In the last 24 hours, Americans have seen that the coronavirus COVID-19 is not the seasonal flu that some had dismissed online. It’s serious. It’s life threatening. It’s spreading.
And, it will change our way of life, at least for a while.
There is no need to panic, but there is a need to plan well and wisely. That’s not just the NBA or your local college, but also your church, your family, and you.
So, what can you do? Or, better yet, what should you do?
Seek expertise, not personality
It is not surprising that in the midst of growing panic about the virus there has been a flood of misinformation. One of the most glaring flaws in our society is how we frequently turn to celebrities and media personalities for wisdom and insight, people who often have little wisdom or expertise but might have a broad platform.
Social media is not your friend here—your uncle’s Facebook post is no more useful in this situation than when he posted about that last conspiracy theory. Yesterday.
But, now it’s deadly serious.
In essence, we are reaping the rewards of decades of media polarization and celebrity worship.
This is part of why we’ve launched www.coronavirusandthechurch.com. We want to elevate experts and professionals to help bring accurate information to Christians and church leaders in the midst of confusion.
When there is confusion and uncertainty, look for experts who have dedicated their lives to help. In this case it means the doctors and health care professionals who are courageously fighting and preparing to fight this virus across the country and the globe. Through modeling this effort, church leaders can play a vital role in helping their people cut through the morass of misinformation to the truth.
At the site, you will see links to CDC resources for faith communities, resources from scholars at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, and resources from church leaders.
Seek clarity, not impulsivity
When fear comes, there is a temptation to frenetically chase activity. We are quick to jump on what we think we should be doing or to follow the crowd when reaches the tipping point. Yet it is critical in this time to instead stop and step back.
Take time to think through what fears are at work in your heart and in your community. Write them down and think through how best to respond in ways that are constructive and God-glorifying. Fear can wreck our lives, or fear can serve as a catalyst to push us to a healthier way of growth.
Indeed, Paul gives us the framework for how to seek this clarity. He encourages us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
Seek hope, not fear
So much of the battle against fear comes down to where we are looking. Our minds are going to be constantly drawn to the next article, the next video, the next update about where the virus is and what we need to do. There will be an endless parade of content ready to feed that drive in the coming days and it will be critical for the follower of Jesus to combat this by turning again and again to our hope in Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke against this kind of fear:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on…Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:25,27)
In the midst of confusion we should be informed and have a plan but most critically we should be regularly in prayer and God’s Word to refocus our hearts on where our hope, courage, and encouragement come from.
This is why Jesus taught that in the face of anxiety and fear we are offered a compelling alternative: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” So much of our actions reveal the underlying kingdom we are chasing. Are we seeking the hope that comes with Christ’s kingdom or are we secretly trying to protect our own?
Through epidemics, wars, and famines, the church has responded by offering a compelling hope of a kingdom that is untouched by these dangers. As Christians we stand in the tradition and have made those same professions every Sunday as we gather.
As our world is confronting their mortality, for some of them the first time, we have the choice to either place our faith in the hope of Christ or to mirror their fear born of a perishable hope.
Seek mission, not isolation
One tragic fact about our society is that we have made dealing with a crisis such as this virus significantly more difficult through our embrace of polarization and politicization. The problem with ratcheting up of the culture wars in the past decade is that we have essentially treated one another as if we have had the plague according to your cultural and political allegiances. Now when we need to work together and need to cut through tribal differences, we have little trust.
In this context, let me suggest a few practical ways Christians can seek the mission of the gospel rather than to isolate themselves entirely.
First, focus on the vulnerable populations that will be particularly hit by this virus.
This is primarily older men and women and those with underlying health risks. Think through those in your immediate reach in either of these categories and how you can help them prepare.
Do they have enough food or medicine? Do that have lines of communication to you and others to ask for help? There can be no clearer picture in scripture of how to live out our faith than to care for the widows. Being ready and available to step up is important to communicate even now as we prepare.
Second, resist the bunker mentality that prioritize yourself to the exclusion of others.
We need to always listen to medical professionals and if you’re showing signs of illness the best way to love others if by to stay away. However, fear can also compel us to hoard what we can and build walls to keep others out.
When everyone is thinking about what “I” have, the gospel calls us to care for what others have.
Even now, I’ve started reaching out to my neighbors. You can as well. Imagine millions of Christians checking on their neighbors this week, to see how they are prepared, rather than rushing to Costco to see how you are prepared.
Sometimes even just letting people know you are there and available to help should they need you goes a significant way.
Third, be ready to pay a cost.
I can’t promise that being missional in the midst of a crisis will not come with a cost. Many Christians who ministered in the midst of plague or who gave of their resources even in the famine throughout church history paid with their lives. I don’t say this to induce panic and I recognize that it may cause hesitation.
But my point is to draw out attention to the reality that we don’t serve because of an earthly reward because our hope is secure in heaven. This act of giving even as great personal cost is an act of faith, only doable through the power of God’s spirit working in the life of a believer. Begin to pray now that you might be ready to step up and live out your faith when the time comes.
This is Our Time
While frightening, this virus represents a rare window for the church. Whether due to politicization or cultural trends, the phrase “evangelical Christian” has seen better days. Throughout it all, I have always maintained that when the chips are down, evangelicals will lead the way in serving and caring for others in the moments of crisis.
We have reached that time when we are either going to live up to our words or we must stop talking about kingdom mission and evangelism. How we respond to this crisis will go a long way to determine if there is an evangelicalism moving forward.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. Andrew MacDonald is associate director of the Billy Graham Center Institute.