The Church and Coronavirus

By Jay Newland | Church Leadership

It’s time to partake of the elements.” I had heard this phrase countless times while attending a church service. But for the first time ever, I paused before I grabbed the small wafer on the Communion plate that was being passed down the aisle.

My 9-year-old daughter’s questions about the coronavirus earlier in the day were still fresh in my mind. As I carefully picked up the wafer, I whispered into my wife’s ear the reason for my hesitation. She nodded in agreement. My next thought? Church leadership needs to be ready.

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, a virus that began months ago in Wuhan, China, has now captivated the world. It seems every news outlet is leading with a story on the coronavirus.

Although there are still many unknowns regarding this virus, we do know it is causing massive disruption. Images of airport travelers in masks and empty grocery store shelves are shaping people’s conversations and behavior.

As COVID-19 dominates the headlines, church leaders must demonstrate proactive leadership to ensure places of worship are safe so people looking for hope can continue to walk through the doors. Without appropriate planning and safeguards, churches risk being in the wrong headlines concerning this virus.

Instead, I believe God wants the local church to be a model for how organizations and businesses can continue to gather people together without causing unnecessary risks.

The Church is uniquely positioned to lead the way and continue to share the message of hope for two reasons. First, there is no other institution that has endured more times of fear and uncertainty. Throughout its history, the Church has navigated disasters, disease and war. Through thick and thin, we continue to point the way to Jesus, the hope of the world.

Secondly, Scripture teaches that nothing is too hard for God (Jeremiah 32:27; Matthew 19:26). What the world views as an impossible situation, people of faith see as an opportunity for God to be glorified.

Of course, faith should not lead to complacency. Rather, church leaders should guide the way in times of disruption. This will require proactive leaders who are able to build trust with the congregation and community through careful planning and strategic steps.

Although each church is unique, there are three important steps all churches can take to ensure the continued proclamation of the gospel.

Prepare for the Coming Storm

It’s best for leaders to view preparation for this virus like a big winter storm. The snow is on its way and will cause some disruption, followed by the snow melting away. When proactive church leaders see a storm coming, they communicate plans through all media, mobilize volunteers, and clean away the snow when it arrives.

A proactive response to the coronavirus looks quite similar. Leaders must formulate a plan to keep the church and the community as safe as possible.

The Church is uniquely positioned to lead the way and continue to share the message of hope.

Included in any plan should be measures to keep facilities clean as well as designated areas where people can wash or sanitize their hands. Also, just like during flu season, church leadership should discourage church or group attendance if anyone has a fever or respiratory symptoms.

Precautionary communication like this should begin with staff and leadership and cascade down so they will model the behavior for small groups, teams, and the rest of the congregation. As people hear that a staff member is working from home as a precaution, they will make mental notes that will shape future behavior for the rest of the church.

Whatever the details of your plan, the words “precautionary,” “clean,” and “safe” should accompany the communications posted and printed. These words and thoughtful planning will go a long way toward reassuring your congregation and the community.

Adapt Your Ministry Methods

Whether there is crisis or calm, the mission of Christ remains the same. Yet how the message is delivered continues to adapt as the culture changes. Thus, Jesus’ call for new wineskins should resonate with church leadership in times like these. Since COVID-19 is contagious, leaders must scan their ministry environments and adapt by determining the person-to-person contacts that should be revised or replaced.

For instance, prepackaged Communion elements are an easy way to eliminate obvious risks. Similarly, offering plates or boxes can be placed in stationary locations. Or better yet, use this as an opportunity to streamline online giving.

Adapting can be fun too. For greeting and fellowship times, encourage air high fives, foot taps or banging elbows. I know this sounds crazy, but I just witnessed my daughter’s teacher elbowing her goodbye! The reality is, most people are thinking and talking about these issues, and the quicker church leaders address them by adapting, the more people will trust the Church during this disruption.

In some areas, the disruption from the coronavirus may become more severe. Although we pray this is not the case, the possibility for significant disruption is real. For churches located in these areas, adaptation may involve a season of online services via YouTube or Facebook.

Also, small groups can utilize Zoom or Microsoft Teams to connect with one another temporarily. This step may seem scary at first, but church leadership should have an adaptive plan in place so the message of hope is advanced and the body of Christ continues to connect with one another.

Cover It All with Prayer

With the buzz about coronavirus growing every day, the distinct advantage for the Church during this disruption is that our conversations include Jesus.

Schools, businesses and hospitals have leaders who are preparing and adapting in response to the coronavirus disruption. But our churches have leaders who are Spirit-empowered and divinely positioned to meet the spiritual needs of people in times of crisis and uncertainty.

The fear and uncertainty created by the coronavirus opens the door for the Church to show people the perfect love that drives out fear through consistent and specific prayer. Because God uniquely positions the Church to respond, leaders must be ready to demonstrate compassionate leadership by prioritizing prayer for the sick, prayer for medical professionals, and prayer for miracles.

Along with preparation and adaptation, implementing a plan for prayer is an essential step for church leaders, as prayer paves the way for peace and hope during times of fear and uncertainty. And no matter what the headline, it is the message of hope in Christ that will continue to endure.