Fellowship meals in church (Part 2)

Dear BPCWA worshipper, In last week’s pastoral, we took a step back to look at what fellowship lunches are and are not about. After the lockdown last year, all fellowship meals at church were halted until we could slowly reinstate them, beginning with the supper after Watchnight Service last year. While we emerge from some of the COVID-19 restrictions, we also want to highlight to worshippers that things have changed from what they used to be before COVID. This means that we need to also re-evaluate what and how things are done at church. I hope that having this knowledge of what goes on in the background will help worshippers understand with an open mind if things are not what they may personally like or not like because they are not as “before”.  

When will fellowship meals occur in church? Generally, we will not be able to have fellowship lunches on Sunday anymore. This is due to the limited time between services for rearranging tables and cleaning up. If we do have Sunday lunches, it will only be on Sundays without the mealtime tightly sandwiched between 2 church activities, or when it does not interrupt the other activities going on at church during that time. If we do have fellowship meals, they will typically be at events that occur on weekdays, Saturdays, or on Sundays when we have combined worship service.

Why can’t there be Sunday fellowship lunches? (1) There is simply not enough time between the English and Chinese worship services to enable the removal of seats in the fellowship hall which are needed for English worship service in the morning, set up of seats and tables for lunch, and the subsequent necessary clean up before the Chinese pre-worship prayer (1:15 pm) and worship service (1:30 pm) in the afternoon. Not only that, there is the Teens QnA conducted from 12-12:40pm on the second and last Sundays of the month. Now with the use of shared space, the church is not vacant in the afternoons anymore. Both congregations must be considerate to each other. With less resources available, the folding door in the fellowship hall is now left open, with chairs left in their place throughout the week. This does not require us then to assign people to stack and place chairs before and after every service. (2) Allowing flexibility anytime COVID-19 restrictions return. Besides being required for the English Worship Service, the arranged chairs in the fellowship hall also gives us the flexibility to “space out” on weekdays if COVID restrictions tighten. Having meals in church takes time, planning, and resources. (3) We must still have enough time to talk to visitors and newcomers before they leave. We do not want to rush people too much so that they feel unwelcome in order for us to set up the tables and bring out the food. So if we were to have fellowship lunch, it would start no earlier than 11:45 am, if not closer to noon. After the lunch, even more time is required, as the process is not merely reversed, but there is a need to wash up the utensils, sweep and mop up the halls, throw out the trash, fold up the tables, and rearrange the chairs to get everything ready before 1 pm for the next worship. (4) Also, lunch on Sundays will cause a traffic issue between worshippers from the different congregations arriving and leaving the church at the same time. We must make sure that there is sufficient time so that the next congregation does not begin worship with a chaotic traffic of people moving around. It is a worship of the Thrice Holy God that we come into His presence in, and that is why we sing “Let all the earth keep silence before Him”. The limited time would make the meal to be very hasty, and indeed very “unwelcome”, because the time crunch will pressure people to get their food quickly and then gulp down their meals to leave enough time for the post-lunch clean-up. Besides this, we would need to hastily request everyone who is not joining the afternoon worship service to leave by 1 pm with the pots/plates that they brought their food in. As an indication, at the Seniors Fellowship lunch that we had recently, people were still cleaning and packing up the church after the lunch even past 1:30 pm. Considering that there were fewer dishes to wash and people to clear due to a smaller attendance at the Seniors Fellowship lunch, cleaning up after a Sunday Fellowship lunch would take far longer. (5) These, together with the fact that for English congregation worshippers with children, their day would have started at 9 am in church. This would make things very rushed for families to prepare dishes to bring for fellowship lunch. With all the logistics required, the time crunch, and other things considered, we will have to forgo the monthly fellowship lunch as it is not feasible in our new environment.

Other fellowship meal opportunities are available. Having said that, keep in mind that we have resumed the Seniors Fellowship lunches where seniors of both congregations will experience. For the church as a whole, there has been the Watchnight Service supper last year. We are also looking at the feasibility of having lunch after our Annual Congregational Meeting because we will be having a combined Worship Service on those weeks. Where circumstances permit, we have our Anniversary Dinner celebration too. Worshippers are encouraged to stay back after worship to catch up with each other before going home. We hope to resume the students’ Welcome Dinner in time, if there are sufficient students responding to our university outreaches.

What are to be observed for fellowship meals? While it may seem like resuming fellowship meals is just a “flip of a switch” back to what we used to do, it is not as easy as meets the eye now. We require key kitchen staff to have completed a COVID-19 related course on food handling. We also need to ensure compliance with the various regulations that are in place, and this needs to be current if there are changes along the way. Those who may have joined the recent Seniors Fellowship lunch may have noticed that protocols are more stringent now. For example, we had to station people to have diners sanitise their hands before handling the utensils for scooping food. Those rostered were given detailed processes to read and adhere to prior to the day. Hand washing and the use of gloves are now required. Clean up thereafter needs to meet COVID-19 hygiene standards. It remains a trade-off between COVID-19 hygiene regulations (where disposable utensils and containers are preferred) and the need to reduce trash (which seems to be a point of concern to Melville Council as they assessed our church’s application for our extension). In the environment that we are in now, arranging for fellowship meals is not simple.

Exercise courtesy, thankfulness, charity and brotherly kindness. Where it is feasible, we will have the “bring a dish” fellowship lunch at some fellowships. So I hope that at such fellowships, worshippers will still come, cook, bring a dish, and stay to fellowship over lunch. Keep in mind that the purpose of the fellowship is not the food or to have award winning cuisines (or to have people praise the cooking). Conversely, exercise temperance and brotherly kindness, and don’t criticise imperfect seating setups and processes, or comment on others if they do not cook to your expectations, or that things are a bit more inconvenient now. Remember that many others have gone through far greater inconvenience and headaches to plan so that the fellowship lunch was possible. Have a kind word to say for those who have laboured in so many different ways to plan and help out in it for the spiritual benefit of others, even if there are minor hitches, even if it is not as often as you want to see it, even if you think it is not like “the old days”. The government has a “zero tolerance policy on staff aggression” towards their service staff. Certainly, though we do not state it as strongly as they do, such behaviour should definitely not be found in God’s house by His saints!

I hope that this pastoral helps worshippers understand some of the significant additional considerations that have to be considered when deciding whether to have and serve food at church. We live in a new normal, both due to COVID-19 and also some needed changes in the church. We cannot keep comparing with the past, but instead, we should give thanks more.

1 Pet 3:8  Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:

Yours in our Lord’s service,