A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: Staying Experimental and Nimble

I have said many times in the last three months, “I don’t know how we would have managed the pandemic 20 years ago,” before there was social media and videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. That technology has been essential to allowing us to continue to thrive as a congregation even in the midst of the challenges of both the pandemic itself and the stay-at-home order.

The word “congregation” comes from the verb “to congregate,” of course: to gather together. The technology of Zoom and Facebook have given us the capacity to continue to congregate and gather together in mind and heart and spirit, even when we have not been able to do so in body.

Many of us have had to take a crash course in using this technology, and some of us have not been able to take full advantage of it because of a lack of access to adequate computer hardware or Internet connections. But for most of the congregation, it has given us the opportunity to see and hear and interact with each other in worship and education and church leadership in surprisingly powerful and intimate ways.

Yet even the most powerful technology is only as useful as those who have it are willing to make it. One of my constant prayers of thanksgiving throughout this crisis has been how we have embraced the challenge of continuing to gather together, continuing to be a congregation. For the last 2+ years, we have identified as “an experimental church:” generating new ideas and trying them out; learning from what succeeds and what fails; and then pivoting quickly to apply that learning either to a revised version of the idea or to help with developing something new.

With that as our practice and our identity, the Session was able to take the congregation to a digital-only configuration for all of our worship and ministry in less than 24 hours from the time they decided it was necessary, and you as a congregation responded with enthusiasm and commitment and faithfulness. THAT is why the technology has been so helpful to us: because of you. You have embraced the opportunity it has afforded us, even when you weren’t sure what that meant or how exactly we were going to do it.

It seems clear that, until there is a widely available vaccine and/or treatment, we will be living with the pandemic in some form or fashion in the coming months. That means that we will continue to need to be experimental and nimble, as it is likely there will be periods in which the infection rate is relatively low (as seems to be the case right now in Pennsylvania, though obviously not in other regions of the country), and also periods in which it rises again.

As we have said before, the Session is monitoring developments closely and placing its primary focus on what it means, in any period, to be faithful disciples of Christ in loving God and our neighbors, and recognizing that how we do that may shift in different periods.

We encourage you as the members and friends of the church to continue to help us think through that. Your enthusiasm and creativity through this unique time in our congregation’s life has been and will continue to be essential to our ability to fulfill our calling and mission together.

With that in mind, I want to encourage you as you have ideas or questions about our church’s programmatic life, to reach out directly to our congregational leaders in those areas. In the Presbyterian Church, it is the Session that has the authority to develop, implement, and revise church programs. The pastor actually only has direct authority over the content of the worship services (Scripture, hymns, prayers); everything else is decided by the Session.

So, to facilitate your ability to raise questions and suggest ideas, we have created simple email addresses that will allow you to direct those to the right committee chair, who will in turn share them with the committee. If you have something that you think needs to go to the Session as a whole, you can send that to the Clerk of Session (currently Sue Farber), who is responsible for correspondence to and from the Session. All those addresses can be found here: fpc-bethlehem.org/contact-us.

And if you have a general question (about anything church-related) that you’re not sure where to send, you can use our general mailbox: info@fpc-bethlehem.org. This email is monitored by Carol Burns, our Communications Manager, and it is a safe and confidential way to communicate with us.

As we continue to journey through this time of the pandemic, we look forward to your ideas, your questions, your enthusiasm for our church and what more we might do and accomplish together for Christ. I am grateful for each member and friend of this congregation, and eager to see what the Lord has in store for us next!

Grace and peace,


PS – Please remember our “Sermon Response” sessions available via Zoom, after each service on Sunday: an opportunity to reflect on the message with others.