The new CDC guidelines came out last night. They recommend no gatherings “of 50 people or more throughout the United States” for the next eight weeks.
I talked to an official in the administration, and I learned that the federal government is very wary of telling churches they can/cannot meet, but we should expect this kind of guidance for no large groups to include churches.
In addition, I reached out to the Surgeon General’s office. (As I mentioned, I had met with the Surgeon General and his team a couple of weeks ago.) Dr. Janet Wright shared this:
Thank you for your note. I know you and your networks are aware of the CDC guidance to faith-based organizations, available here and last updated on March 6. While the new guidance (Mar 15) does not specifically call out churches, the public health principles of social distancing and protecting the most vulnerable definitely apply. Like all CDC guidance, this is a recommendation based on the best available science.
In other words, this will almost certainly be what your communities will expect unless we hear something more from the CDC. Thus, we should plan accordingly.
As most churches will follow the recommendations, that means we are about to see a mass movement to smaller settings or groups––starting now. For churches, this means all your Easter plans to this point have just changed.
We will be providing more resources about this, including a podcast launching today on leading through this crisis at http://CoronaVirusAndTheChurch.com. The new podcast will be called, Leading in the Coronavirus Crisis and will include pastors, scientists, counselors, and more.
This is not the first time churches have been asked not to meet for a period of time due to a contagious outbreak. See this article for a precedent in Washington, DC, in 1918. But it is the first time in our lifetime to face anything like this. Here are some initial thoughts as we move forward.
First, we need to remind ourselves and those we lead that God is still in control and is not surprised by any of this, and we need to do this consistently and continually.
In Acts 4, when the early believers faced their first persecution involving the arrest of Peter and John, how did they respond? After their release, Peter and John with the church lifted their voices in prayer, starting with “Sovereign Lord” (Acts 4:23). We continually praise and honor God no matter what our circumstances are.
Second, we need to see this as an opportunity and not necessarily a liability.
Instead of saying to your people that we have to do this because of the government recommendation, we can say we get to do something special in our community to show our care for those at greatest risk and to demonstrate that the church is far more than a gathering on the weekend. It might be that this Easter the church will be more powerful scattered throughout our communities than gathered in our buildings.
Third, the elephant in the room regards services over the weekends for the coming weeks.
If you aren’t already utilizing online technology for services, now is the time to start. Here are some resources to help: https://coronavirusandthechurch.com/#resources. I saw a number of instances where small groups gathered to watch the services together. What a great opportunity to gather and to invite others who aren’t in the higher risk demographic to come together in worship. At the same time, let’s be much in prayer for pastors who have many decisions to make.
Fourth, we can live out the Great Commandment.
Start by mobilizing your church to protect those at risk. We can give thanks for the fact that almost all people under age 60 who are otherwise healthy should be able to ward off the coronavirus should you contract it.
And every person in that significant demographic should give first attention to protect those outside it, in particular the elderly. Tell your seniors that they can fully exercise their freedom in Christ to stay away from gatherings and to practice social distancing and effective sanitary practices as we all should.
Set up a ministry to check on them and help them. Let me be direct: if you are a young or middle-aged adult, heed the words of Dr. Michael S. Saag, a world-renowned Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama-Birmingham: “Someone over the age of 80 has up to a 40% mortality risk.”
Fifth, this is the time to live out the Great Commission as your church becomes the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus in the coming days.
This includes how we treat one another, how we respond to adversity, and how we both show and share the love of Christ to the unchurched. God has given us an amazing opportunity to live out our faith in our communities. Some specific ways:
- Providing childcare for healthcare workers whose kids are out of school
- Preparing meals for children and families in need
- Walking a dog for elderly neighbors
- Offering to pick up food and supplies for those most at risk
- Regularly calling and texting those in your neighborhood to check in
- Offering words of HOPE for those dealing with anxiety and depression
- Support local businesses through ordering out as you are able
- When you have to go shopping, inquire with workers as to how they are and tell them you will be praying for their safety
Finally, when this season has passed––and it will pass––let us plan a great celebration of thanks to God, inviting our entire communities to gather with us. What a remarkable opportunity to join with our people, healthcare workers, officials, and so many others who walked this path together.
May this be a time where the uncertainty and discomfort of this season make us catalysts for creative and effective means to reach others. May it be a time when we show those around us that we care about them and the most vulnerable in our communities.
Paul ministered primarily in the synagogue when he first came to Ephesus in Acts 19. However, he soon faced opposition which forced him to adapt. He moved to a different place and shifted his focus to teaching daily. What happened? Verse 10 says:
“This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” Sometimes, the unexpected trials we face open opportunities for ministry we never thought of before. May this be such a time, and may we be ready.
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.