It was only two weeks ago that some Messianic congregations around Israel were scrambling to adjust to Ministry of Health regulations that limited gatherings to only 100 people at a time. But most congregations have fewer than 100 members and were unaffected.
This week, however, all congregations, plus synagogues, churches and mosques around the country, have been prohibited from meeting at all. New regulations implemented in order to control the spread of the contagious COVID-19 virus forbid most citizens from venturing more than 100 meters from their home unless they are buying food or medicine at a nearby store.
Within one month, the landscape of fellowship and connection between believers has been utterly altered, perhaps permanently.
“I think once this is over we will face a new reality, a new routine,” Liron Shany, a pastor at The Way in Carmiel (Kehilat Haderech), told Kehila News. “Things will not go back to what we are used to and I think we need to set our hearts to be ready for that.”
“This should change the perspective we have about what a congregation is and how it should function,” Shany said.
Like many people around the world — both business and individuals — believers in Israel have turned to Zoom calls, live online streaming and WhatsApp groups in order to maintain their weekly services, to encourage one another and simply to stay in touch during this time of social distancing.
“Everyone is in a learning curve of new programs, but from a congregational standpoint the goal is about connecting,” Philip Litle, associate pastor at Beit Eliyahu in Haifa, said. “In general we are seeing that people are learning to use different tools, they are finding ways around what they are used to.”
Litle noted what is sometimes a generational gap in people’s responses to technology.
“The difficulty is keeping in touch with one another. It is hard for people who are used to meeting together” to rely on internet meetings, Litle told Kehila News. “For the younger generation, where the phone tends to substitute for personal contact, it is an opportunity to reflect on how important the personal contact is as well.”
The learning curve has been fast. For all congregations — even for churches, synagogues and mosques — the Ministry of Health orders began trickling in early this month as Israel clamped down on public gatherings from sporting events to prayer services. March began with a crowd maximum of 5,000 who could gather. In just three short weeks, that number was cut to 2,000 then chopped further to 100, then 10 to a total ban on prayer services.
Congregations throughout the land have been spinning to comply with the ever-tightening restrictions. Across the board, the goal has been to stay connected, to continue to provide teaching and to bring encouragement to the congregants — especially those who live alone.
Though the transition has been challenging, if only because of the speed with which it had to be done, it has come with a silver lining.
Eliel Fos, outreach coordinator at Kehilat HaCarmel near Haifa, noted that while the regulations have hampered outreaches, there is a positive development.
“Yes, of course, it is not easy now to do street evangelism, but God is not limited,” he told Kehila News. “Our evangelistic videos are getting double the views, meaning Israelis are exposed more to Yeshua-based content.”
The responses have been amazing, he said. “One religious man said, ‘I am confused, I was religious all my life, but now it’s not working for me anymore. I am looking for something more,’” Fos related. “A secular man asked three questions during our talk: ‘What does God want? How can I have relationship with God? How do I give God my heart?’”
Shmuel Birnbaum, who jumped on the technology bandwagon straightaway, found many advantages through this new way of connecting and teaching.
“I had just purchased an iPhone 11 and that has become a really great asset for this crisis,” the leader of Yam Ahavato (Sea of His Love) in Bat Yam said. “On the Zoom calls, you have everyone right in front of you right there in your home and everyone is just relaxed. No one has anywhere to go, no one is shifting positions, no one is rushing out the door.”
Birnbaum is streaming his Shabbat services now from home and every day he has a scheduled word of encouragement on Facebook live, 10 a.m. EST, which he treats as a regular appointment.
With Passover — one of the biggest festivals in Israel — coming up, congregations usually provide food baskets for the needy. Many are wondering how to accomplish that within the new regulations and only two weeks to go till the holiday.
“Of course it is challenging to do it and we are trying to obey all the regulations,” Fos said. “But these people do not have enough food to sustain themselves.”
Nevertheless, this global crisis is changing the way the Body of Messiah will have to approach its role in the future.
“It’s not about buildings and assemblies, it’s about reaching out and knowing how to function even when we cannot meet,” Shany said. “We know that earthquakes, plagues and wars are just the beginning of birth pangs. This crisis is just a rehearsal.”
Two common themes that believing leaders are proclaiming here in Israel in light of the coronavirus are: to really trust in the Lord as many are wondering from where their next paycheck will come, and to heed the important directive — be anxious for nothing.
“The media really pushes everyone to fear,” Shany said. “It is easier to control people when they are afraid. We have to remember that God has not given us a spirit of fear.”
“For me the most encouraging thing here is in James. In Latin, corona means crown and everybody is looking at this ‘crown’ which makes us fearful and afraid. It tries to take away our hope,” he continued. “But in James 1:12 it says ‘Blessed is the one who endures, he will receive the crown of life.’ That is the real corona, not the one that causes us fear, but the one that crowns us with life.”
“These are special and exciting times, but this is a trial we have to endure,” Shany exhorted. “Things will be different afterwards, but it is not the end.”
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”