We are now a number of weeks into the COVID-19 crisis here in the United States. For the most part, many churches and believers have entered into a new normal, at least for the time being, as we ride the turbulent wave of the virus and the damage it inflicts personally, socially, culturally, and spiritually.
Here at the Billy Graham Center we work hard to be a hub for convening, training, and resourcing churches for greater gospel impact. Since the beginning of this crisis, we have sought to be a leading voice for how the church can embrace this crisis as a missional moment.
What I want to do in this post is to list what I see as good news and bad news of how churches and believers are doing during the crisis. In gospel like fashion, let’s start with the bad news and then conclude with the good news.
There’s no question that a crisis elicits decisions. As such, pastors, church boards, and church leaders have had to pause and pivot, and thus plan and prepare for how they will minister and serve their church as well as their community through this crisis.
Just think about it: in literally a period of a week—possibly two—churches had to decide how they were going to conduct ministry and mission. And giving what the federal government (and state governments) was saying—in connection to what the experts were recommending—most churches moved to some form of online ministry.
According to LifeWay Research, only 7% of churches held an in-person worship service by March 29th, and many of them (43%) don’t typically stream their services.
In short, churches have had to pivot hard and shift in a direction they weren’t going.
In the midst of this pivot, two actions have come across either my social media feed or news feed that I believe display some divisional element in the church. And because it is a display of division, I’m labeling it bad news.
Debating Language Used in Moving Church Online
The first bad news element has to do with people wanting to enter into a theological debate on ecclesiology with regards to moving church online. This debate isn’t new, it’s been going on for years.
However, the immediate shift to church on a digital platform has brought out the critics. And so they see pastors and church leaders communicating things like “Join us for church online,” “Watch church online,” “Messages will be on-demand,” and they feel the need to correct them.
In all honesty, I’m not a huge fan of online church services (prior to the crisis). I do believe in the public and corporate gathering of the saints. Over the last few weeks, I have missed gathering with the church to lift high the name of King Jesus. And I know that I am not alone. The reality is, many pastors are concerned with sustaining this model of ministry throughout April—God forbid if it extends into May or June!
There’s no question that church leaders and churches have had to improvise with their model of ministry in the last couple of weeks. In that time, they haven’t had the opportunity to think nor understand how they would communicate linguistically the theological and ecclesiological nuances of leading ministry via a digital platform.
Once we emerge from this crisis, by all means feel free to discuss and debate the theological and ecclesiological intricacies of online church. But for now, my exhortation is to show grace.
Defying Recommendations of Social Distancing
Like I said, crises elicit decisions. While it seems that the majority of churches have ceased in-person gatherings, there are those that continue to meet. Recently, a pastor of a megachurch was arrested on charges of “unlawful assembly and violating public health emergency rules of isolation and quarantine.”
This incident obviously incited division within the Christian community, leading some Christian leaders to make this a 1st Amendment issue.
The dust storm surrounding this incident prompted the Florida state government to clarify the “safer at home” order. In that document, under section 3, it states, “For purpose of this Order and the conduct it limits, ‘essential activities’ means and encompasses the following:
- Attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship….”
I may be missing something here, but why would churches and church leaders defy recommendations handed down by the federal and state governments in light of what the experts are saying—especially in a state that is a “hot spot” for the virus? It may be different if the federal or state governments were banning them to preach, pray, or spread the name of Jesus. But they weren’t. They are simply trying to keep people safe the best way they know how.
We have all seen the news reports coming out of places like Cartersville, Georgia, and Naperville, Illinois, where the coronavirus has hit church gatherings.
Two particular principles come to my mind in this incident. First, while churches and church leaders may have the liberty to meet, is that the wisest, most godly, and most loving thing to do during this time? Second, the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to Rome, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18).
In this crisis, the church shouldn’t be causing trouble for the authorities but working with them for the common good and flourishing of their communities and cities.
But how are churches and believers uniting together to minister and serve their churches and communities? Let me share just a few.
