Re: Arkansas Lifts Mask Mandate and Expands Vaccine Eligibility
April 2, 2021
On March 30, the Governor and the Department Health did two things that make recovery from the pandemic more of a practical reality: 1) the mask mandate was lifted, and 2) eligibility for vaccines was expanded to everyone over 16.
What does this mean for the West-Ark Church and our Sunday worship onsite? Let's regard Sunday, April 4 as the beginning of a new transitional period toward life after the pandemic. We need the time to make adjustments after this pandemic and we will communicate these throughout the transition.
Since we started meeting again onsite after everything went online only in March 2020, everyone has been patient and eager to abide by the best recommendations to ensure their own health and the health of others. Regardless of policies, the people of West-Ark have been “shining like stars” in a world filled with controversy and conflict (Phil. 2:15). Up until now we have asked you to observe the “3 W’s” of Watching your Distance, Washing your Hands, and Wearing your Mask. Now that the mask mandate has been lifted, it makes sense to transition to “3 R’s.”
1. Reduce Risk. That’s two R’s for the price of one. Though there may be less of it, the coronavirus is still out there. We know how to reduce the risk of catching the virus or infecting others. Stay home and go online for worship if you have or have had a fever. If you have been exposed to the virus, distance yourself and choose the online option. The online livestream is one of the things that is not changing anytime soon. We were livestreaming before the pandemic, and now we have learned that it serves as more than just an alternative to meeting onsite.
Now (thanks be to God) there is a new option to reduce risk with the vaccines. We hope you will pursue your options to acquire the vaccine. Consult with your doctor or other friends in medicine and science. They might be a more reliable guide than cable news stories or social media.
In addition to the above, we can still wash our hands and watch our distance, but let’s mention wearing the mask since this can be controversial.
First, churches in Arkansas were never obligated to directives, but there has been and continues to be guidance. West-Ark always strove to conform to these in whatever way was reasonable and appropriate. For many years before the pandemic, the West-Ark church and its leaders have been attentive to thinking about measures in numerous areas that safeguard the health and welfare of people who gather for worship and activities. We did so then and we will continue to do so moving forward.
Second, we never required anyone to wear a mask, but when we respectfully asked you to do so when infections were at their peak, you respectfully complied. At this time, there is certainly no requirement to wear a mask.
Finally, you are always free to wear a mask and do not need to apologize for doing so. A mask may even be reasonable and recommended if you have yet to be vaccinated, or if you are close to others who may not be vaccinated or at greater risk. The mindset of the world makes something as benign as wearing a cloth mask a point of contention and pride. But we have the mind of Christ! (1 Cor. 2:16)
2. Respect Others. We cannot make rules or policies that anticipate every situation as we begin the transition to more activity and fellowship. Besides, whatever plans or policies we put into place will certainly change. Everything on this side of Christ’s return is temporary. We are proud that we have never had to resort to shaming, scolding, or policing to force the church family to conform to external criteria. We have appealed to your reason and your respectfulness and you have always been eager to serve others.
3. Rely on God. We are different people from a year ago. But God has remained the same. Our methods, schedules, programs, and routines may change, but we do not put our reliance in these. Rather we rely on God. Our faith has grown, and we have learned valuable lessons on what it means to follow Jesus. We have developed new leaders and discovered new opportunities. We need some time to discern all of this, and therefore we ask for your patience as this transition begins.
The timing could not be more profound. This Sunday is an excellent opportunity to share the story of resurrection. The past year has been a difficult challenge and we are rightly cautious about the future. None of us know what could happen next; but what we do know this: If we rely on God, then the worst things are never the last things.
Re: New Guidelines for Places of Worship
Nov. 11, 2020
Dear West-Ark Family:
It’s been a while since I have written to all of you. There are some updates regarding Arkansas Health Department guidelines I need to share with you, but let’s take this opportunity to recognize some important things. I went back over the messages I had written to you as this pandemic started in March. I can see clearly that God has been with us through this journey. We have had to make some hard adjustments, but we have grown and learned a few things. The genuine quality of relationships in our church family is clear. You have always done your best to protect the health of others, but more so you have gone a second mile to see to the needs of those who are most at risk from the virus. Not only have you seen to their physical needs, but you also worked to stay in touch with them and keep them from being any lonelier.
