European countries have become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, with both Italy and Spain surpassing China in the number of deaths from COVID-19. While we hope and pray they are finally reaching their peak in the rate of new cases per day, it is still too early to tell.
Leaders around the world are now looking to these European countries for lessons on how to effectively respond to the outbreaks happening in their own countries. And if the rate of new cases does not slow down in the United States, experts are telling us we are probably just a few weeks away from experiencing much of what is happening right now in Italy and Spain.
This week, the Send Institute hosted a Zoom call with pastors, church planters, and missionaries in Italy and Spain to show solidarity and to glean from them how to prepare North American churches for the next few weeks.
The resounding theme from the call was: Get ready.
Francis Arjona, who is the Director of European Christian Mission Spain, gave us a sobering assessment of what is happening right now, “To my friends in North America, the whole system here is collapsing. The hospitals have collapsed. The food supply has collapsed. They are overwhelmed and inundated.”
And while the situation in North America is still early and maybe (we hope) not yet as dire, we should prepare ourselves and heed the words our fellow Christians in Europe have for us.
Pastors Should Take Social Distance Seriously
Ron Anderson, Lausanne Catalyst for Church Planting in Europe, has been a missionary to Europe since 1978. He lives in Madrid which is considered ground zero for the virus in Spain. Ron works with pastors and leaders all over Europe and is seeing the detrimental effects of pastors not taking social distance seriously. He shared a story of a pastor who spread the virus while ministering at a funeral and gave an impassioned plea to American pastors, “If I can say anything to you, do not, do not, abuse the fact that you need to be isolated—especially the pastors. We have many of our pastors in the hospital on respirators.”
In North America, while most pastors and church leaders are taking the necessary precautions to ensure health and safety for themselves and their church members, there are still some churches this past weekend who held very large services, some even as large as 1,800 people.
If a pastor can spread the virus while preaching at a funeral in Spain, what are the risks being taken by pastors in America who continue to hold such large meetings?
Beyond the spread of the virus, pastors who do not take social distancing seriously will inevitably communicate the same thing to the people they lead. And churches that are not taking governmental guidelines and restrictions seriously ultimately are not seriously thinking about their neighbor.
Pastors Should Equip People to Spiritually Feed Themselves
The spiritual crisis that church leaders are dealing with right now is not a crisis of streaming weekend services. The crisis that many churches are facing is that they have not adequately equipped men and women to lead the people in their homes and in their neighborhood.
Miguel Castillo, who is a church planting coaching coordinator for M4 Europe, says that “when a crisis shows up, what is inside of you also shows up.” And in its in these times that Miguel realized that we have not really trained people to feed themselves from the Scripture.
Miguel is seeing with some church planting teams where people do not understand the promises of Scriptures in crisis and where they are lacking an intimacy with Christ. His insight for the North American church is, “Now that you have a gap of a week or two, probably not much more, go back and do an ‘express course’ [for people] on how to feed themselves from the Scriptures and how to feed themselves in Christ.”
We are hearing from European leaders, perhaps, is that whatever we are doing for weekend services, we ought to be making sure that in these weeks ahead we are intentionally teaching people to hear God through the Scriptures for themselves and to lead the people in their homes and neighborhoods to do the same.
How pastors equip people now will decide how discipleship looks like for the months ahead. And as International Mission Board missionary Angela Jolley said, “We should disciple people right now in a way that if Zoom goes down, they will be equipped to lead without you.”
Pastors Should Be Praying and Working at the Same Time
There was a consensus among all the leaders in Italy and Spain that, while the church is responsive and active, this is a challengeing and dark time. The health care systems have almost completely broken down. Medical professionals are tired and many of them have not seen their families in weeks. People do not make eye contact in grocery stores. Those who have loved ones that have died in these weeks are unable to give proper funerals.
This is in the midst of the anxiety and mounting boredom that people had already been dealing with during the several weeks before.
Both the spread of the virus and the responses to it have caused their societal condition to advance beyond the stage where people are tempted to panic, to now where people are dealing with tiredness, loneliness, and sadness.
Justin Valiquette, a church planter in Italy and pastor of Nuova Vita, shared with us that they have accounted for all their church members, past guests, and people who have had contact with their church. This is useful as a prayer list but also so that they can be intentional in making sure everyone in their church has daily personal contact. After our call, Justin posted a devotional to Facebook in Italian which we’ve translated a portion of it to English:
“While the world around us is filled with fear and uncertainty, this is our opportunity to shine like lights in the darkness. We can be a community of people with calm hearts like the sea, a community that has listened to His voice and announces His great power and infinite love to the world.”
Prayer calms our panic and also directs our preparation.
Our European Brothers and Sisters
We stand in solidarity and with great empathy towards our sisters and brothers in Christ in Italy and Spain, especially as they reach the height of the crisis and we are in the early days of ours. We are sensing a greater urgency, these days, for churches in North America to go beyond just getting worship services online equipping leaders and making disciples that will come out of this crisis spiritually stronger than before.
Just as churches in Italy and Spain are modeling this for us right now, in the oncoming days, our prayer is that churches in North America will learn from them and show a greater level of urgency and preparation.
Because the level of urgency and preparation we have in limiting the spread of the virus right now can later be a launchpad for the urgency and preparation we will have to further spread the gospel in its aftermath.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.
Daniel Yang, Director of the SEND Institute, contributed to this article.