Churches Cooperating to Care for Their Community
In response to a tweet we sent out asking how churches are partnering together during the COVID-19 crisis, Caleb Campbell tweeted how his church has joined others in North Phoenix to do prayer caravans to local hospitals—praying for staff and patients.
Many churches and pastors like Kyle Caudell and Mike D’Avanzo and their respective churches are partnering to collect, package, and deliver groceries to those in need.
A group of churches in Kosciusko County (IN) came together in a spirit of ecumenicism to put out a video to their community called “Here to Serve.” At the end of their video, they offer ways people can reach out for assistance via their Facebook page or email.
Churches Sharing their Property
Like I mentioned earlier, 43% of churches (according to LifeWay Research) are new to streaming online. As a result, many churches didn’t have the staff, volunteers, or equipment they needed to pull this shift off.
But in “Acts 2” fashion, many larger and more equipped churches have stepped up to share their resources.
Zach Lambert, pastor of Restore Austin, tweeted, “We converted our office space into a studio for filming. We are… opening it up to other churches, pastors, and ministries in our city during the week. We’re also providing any tech and production staff needed (free of charge).”
Bryan Alderman, worship pastor at Liberty Baptist Church, tweeted something similar: “It’s a small thing but we’re trying to use our tech resources and facilities to help a neighbor church record their sermons.”
Some churches like Timber Ridge Church have released some of their team to go and train leaders of other churches who don’t have the tech knowledge and experience with moving their service online.
Churches Corporately Worshipping with One Another
Being a pastor myself, I know the tension of sharing the platform (pulpit)—especially in times of crisis. I also understand the dilemma a pastor might experience when asked to do the same series as another church or churches.
So that’s why the following are some of my favorite stories that I have heard coming out of this crisis.
In Popular Bluff, MO, Jason Jordan (Pastor of Westside Church of God) has partnered with three other pastors in the community to write a sermon series together called, “Washing Hands and Feet.”
Travis Lowe, pastor of Crossroads Church in Bluefield, WV partnered with Ebenezer Methodist Church (and other churches) to host a Drive-In Church service. In addition, he is currently working on a Good Friday online event where seven local pastors from the Bluefield community will come together for an online worship experience called, “Seven Words.”
A group of churches in DeSoto Country, MS, decided to launch The Church United in response to the coronavirus pandemic. These churches have the desired to come together “to shine a light showing what the Body of Christ truly looks like.”
Together they have created video devotionals, messages, bible reading plans, a weekly prayer guide, and ways they can serve one another and the community together.
How the Church Will Win Through This Crisis
We are in the middle of a pretty intense battle right now with this crisis and the damages that it is inflecting on our communities and cities. My prayer is that we wouldn’t lose at seizing this gospel opportunity to be salt and light, but rather win at declaring and demonstrating the good news of King Jesus.
The way the church will emerge from this crisis victoriously is three-fold.
First, we must seek the peace and prosperity (the shalom) of the cities and communities where God has planted us.
We cannot be seen as a nuisance. Let us labor for the common good alongside our federal, state, and local governments as well as the medical and scientific expert community.
Second, this is a time to be unified around primary theological tenets, not show how divided we are around secondary and tertiary matters. There is a time and place for robust discussion and debate regarding such matters, but this isn’t the time.
Third, we will need to suffer well as we anchor our lives in the eschatological hope of Christ.
Many people will be negatively impacted by this virus. As believers who anchor our very lives to the King who conquered death we hold fast the words of the Apostle Paul, “Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:16–17).
We can and we will endure as we fix our eyes on the eternal weight of glory when Jesus will make all things new.
In the meantime, in each of these categories, there will be the tendency to succumb to the pressures of defiance towards secular authorities, division within the body of Christ, and distrust of the goodness and sovereignty of God, and thus succumb to the “yeah buts” of why we lost—squandering this gospel moment. But, truly and most importantly, to win at gospel witness—and exercising these missional tools—we will need the Spirit of God to empower us to be the people of God for such as time as this.
Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College, and a co-host of the podcast Living in the Land of Oz. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.