I look back over 2020 and recognize that we made difficult choices. It was not easy to cancel or suspend events and gatherings that mean so much to us. A few events at the start were expected, but then the pandemic began eating into the summer and has now altered schedules and events into the first quarter of 2021. To miss out on these things that have become a part of our life together is discouraging. Adding to the discouragement is the nagging fear that we might atrophy or decline as a church because of the inactivity. But we kept putting our hope and confidence in Jesus Christ and we have been blessed to trust in him. He is our savior and redeemer and this is his church family. Even if we lose everything else, nothing separates us from his love (Rom. 8:38-39).
In May, I wrote to tell you that we would slowly and carefully move forward as circumstances allowed. Remember how I compared it to driving a stick-shift? You shift-up when it is time, and every good driver knows when that is. What I forgot to say is that sometimes you have to down-shift, which may be what our situation feels like right now – (don’t worry, please keep reading!)
On Tuesday, November 10, the Arkansas Department of Health issued new guidance ahead of the holidays. Included in that are directives for places of worship. We have been abiding by these guidelines and have even been ahead of the ADH advisors on some of them. For instance, we made the difficult decision weeks ago to cancel Cocoa and Carols this year. However, there is one new directive that I must call to your attention. Here is how it reads in the document:
“We (ADH) strongly recommend masking of the entire congregation for the entire duration of the worship service in order to prevent spread.” (p. 3)
The reason for this is obvious. Singing increases respiration and expels more aerosolized particles which spread the virus. The reason for the emphasis is obvious as there is an increase in cases in our area, which adds to the potential for spread. The increase in hospitalizations is also concerning. Regardless of whether this represents a “second wave” or a momentary spike, it appears that the ADH expects the holiday season may have potential to increase community spread. So there it is – that’s the “down-shift,” simply that we need to recommit to all the safety procedures that have gotten us this far. Now just for a moment forget the ADH and let me just speak as a friend without any scolding or shaming: I am respectfully asking those of us who assemble on site to keep our mask on throughout the worship. That’s it.
I appreciate the ADH being more specific about the protocols for wearing a facemask. I confess that I haven't earned 100% on the last test. I admit that I considered my mask as viral SCUBA gear that got me from the front door to my favorite pew. Then in my own “little worship world” I could take the foolish thing off and quit fogging up my glasses. But the truth is, it is best for all of you if I keep it on even while I am singing. (Ha! There may be many reasons that is best for you!) I appreciate those of you who have expressed your intent to wear a mask through the whole assembly for the sake of others. That concern for others is biblical (Phil. 2:4) and it encourages me to see us demonstrate our respect for one another. So, I promise to do better and if you want to join me, I appreciate it.
This may seem like a bit of a down-shift, setback or discouragement even though nothing is being cancelled or called off at this point. Yes, we need to shift down, but sometimes you shift to a lower gear in order to climb a hill. I really think that is the case now. Maybe this is the last challenge before the pandemic fades into memory. There has been encouraging news in the research towards vaccines and treatments. We have been praying for an end to this haven’t we? God is able to work through any agencies and forces of nature he chooses, but we are the witnesses who need to ascribe the glory to God. Of all people, we need to be the ones who do not forget that. This is truly the function of our worship.
So, as we finish out 2020, let’s make the most of it. And if this is the last phase of the pandemic, let's finish strong and not get sloppy now. We need everyone to keep looking out for one another when we assemble. We can do this with behaviors that create “firebreaks” in the path of the contagion. We know these by now: wearing a facemask, social distancing, staying at home when we have symptoms, and limiting our interactions. Keep encouraging one another and comfort one another. No virus can keep us from being faithful disciples and God will restore what this pandemic has consumed. (Joel 2:25-28).
