(Published by Baptist Press on April 18, 2007)
As the coronavirus disease spreads around the globe, thousands of deaths have forced decision-makers to cancel sporting events, restrict international travel, and discourage common social interactions. Individuals are being asked to self‑quarantine themselves. Financial markets are in disarray. Daily lives are being disrupted. For the elderly and others with weakened immune systems, the virus is more than an inconvenience: it is a deadly threat.
Churches are also affected. Meeting for worship, Bible study, and fellowship, Christian congregations often represent the largest weekly gatherings in their communities. Church members sit near one another. They shake hands. They hug. They share meals. However, those routine interactions can easily facilitate disease transmission from one person to another.
So, what should church leaders do to keep members safe? How can churches protect themselves and spread the gospel at the same time? How can they serve the hurting ones around them without exposing them to further harm (by unintentionally spreading the disease)?
Here are five ways your church can respond to the dangers and disruptions associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
(1) Rely on the Lord for His Provision of Guidance and Power
Natural disasters and global pandemics force us to face our human frailty and mortality. Life as we know it is threatened and death becomes an imminent possibility. Priorities change. Fear becomes a constant companion.
Christians are not immune to anxiety. Apart from a genuine, vibrant relationship with the Lord of lords and King of kings, the average church member will be overwhelmed by anxiety – just like everyone else. Church leaders have a remarkable opportunity to encourage His people to seek Him during the crisis, relying on the Lord’s promise: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18 NKJV). If Jesus is present, then we lack nothing. He will supply all we need to do everything He calls us to do during this coronavirus pandemic.
Lead your church to pray together before making any decision. Ask the Lord to fill His people with His mind and His heart. Wait together for His direction. Read Scriptures together that describe His infinite ability to care for His people (e.g., Psalm 91, Romans 8:31-39). Trust Him to give you the next step as you walk together through this crisis. He is faithful.
(2) Gather Reliable Information
Misinformation and conflicting advice spread faster than the crisis. Just this morning I received an email message that went something like this: “I received this information about the coronavirus from a friend of mine who read that… so, here’s what you should do….” Please don’t waste your time and endanger yourself (and others) with information that may be incorrect or false.
Go directly to the most reliable sources of information and read the announcements and guidance documents for yourself. In addition to the known facts about disease transmission and mortality, the best sources will provide you with guidance concerning prevention, testing, and treatment for the disease. For the coronavirus, that would include the websites for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and your state health department.
- World Health Organization: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
- List of State Health Department Websites
(3) Cooperate with Your Local Authorities
Local municipalities and county/parish governments are working hard to protect the people within their jurisdiction. Consider contacting them to learn what they are doing and what you might do to help as a church. Ask them how you can pray for them. Help get the word out concerning any community initiatives or protective measures being implemented. In order to prevent exposure to the virus, government officials in some parts of the country are asking churches not to meet for several weeks. Although churches have a constitutional right to meet for worship, a warm and cooperative spirit may help to spread the gospel during the national effort to stop the spread of the disease.
(4) Develop a Response Plan for Your Congregation
What is your church going to do protect your members from the coronavirus? LifeWay Christian Resources has prepared four brief videos and multiple downloads to help pastors and church leaders develop a response plan. Guidestone Financial Services has additional resources to aid you in preparing your response plan.
- Lifeway’s Ministry Grid: How to Prepare for the Coronavirus at Your Church (Free – but registration is required)
- Guidestone: Coronavirus – Preparation and Information
Consider gathering a study group composed of deacons, teachers, greeters, childcare volunteers, and staff. After watching the videos and reviewing the downloaded materials, list the actions you need to incorporate into your church’s response plan. Do this together and do it quickly.
Key questions your plan needs to address include:
- What changes do we need to make to our schedule and services, and when do we need to make them?
- What materials do we need to purchase and make available to our members on the church premises? (e.g. hand sanitizer “stations”)
- How will we communicate this response plan to our members?
If your church is putting together an international mission trip, your response plan needs to include a timetable for continuing or postponing the trip. The International Mission Board (IMB) has a website to assist you in your decision making. You will also want to consider the latest notification from the U.S. State Department.
(5) Plan for ongoing ministry
In response to Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus said, “…on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 NKJV). When Jesus is building His church – when His people are yielded to Him and following His direction – nothing in heaven or hell can stop the forward advance of His church. The routine activities of the church may be disrupted by the virus, but there’s no need to hit “pause” on the Spirit-led ministry of the church.
Numbers of people are having to stay at home during the active phase of the pandemic. Advised to stay home and avoid potential exposures to the virus, the elderly are especially vulnerable and do not need to be in public spaces like grocery stores or worship services. If someone has been exposed to the virus, they are voluntarily embracing a “self-quarantine” at home lasting up to two weeks. Colleges and schools are closing, forcing students to continue their studies at home. International students may have nowhere to go and may be financially unable to travel back to their home country.
