By Denise George
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Coming together for church — for worship, fellowship, prayer and Bible study — is the very heart of the Southern Baptist congregation. We want assembly, and we need face-to-face, hand-to-hand human interaction as an active, loving congregation.
In 1930, in a time of unusual uncertainty and stress, German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated: “A Christian who stays away from the assembly is a contradiction in terms.”
Downsides of closures
What happens to congregations when the nation’s churches close due to the COVID-19 virus crisis?
- The church may cease to function as a corporate body, a gathered assembly, and may become less important in people’s minds as they no longer gather in formal services. They may even begin to undervalue the necessity of Christian assembly.
- Church members may form new habits about worship, opting to stay at home long after the crisis passes. New church-going habits are formed. Samuel Johnson stated: “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” The more often a habit is performed, the more it gets physically wired into the human brain. Every time a person acts in the same way, the pattern becomes strengthened in the brain.
- Without regular person-to-person caring contact, some members may be unintentionally ignored, especially those whose needs are urgent: the sick, homebound, elderly, impoverished and the mentally challenged. They may come to believe the congregation no longer cares about them or their families.
- Congregations may reduce or stop weekly tithes and contributions. Even a single Sunday of closing for bad weather can seriously damage a church’s fiscal health. A long-term crisis may mean some churches must close their doors forever.
How can pastors, church staff and congregations keep churches and members alive and healthy? Here are some practical suggestions:
- Communicate the temporary nature of this situation to church members. The nation has faced past emergency measures, such as war times and seasons of flu, which are temporary and will pass. Assure them that God can be trusted. He is still in control in times of national crises.
- Pray for the pastor, church staff and church members. Pray for individuals, their families and communities. Start online prayer chains, making members aware of each other’s urgent needs.
- Use technology to keep in constant touch with church members, checking on older members, new parents, pregnant women and the mentally or physically disabled. Call, email, text, send notes, employ FaceTime, Instagram, etc. Also check on people in the community, allowing them to view a caring church in action even when the church building is closed.
- Help others stay home to stop the spread of the virus. Use drive-thru shopping (pharmacies, grocery stores, etc.) to purchase needed items, and then deliver them to those who can’t or shouldn’t get out.
- Maintain regularly scheduled worship times at home. Take time to pray, study the Scriptures, sing hymns and worship as a family. By scheduling regular family worship at home, families will be ready to return to church when the crisis passes.
- Share your cash and/or supplies with members who are without funds. Many are surviving paycheck to paycheck, experiencing expensive health care needs or losing jobs after business closings. If you have extra food/supplies, leave them at the door of someone who needs them. Find online stores, create an account and pay for/order supplies to be delivered to the needy — including food, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, soap, baby formula, over-the-counter medicines, etc. If possible, reach out in caring ways to your city’s homeless population.
- Provide theological resources online for your congregation: sermons, Bible studies, pastoral encouragement, etc. For those who don’t use computers, print and mail the material.
- Practice good hygiene and responsible personal/family health/sanitary care to avoid spreading the virus to others.
If a family member is sick, quarantine the entire family under one roof. Support the government’s recommendations.
During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the nation called on churches, schools, beaches, playgrounds, dance halls, theaters and other venues to close their doors, recommending social distancing. Some churches refused, for a time moving their worship services outside. But in the end, churches supported the nation’s protective policies to keep Americans safe.
Once the crisis had passed, the churches opened their doors again and resumed corporate worship gatherings.
Consider the opportunity
Surely, a national health crisis is the perfect time and opportunity for an active church to support the nation’s leaders, take seriously the recommended precautions and get involved by reaching out in unique ways to help the elderly, sick, homebound, children, pregnant women and others, showing the community that though the building is closed due to COVID-19, the church — the congregation and leadership — are loving and even more active in times of crisis.