For the Sake of God’s Gospel,
Phase 2 of reopening FOR ARKANSAS began on June 15
What does this mean for WestARk?
1. Not much changes for places of worship.
2. Manage your risk. Online and Onsite are still options.
3. Be considerate of others and reduce the spread of virus. Wear a mask, wash your hands, social distance.
4. Some small groups like WAYG and CR are resuming activities.
5. KidMin activities will remain mostly online for near future.
- Chris Benjamin, June 14, 2020
Ready To Open: May 24
West Ark Onsite reopens May 24 at 10:30 AM
Online will continue at same time
Onsite requirements include social distancing and wearing face masks
Bring your own communion or pick it up in the foyer
No separate classes or children’s programs currently
Dear WestArk Family:
Our nation and state are gradually reopening. Restrictions that were put into place in March are starting to relax. It is time to take measured and thoughtful steps as we get back together. These beginning phases will be the toughest because there is no script for this. We have never had to do anything like this before. For some of us the transition to social interaction will happen quickly, but for others it will take more time. However, none of this means that our situation is hopeless or that we cannot do something. The WestArk church family is ready to take the next step to the next phase on Sunday, May 24 at 10:30 AM. Here’s what you might want to know and some guidance on what you can do:
1. We will be gathered Online and Onsite. You will have the choice of joining us at westark.org or joining us at 900 N. Waldron Road. Last week we tested a bona fide livestream with a small group of worship leaders and tech volunteers present. It is good we had the rehearsal, because we encountered a problem that cut off the sound and made everything on camera turn green and pink -- but we solved it and we will not have that particular problem again. Our goal was to unite the online and onsite gatherings. The glitch did not separate us; it brought us together. We communicated and encouraged one another and though we ended up 20 to 30 minutes behind, we worshiped. (If you missed the worship experience, it is still online here.)
If you choose the online option (westark.org), the process is the same as it has been since March 22. You will find that we will strive to engage with you and talk directly to you as we have been doing. We will coordinate the Lord’s Supper so that you are included in the same communion that is taking place onsite.
If you choose the onsite option (900 N. Waldron Road), then there are a few things you need to know because there will be some necessary changes.
2. Greetings will be different. Let’s acknowledge that everything is awkward when it comes to shaking hands and giving hugs. We are not going to take your temperature at the entrance, but we are going to ask you to appreciate that others might be more anxious or less anxious than you about proximity and contact. Just accept it. This does not mean we cannot express joy and enthusiasm. Say hi with an elbow bump. Is it safe? Probably, just don’t pick your nose with your elbow. Let’s bring back bowing. Just have fun and express happiness while respecting others. You are creative, sensible people – you can do this.
3. Face masks. Yeah, it is weird, but let’s get used to it. Wearing face masks is a part of the guidelines that churches have been asked to follow. The reason for the face mask is to mitigate the spread of virus. The main purpose of wearing the face mask is to prevent others from catching a virus that you may not know you have. So, wear your face mask for others. It is a show of respect and consideration that seems to be quite biblical (Phil. 2:3-4). Feel free to wear your own mask – even silly ones. But we have some at the entrance if you forget.
4. New seating arrangements. Thankfully, the guidelines do not restrict how many people can attend a worship service, but for now they do require us to maintain a six-foot distance. In the auditorium we have blocked off every other row of pews. That gives us proper distance between rows. Along the pew we ask you to leave a six-foot gap between yourself or your family group and the next person or group. We also have plans for overflow if needed. There is a video monitor in the lobby. We have arranged chairs in the lobby at the proper distance. If needed, we can place chairs alongside the side walls in the auditorium.
5. Self-serve communion. We encourage you to bring your own communion with you. Put your juice in a thermos, bring paper cups and pack your bread. If you forget or do not have the supplies, we will have packs of communion in the lobby that you can pick up as you enter. Since we all have our communion with us and ready to go at the appropriate moment in worship, we can share it together online and onsite. We will have trash receptacles at the auditorium exits for your convenience.
