Meeting Place has reduced its budget, laid off six of its staff, left vacancies unfilled, frozen salaries and he has taken a pay cut.

Despite the challenges, the pandemic is also an opportunity "to get people out of their buildings and into the lives of their neighbours, to get back to sharing the good news of Jesus the way it was meant to be shared," he said.

The petition will only hamper the ability of churches in the province to share that good news, he said.

"We want to be seen as people of good reputation because of how we meet and how we serve the community," he said. "If we damage the credibility of the church, we affect that message."

faith@freepress.mb.ca

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.