Those forced to stay at home may need assistance picking up groceries, basic household items, or prescriptions. You can encourage them with an occasional phone call to see how they are doing, offering to pray with them before concluding the call. You might also consider ways to include them in the worship services of the church with recorded options on CD, DVD, or online.
Consider ways to minister to those serving on the front lines of the crisis. Healthcare professionals, first responders, and government leaders could use your prayers and words of encouragement in the weeks ahead. Ask them what a group of volunteers could do to help alleviate their workload. Express appreciation for their efforts in writing, sending emails or cards. Given the opportunity, pray for them in person. Prayer walk around local hospitals, fire stations, police stations, and municipal buildings.
What if you have to cancel?
If the church needs to cancel Sunday services, consider putting a service online, or publicize your church’s online options already available. A single instrumentalist can lead worship for a virtual crowd watching from their homes. Pastors can preach a message, delivering God’s Word to His people at a pivotal moment in their journey as a church. By setting up and offering an online giving option, members can continue to contribute to support their church.
Relatively easy options for putting your service online…
Some options for online giving…
The Lord Has a Way Forward for Your Church
Whenever a church faces a new crisis, the Lord always has a way through the crisis with often surprising outcomes. For example in the book of Acts, every crisis that threatened His church actually resulted in more people coming to know Jesus. Some historians believe that part of the remarkable growth of the early church came through two deadly epidemics that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries.
In his book The Triumph of Christianity – How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (HarperOne 2011), sociologist Rodney Stark describes a suspected smallpox epidemic in 165 AD that killed 25-30% of the population. People fled the cities in fear, refusing to care for ailing family members. Christians provided much needed care for the sick when no one else would. Stark believes that was one reason the church grew from an estimated 45,000 adherents during the first epidemic to over 1.1 million believers by the time the second epidemic struck in 251 AD.
The coronavirus pandemic is a dangerous and disruptive force in the world today. The Lord is not in a panic and He has not been taken by surprise. He has a way for you and your church to not only survive this crisis: He has a plan to use you to minister encouragement and truth in a deeply troubled period of our history.
“It was the magnet on the refrigerator,” she said. Immediately, I was moved beyond words. I never imagined the magnet would be a divine tool for life change!
In the pre-Katrina and pre-Rita years of the mid-90s, the First Baptist Church of Lake Charles, Louisiana set out to minister to our community with a hurricane preparedness campaign. Armed with a desire to saturate the city and surrounding communities with a basic introduction to Jesus Christ, the staff and members worked together to distribute packets of free materials on the opening weekend of hurricane season.
Located 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Charles is nestled among the bayous and wetlands of southwest Louisiana. Hurricanes are an annual, recurring threat during the summer and early fall months. During the days leading up to the official opening of hurricane season (June 1st), radio and television news anchors and newspapers are “news hungry” for events and information related to hurricane preparedness. The conditions were perfect for planning and launching an outwardly-focused ministry effort around the theme “Weathering the Storms of Life.”
Selecting the weekend after Memorial Day (the Atlantic hurricane season opens on June 1st), teams would give away hurricane preparedness materials on Saturday and invite people to attend services on Sunday aimed at helping them “weather” the personal storms in life.
Tables loaded with packets of free materials were set up at the local mall and area shopping centers. With an educational weather video running to the side, passers-by were greeted by smiling church members handing out the packets. They were also encouraged to sign-up for a door prize displayed on the table: a large ice chest filled with hurricane preparedness items, such as canned goods, bottled water, radios, flashlights, batteries, and first aid kits. It was too tempting not to sign up, which was the idea!
When persons registered for the door prize, they had the option of indicating on the form whether they would like additional information about First Baptist Church. Persons noting interest in the church became prospective guests for follow-up through one of our adult Sunday School classes.
On Sunday a common Bible study lesson was taught throughout the adult and youth divisions based on the ministry theme “Weathering the Storms of Life.” In the worship service, the music and message were gospel-centered and focused on the hearts of guests in the congregation. In addition, a local weather personality or a hurricane survivor was invited to speak for five minutes about the importance of hurricane preparedness.
In the days following the community ministry weekend, door prizes were delivered, thank you notes were written to area store managers and volunteers, and follow-up visits were conducted in the homes of persons requesting additional contact from the church.
Annually in mid-winter, four teams were enlisted to oversee preparations for the distribution venues, publicity efforts, packet creation, and follow-up activities. A staff pastor or volunteer served as the coordinator for the four teams, meeting with each team regularly to monitor progress and encourage the leaders in their work.
The venue team secured the locations and written permissions needed to set up distribution tables in area stores. Venue leaders enlisted volunteers and gathered the resources for each location (e.g., tables, chairs, video players).