6. Bring your own coffee. Serving coffee may not be one of the five acts of authorized worship, but for some of us it is a necessary inference. There will not be a coffee bar until later phases; however you are welcome to bring your own coffee in a travel cup with a lid.
7. Family worship. Likewise, we will not be opening the nursery, separate classes (kids and adults), or children’s worship until future phases. This is an opportunity for us to worship as family. Our goal is to include children and young people in the worship, not just occupy their attention.
We are making every effort to ensure that our gatherings are healthy and accessible to everyone. Our janitorial service will be deep cleaning after every assembly. There are challenges because of this pandemic, but there are also opportunities. In Acts 8:1-4 we read that the church grew because of persecution. Without that threat, the church would have rooted in Jerusalem. I believe that our current situation has pushed us to discover what worship and fellowship is truly about; and we are learning to be grateful and never take one another for granted.
Lord Willing ... We Will Be Onsite and Online on May 24
For a sharpshooter, hitting the bullseye is a great achievement; hitting a moving target requires even greater skill. I hope that visual helps us understand why starting up our worship assemblies involves much more than simply unlocking the doors on Sunday. Let me describe the challenges and then I will give you are best estimate of a timeline moving forward.
First, state officials are asking us to adhere to guidelines that will mitigate the spread of COVID-19 infections. Personal habits and limits on public interaction are the methods to create “firebreaks” in the path of the contagion. Therefore health agencies have given us directives to follow as we start to imagine assembling onsite. I encourage you to read up on the guidelines yourself by clicking here and/or here. West-Ark leadership has consulted with some of our members who specialize in medical and biological sciences and we believe we have a reasonable plan that will enable some of us to safely gather at 900 N. Waldron on a Sunday. And that leads to our next challenge…
Second, these changes will not mitigate risk for everyone, and it is inappropriate for us to ignore that. Most of us do not really know how severe a COVID-19 infection would be for us. It is a new disease. But for some of us, we can almost be certain that COVID-19 guarantees a trip to the ICU or worse. So, we will maintain the online option as a companion for the onsite assembly. This will enable our church family who are at greater risk to participate in our worship. In the current situation, it isn’t advisable for all of us to rush back into our assemblies. You will help us most by being responsible with your own health condition and determine if you are in a high-risk category. (Click here if you want to know more about what conditions increase your risk.) Viewing assembly as both online and onsite may be the greatest adjustment to our thinking about worship. Fear of missing out, fear about forsaking the assembly and simple loneliness are going to compel us to take risks. I can assure you that no one who participates online is forsaking the assembly. (If enough of you are interested, maybe I can present some teaching on that.) You will not miss out because we are doing more to connect with one another than we did when we assumed attendance was enough. And if loneliness is your struggle, then please reach out to others.
Finally, I will give you our best guess at a timeline as we learn how to reassemble in a world where COVID-19 is a problem. West-Ark is a large family and it takes more time and intentional effort to change course. Our May 10 and May 17 worship assemblies will be online at westark.org. This is the same format you have been a part of since March 22. You will find the link to the online broadcast and it will premiere on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. This gives our volunteers, leaders, and safety crew an opportunity to set up the West-Ark building and resources so that we can meet at the building and provide a livestream on May 24. Our goal will be to make those of you who “log on” feel just as included as those of you who “walk in.”
Not everything will be back in place for May 24. We will start things up one piece at a time. Right now, our focus is on the 10:30 AM worship assembly. We are still many weeks away from the restart of classes, KidMin classes, Children’s Worship, fellowship groups, and other assemblies. There have been creative and beneficial opportunities to provide online interaction among our various ministries. Be creative and keep those going. Remember it is always appropriate to pray and encourage one another.
Keep in mind, the May 24 date is a moving target. So many unknowns can change this. I know that everyone understands because we are all feeling this disorientation. Across history, God’s people have grown when they are tested, not when they are pampered. I see our church community growing and trusting in God during this test.
