On March 6, I tweeted: “If you are a pastor or church leader, what are you saying/doing regarding Coronavirus this weekend during worship? Have you sent out any emails? How are you encouraging your church? Etc.”
Over 100 people responded. Most provided general, prudent, pastoral wisdom. Some provided links to local or national healthcare sites. Some, however, believe this to be some level of much-ado-about-nothing. Some of the more interesting responses came from the areas closest to the outbreaks, or from overseas. I’ve put representative examples from several categories here:
First, I heard from several pastors and leaders closest to the areas of outbreak like Seattle.
Many churches canceled public services opting for online instead:
@salt_house425 said: “We are located a couple miles from the epicenter of outbreak in Kirkland, WA. We do a live stream of our services (sermons) every week on FB. We canceled public gatherings and going online only. Decision fatigue is settling in.”
Tyson Supasatit is a lay pastor in Washington. He said: “Here in Bellevue, WA, our eldership just decided to cancel in-person services and have everyone watch the livestream. I’m preaching on Sunday (in lieu of our Sr. Pastor who is traveling) and would appreciate your prayers.”
A pastor’s wife from Seattle gave helpful advice: “I think it depends on where you live, we are in the center of Seattle and have many elderly in our congregation, my husband chose to cancel services, as have many in our area.”
However, one pastor and his young church were still meeting as of the past Sunday. He posted a letter to his congregation exhorting them not to be ruled by fear. He noted the importance of community and thus their continuing corporate services but emphasized, “We don’t want to be foolish about it either.” He included a link to the county health guidelines and the launching of a livestream of their services. He encouraged the church to be “inventive” in their response.
Also, Pastor Andrew Fouche and his church held services: “We’re right in the thick of it, just outside of Seattle, trying to be wise but not give into fear. Still worshipping together this Sunday.” He also posted a letter encouraging the sick to stay home, noting a deep cleaning of the church, that both sanitizer for attendees and livestreaming for those staying home were available. He exhorted, “Times like these expose character and beliefs.”
Many pastors offered encouragement to be wise and not fear while also giving counsel on how to respond.
A number as noted above cited practical plans like deep cleaning, no passing of the offering plates, providing hand sanitizer, and fist bumps instead of handshakes or hugs. @RevStephenBudd of Kanata Baptist in Ottawa, Ontario, wrote: “We are asking folks to welcome with a wave of some other non-physical way.” Apparently, @thetimber saw an opportunity here, as he replied: “Touch free church? Man, if you advertise it, you’ll attract a wave of introverts!
In several cases, pastors noted they were changing how communion would be conducted. Pastor Brian Ingalls wrote: “We take communion weekly. This Sunday providing packets of the bread so people can keep it with them & avoid common tray. Not putting used cups back in the tray.”
Matthew McNelly @nellfire is in eastern Washington and wrote: “For communion we are going to individual cups and a precut bread instead of our normal practice of intinction with a common cup and loaf.” Intinction, if you didn’t know, is dipping the bread in the wine before consumption.
A few pastors from outside the country replied as well.
At least one church in Switzerland canceled its services according to Habegger Evelyne.
Hunter Farrell shared a letter from Pastor Steve Yamaguchi (formerly of Fuller Seminary) to his church in Tokyo. He overviewed hygienic changes and encouraged “elbow bumps” for greetings, and reported on meetings with medical professionals. They plan to continue main services but canceled some secondary events.
Albert Ng from Hong Kong repeated a theme that a number of respondents said—that his church determined to “turn the crisis into a serving opportunity.”
Another example of using the heightened concern over the coronavirus as an opportunity to servecame from Pastor @DJJenkins from Studio City in Los Angeles. His church posted an article from the @erlc.
He also used the crisis as a teaching moment with eight points over three tweets: “1) Followers of Jesus don’t need to fear. Our eternity is forever secure 2) Our calling is to love our neighbor, sick or healthy 3) Beware of xenophobic tendencies in our hearts toward Asian communities/friends. Teach kids about harmful/racist jokes. 4) If you feel sick, please stay home. We have a livestream for just such an occasion. 5) Let us know so we can pray for you and/or send elders. 6) We will continue to gather every Sunday regularly, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. 7) We changed up communion from a community cup to individual plastic cups for the foreseeable future. 8) We prayed for God’s mercy and wisdom for US and global leaders.”
Alison Acone observed: “We’ve quoted our missionary from China: we don’t pray for protection; we pray to be used.”
And, of course, there were those who saw the coronavirus as an opportunity of another kind, to make light of it.
One, @PreacherJames3, posted a meme saying, “We’re all going to die!” Another, @stanrodda, posted a video of the Wuhan Shake having fun with alternative ways of greeting. And, you knew this would show up: @rexwolf74 said, “Under threat of the corona virus, we’re keeping It biblical…Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. I Thessalonians 5:26.”
Some argued it is overblown at best and an indictment of America’s weak spirituality at worst.
A sampling of proposed responses: @pastortrout offered, “Nothing. Just like I did as a missionary in malaria infested Africa. We went to church and worshiped God. We placed our hands on fevered brows and prayed. We shook hands and hugged necks of people living in abject poverty. Can we not trust God for anything in this nation!” For Pastor @JimJacobson, it’s business-as-usual: “I’m going to shake hands like I usually do. God has not given us a spirit of fear.” To which @jlbean23 replied: “He also gives wisdom.” And, @pastorjl added, “Nothing! Except, oh yeh, Nothing!”
Finally, a number reached out to healthcare professionals for their expertise.
These include @pastortritten, @ellis_craft, and others. Pastor Joe Miller commented: “One of my best friends is a PhD Biosafety officer. We’re bringing him in tomorrow for an interview and time of prayer before the sermon. Glad we’re using this time to gain perspective from experts, and then ultimately look to God for a healthy level of preparedness.”
I want to give kudos to all the pastors and leaders seeking to communicate well and implement wise practices. I was especially struck by a number of the letters that pastors sent to their congregations. Just a few examples include @jonathan_dodson’s letter, @jordaneasley’s letter, @salt_house425’s commitment to be a “tethered community,” and @akendle’s practical steps.
Overall, responses from pastors focused on spiritual encouragement, practical solutions, and reasoned responses. I was glad to see this, but the reality is that this novel virus is hard to understand since it’s so new. Each response reveals a different way to respond, and with anything new, we must take what we know and seek to include good practice in an unknown situation.
Last week, I wrote an article on “Advice for Churches from the Surgeon General: Preparing Your Church for Coronavirus.” In that article, I shared some of my own thoughts on our response, including communicating well with your church, reeducating your church staff and volunteers regarding good hygiene for all, and modifying routines that may threaten to spread disease.
I’ll be sharing more about these in the days to come and tomorrow we will running an article on standing firm against the fear that threatens to overcome us. God is still on his throne even as we seek out effective and wise ways to deal with this growing pandemic.
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. The Exchange team helped with this article.