How Church Leaders Should Respond to COVID-19

Yesterday, the World Health Organization finally classified the novel coronavirus as a pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to spread, many people in our churches are looking for direction and guidance. Much of this direction and guidance comes from cable TV, from social media, from government websites, and from friends and family, and rightly so. However, I believe that some of this direction and guidance should also come from church leaders.

When the world is immersed in a specific topic of conversation, it is a divine opportunity for the church to enter into the dialogue. It is an opportunity to show the world that the church is engaged, aware, and willing to serve.But when church leaders remain silent when the world is brimming in conversation, the underlying message that people may receive is that matters of faith are irrelevant to matters of the world. 

But just entering into the dialogue is not enough. We the church must enter into the dialogue from a Christian perspective. The Christian faith offers unique priorities and values that should frame how we talk about the situations at hand, and we must utilize the resources our faith offers us in our conversations.

As Jesus said, the church must be in the world but not of the world (cf. John 17:14-19).

What Churches Can Do

The big question for churches has to do with their Sunday services. As we witness universities, political rallies, parades, and sporting events being canceled, should churches do the same with their Sunday services?

Some critics of canceling service may quickly respond, “We must live by faith, not by fear.” But changing our church routines does not have to be done out of fear. It can also be done out of love for the sick, the elderly, or the immunocompromised.

On the other hand, critics of not canceling service may quickly respond, “We must live by wisdom, not by ignorance.” But holding a church service does not have to be done out of ignorance. Depending on the situation, it can be possible that holding a church service can be done meticulously, out of love for all who are present and all who are not present.

There is no right answer. Each church must first evaluate their immediate context, taking into account the current spread of the virus in their community, the size of their congregation, the age demographics of their congregation, the prevalence of low-income populations in their community who may be more vulnerable to the impact of the virus, and so on. After this evaluation, then church leaders can properly come up with a plan of response, which will look different from church to church.

The current reality is that authorities like the CDC (Center for Disease Control) have been recommending social distancing in various communities that have the risk of the novel coronavirus. In light of recommendations from experts to have social distancing, what should we do? Depending on your church situation, there are three possible ways to respond.

1. Continue to meet for Sunday service, but make changes to minimize the likelihood of viral transmission.

If you feel convicted to continue holding service, by all means do that. But here are some sample changes you can make to reduce the risk of infection and to protect not only your congregants but those your congregants may interact with.

  • Ask people who show signs of sickness, people who have recently traveled to Level 3 Travel Health Notice countries (currently, China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea), and people who are elderly or immunocompromised to refrain from attending service.
  • Discourage physical contact, even handshakes.
  • Discourage communal food.
  • Provide easily accessible hand sanitizer throughout the meeting location.
  • Wipe down and sanitize all commonly touched items and surfaces.
  • Consider altering communion (or canceling communion altogether) so that it can be taken with minimal physical contact with other people. If you typically have a self-serve format, consider having a single server who wears gloves. If you typically use a common cup, switch to individual cups.
  • Consider streaming your service online (if you don’t already) so that people who are not able to attend service can participate.

2. Opt for an essential-parties livestream model.

If you do not want to cancel service, you can also restrict Sunday service attendance to only necessary parties (everybody who has a role on the stage) and encourage all others to watch a livestream of the service online. It may be odd to lead music or preach sermons in front of empty pews, but many organizations have been doing something similar already. For example, the NCAA recently announced that they “recommend against sporting events open to the public.” They are limiting all sport events to “only essential personnel and limited family attendance.”

If you’ve never livestreamed a church service before, the simplest way to do it is to set up a phone or an iPad in a place where the whole stage can be captured (plus a projector screen, if so desired), make sure it is plugged into an outlet, choose a livestreaming platform (like Facebook or Instagram), and go live. If you would like to ensure better video/audio quality on a small budget, this video tutorial by Jake Gosselin can be helpful.

3. Cancel Sunday service.

Under appropriate circumstances, canceling Sunday service does not imply a lack of faith. It may in fact be an act of love. While it is certainly valuable to provide for both congregants and visitors a weekly place for worship, instruction, fellowship, and rest, in your scenario, it may be worthwhile to cancel the service out of love for one another and your community.

Even if you do cancel Sunday service, people do not have to be alone. You can still encourage people to gather in small groups in people’s homes. You can still choose to have a pastor livestream a short sermon or devotional from his or her own house. After all, the church is not a building. It is not an event. It is the people.

What Individuals Can Do

Regardless of what you do this Sunday, in addition to taking preemptive measures as a church, it would also be wise to provide spiritual guidance to individuals, as they try to seek out a new normal in this ever-changing reality. The responsibility of public health does not just fall on organizations but also on ordinary people. Likewise, the responsibility of the church living out the mission of God does not just fall on the organizational church but also on the organic church. Here are some principles to encourage your church members to abide by.

  • Limit your physical contact with others, but don’t isolate yourself. If you can telework, do that. If you can walk instead of taking a bus, do that. There are plenty of ways to limit your physical contact with others in order to slow down the transmission of the coronavirus. But don’t be alone. Technology allows us to stay in touch with one another, so try to be creative in making sure you are still relationally connected. Also, if you are relationally connected with people who are elderly, people who have preexisting conditions, people whose kids cannot go to school, etc., ask them if they need assistance and look for practical ways to serve them during this trying time.
  • Make sure you have basic necessities, but don’t over-stockpile. Wisdom invites us to make sure we save up on items like food and water, pain relievers, and tissue paper. However, we want to collectively limit our purchases so that we do not deplete our local stores. We want to make sure that others who are perhaps more vulnerable than we are can easily obtain the items they need.
  • Do your research on the coronavirus, but don’t demean others who disagree with you. There are a lot of opinions out there. Some Christians are responding to the coronavirus with debilitating fear, and other Christians are responding with dismissive skepticism. Many in the first camp have been criticizing those in the second camp for their lack of wisdom, and many in the second camp have been criticizing those in the first camp for their lack of faith. Regardless of which camp you naturally lean toward, please seek to learn about the conoravirus from unbiased sources so that you are not misinformed and spreading false information. Additionally, please do not attack, mock, or joke about those who have different convictions. We the church must be united by our love for one another.

For the Christian, the current COVID-19 crisis, like all crises, is an opportunity not to shrink back in fear, or to isolate ourselves, but it is to love others. Light shines most powerfully in the darkness. So I ask that you would let the gospel shine before all through the love of the church.

Larry Lin

Larry was born and raised in San Jose, CA and now lives in Baltimore, MD. He has a BS from Cornell University and a MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Larry is the husband to Van-Kim and the father of one daughter and one son, and he enjoys songwriting, basketball, Wikipedia, graphs, and conversations about politics and culture. Larry previously served for 8 years as a vocational pastor at Village Church Hampden in Baltimore, where he continues to serve as a lay elder.

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