May 6, 2020
What You Can Expect In the Near Future
May 3, 2020
It’s quite a challenge to make plans right now. The re-opening of our culture and our economy will take place in phases and that’s fairly similar to what we will do at West-Ark. We will keep you informed of definite plans and hope to share a more exact timeline next week. Right now, here’s what we can say with certainty:
1. We are going to make this transition gradually. Think of it like this – we are no longer driving a car with an automatic transition. No this is a stick-shift and when you are learning to drive a car with a manual transition you must get the feel for when to shift to higher gears. Asking “When do I shift to second gear?” doesn’t have an exact answer like 5 seconds after you release the clutch. It depends on the car, how fast you’re going, whether you are going uphill, the traffic all around you, etc. It will be the same for us as we move forward intentionally and carefully. We will use informed judgment to decide when to "shift up."
2. Not everything will start up at the same time. Taking it slow means that we will start what we can and learn as we go. Classes and weekly gatherings may be quite a while off in the future. But let’s use this as an opportunity to figure out what really matters most and take the time to ask why we do what we do. Our plans our squishy, but our purpose is solid.
3. Not everything we restart will be the same as we have done it before. Necessity will demand that we change how we do things. That includes everything from communion to coffee bar. It may look different and take place differently, but it will have the same meaning. Our methods are adaptable, but our mission is the same.
4. We are going to do BOTH assembly AND online fellowship throughout the upcoming phases. This is because each of us will have different concerns and move through this transition at different rates. Some of us need to social distance for a while longer than the rest – but we are not going to “leave you behind.” In fact, I encourage all of us to start thinking about our "church gathered" and our "church scattered" as one in the same. If a few of us are meeting at 900 N. Waldron and the rest of you are at home logging on to the livestream, then be assured that you are not "forsaking the assembly." We are going to be limited in how many can assemble as we begin, so you can expect a period of adjustment that includes both methods of connecting for quite a few weeks. We will know more details after guidelines are issued for places of worship on May 4. We have gained something special and meaningful by learning how to connect and fellowship in new ways. It doesn't replace gathering together in one place, but it is still something we intend to utilize long term in the future.
If you have any questions about what's coming up, please contact the shepherds or ministry staff.
May God Bless Us with Hope and Happiness,
May 3, 2020
April 19, 2020
Dear WestArk Family:
I miss you. I miss getting together with you on the Lord’s Day. I miss being with you for the Lord’s Supper. We have said that this isolation will not last forever. That’s true; but have you found yourself wondering “how long will it last?” I have been. That’s why I am writing you.
First, I want to assure that our leaders at West-Ark will be spending time finding the best path forward as the restrictions on gatherings change. The White House and the CDC recently published a three-phased approach for states and regions to follow while emerging from the pandemic response. If you have not seen that, I recommend you take a look at here.
Second, brace yourself if you were hoping everything would revert to the way it was instantly. We are playing the long game now! But don’t lose hope. We are Jesus’ disciples and he equips us to find opportunities in change (See Acts 8:1-4). According to Gov. Hutchinson and his advisers, Arkansas will enter Phase 1 around May 4. Rather than speculate on what happens beyond that, we will develop a plan that enables us as a congregation to do what is appropriate based on what phase we are in. Meanwhile, we still have a mission as disciples. That hasn’t changed.
Third, creativity is cool. We are learning to do new things to maintain our mission. We are also being redirected to what really matters. Being “the church” is not about a building, or activities, or programs. We’ve said that for decades; but we’ve never really had to do without them! Here’s the moment when we are being called to live out our true calling to discipleship. Focus on the way you live and the people you love. Be kind to strangers. Be salt and light. We can be creative because Christ rules!
Thank you for spending a little time reading this epistle. I have a new sympathy for men like Paul and John who wrote to churches when they were imprisoned and exiled. I am also reminded that they had incredible joy.
To God Be The Glory,
APRIL 1, 2020
Out of compassion to others and in accordance with ongoing efforts to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, the WestArk church family will continue to our "stay in place" and "social distancing" adjustments. Here is a summary of changes through the month of April:
1. Worship service will be streamed at 10:30 AM on Sundays for April 5, 12, 19 & 26. These are hosted on the WestArk Church of Christ You Tube channel. If the outbreak recedes quicker than anticipated and we are able to reassemble at the building we will update the congregation.
2. KidMin, WAYG, and LFC are hosting online meetings, classes, and resources. Contact our ministry staff for more information.
3. Some adult classes are putting together online meetings. Check with your class or group leader.
4. Celebrate Recovery will begin online meetings beginning on April 6. Visit WACR.US for information on how you can participate.
5. The following meetings at the building are cancelled through April:
Sunday 6 PM class
Wednesday 7 PM classes
Tuesday Men's Class (cancelled until fall)
Wednesday Morning Women's Class
Parenting Seminar for April 5 is postponed to the fall.
Men's Retreat for April 17-19 is postponed to the fall.
6. The office will be open on Monday through Thursday from 9 AM to Noon.
7. Contributions can be made online here or mail in a check to 900 N. Waldron Road, Fort Smith, AR 72903. We appreciate your ongoing generosity.
Continue to check this page for further updates.
From the Shepherds of the West-Ark Church - March 18, 2020
To the family at WestArk:
First and foremost, we want you to know that we love you and pray for you continually. We are dedicated to the spiritual and, in this instance, also the physical well-being of our WestArk family.
After hours of discussion, deliberation, consideration and, most importantly, prayer, your shepherds have made the decision to suspend our congregational worship at the building for at least the next two Sundays (March 22 & 29). For the next two Sundays, we encourage you to participate in online worship at 10:30. That is what your elders will be doing as we will not be at the building. Using your phone, smart TV, PC or other devices, access the West-Ark You Tube channel. For a quick link to the channel, go to westark.org and click on the red button for WACC TV.
Our national leaders have asked all Americans to suspend group gatherings larger than 10 persons as an effort to aggressively slow the spread of coronavirus. We want to do our part to cooperate and contribute. We want to protect the health of our loved ones and neighbors but also encourage one another on the Lord’s Day. Times like this call for creative adjustments but thank God that He has equipped us to adapt to the occasion. We will make the most of this opportunity.
On or about April 1, we will evaluate the plan for April 5 worship based on the state of the national emergency and directives from officials.
Additionally, the following changes should be noted:
Sunday evening services cancelled for the next 2 weeks
Quilters canceled until further notice
CR on Monday is canceled for March 23 and 30
Tuesday WINGS and Men’s Class is canceled until March 31
Wednesday 10 AM Women’s Class is canceled until March 25.
Wednesday PM classes canceled for March 18 – 25.
WAYG events canceled until April
LFC events canceled until April
The Parenting Seminar for April 5 is postponed until the fall
Finally, we would also ask the following of you:
Please continue your contributions if you can do so. We understand that some may face financial difficulty in the short term and may have to act accordingly. There are several electronic methods to give from the security of your own home or you could simply mail a check to the church office.
Look out for each other, especially our elderly and/or shut-in family members. See if they need anything.
Please spread the word about these changes, especially if you know of someone that does not have internet or e-mail access.
Support our community. If you can please support our local businesses. Maybe order carry-out or delivery, purchase gift cards for later use, etc. Their employees will bear the financial brunt of this crisis.
Be careful. Unfortunately, these times can also bring out the worst in some with scams, frauds, etc. Please be diligent and only obtain your information from the authorities and not from someone who might knock on your door.
This pandemic is an extraordinary situation. It has disrupted our routines and threatens the health of some citizens, but it is also drawing us to be more encouraging, prayerful and cooperative. Let’s do our part to help the national effort by worshiping as the “scattered church” and take this opportunity to closely and quietly examine the meaning of our weekly worship. We will also anticipate that first Sunday when we can ALL get together again at our church home – and we may find that we appreciate it more than ever!
For more details on the Sunday schedule, adjustments to ministry during this pandemic and useful information please go to westark.org.
We love you all!
For the elders,