The publicity team worked to get the word out. Preparing a news release about the event, the team sent notices to every newspaper, television and radio outlet in the area. The media treated the information either as a community event or public service announcement (PSA). Requests for interviews were common and immediately accepted! The week before the event, church members were given stacks of attractive cards to share with their neighbors and friends, inviting them to the venues and the theme service.
The packet team contacted emergency preparedness officials for literature to insert in the give-away materials. Area businesses were delighted to print and give coupons towards the purchase of recommended preparedness materials. An imprinted refrigerator magnet was created giving the church numbers, as well as the local emergency preparedness phone numbers (today, I would include URLs to their websites). On the Wednesday night prior to the event, members held a “Packet Packing Party” to stuff the hundreds of plastic bags with the materials gathered in previous months. With the addition of refreshments and music, everyone had a blast!
In later years, the packet was abandoned in favor of a “news magazine”. Drawing on business leaders who would pay for small advertisements in the paper, the tabloid contained the same hurricane preparedness information, as well as articles from church staff about ways in which First Baptist Church could help someone weather the “storms” of life. The advantage to this approach was a greater distribution of materials at a much lower cost. In fact, the ads eventually paid for the entire outreach event. It cost the church nothing!
The follow-up team made sure that every door prize registrant and venue volunteer received a note of appreciation from the church and that all door prizes were delivered in person. Working through the existing outreach leaders in the Sunday School, the goal was that 100% of the persons indicating interest in learning more about the church would be contacted within the first week following the event. It was a critical and rewarding task.
Church members gave away approximately 2000 packets each year. Of the 2000 persons taking a packet, about 75% went on to register for the door prize. About 10-15% of the door prize registrants indicated an interest in learning more about the church. The resulting 275-300 prospective guests were genuinely open to contact from the church.
The impact to the church budget was minimal. Once the church began printing their own materials and selling ads, the cost was eliminated altogether.
Church members of all ages became involved in outreach and in working together. New relationships were forged as individuals worked side-by-side packing packets or giving away free materials.
The church became highly visible in the community. Relationships with local broadcasters and news personalities gave the church an open door for communicating future projects. The positive name recognition that developed was invaluable.
But the most important result of all?
Remember the Magnet?
Passing by one of the give-away tables, a young woman picked up one of the packets and went home. Not thinking much about it at the time, she placed the imprinted magnet on her refrigerator.
Months later, she and her husband were struggling with their marriage. Ready to give up, they decided to visit a church and see if God couldn’t make a difference in their home. Recalling the magnet on her refrigerator door, the wife suggested to her husband that they visit First Baptist Church. God changed their hearts and renewed their marriage!
Months later it was one of the great blessings of my ministry to visit one of the venues giving away free packets of hurricane preparedness materials. There they were. The smiling couple with a new “storm-proof” marriage was busy at work and “weathering the storms of life.”
For most of my journey as a Christ-follower, I have repeatedly asked the questions, “How does God change a man?” and “Am I changing?” Consequently, I am—at best—a student of what happens to someone in the Presence of God. No experts here—so I pen these words with a continual readiness to be corrected and better informed. However, there are ways of applying the good news of Jesus that reduce it to a manmade religion of self-effort and human accomplishment.
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” – Mark 7:21-23
In Mark 7, Jesus warned against a preaching ministry that relied solely on words: words aimed at chiding a congregation to achieve an external set of standards of behavior. Such a ministry is functionally bankrupt from the outset, since the locus of true change lies within us (Mark 7:21-23; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Preachers must preach the truth with words, but they must aim at directing hearts to the Presence of God (Mark 7:6).
Why? The thoughts that lead to actions flow from the heart. Powerful emotions that lead to sinful acts begin as sinful desires and attractions of the heart. Pride and deception live in the heart. Unless the heart is engaged and transformed, you will not change. Jesus does not simply want to change your behavior: He wants to change your heart.
How do you change a heart?
Many spiritual disciplines and practices come to mind. They can be excellent tools for transformation, but they cannot replace the Author of transformation. By themselves, the disciplines can rapidly devolve into a body of strict, lifeless habits. Using discipline, you can control your behavior and silence the internal “voices” – but you cannot change the root impulses and “messaging” of the heart. Many religions embrace various forms of discipline, but the hearts of the practitioners remain unchanged.
I believe that a community of Christian believers can be a major force in spiritual transformation. True believers want to be with others who love God, seeking to follow Him with their whole life. But involvement in a vibrant community of practicing disciples is not enough…
I am an advocate for Scripture memory and meditation. God speaks to my heart through His Word, challenging me, correcting me, and guiding me into ways of living that please Him. It’s a non-optional and essential ingredient in the process of transformation, but it’s not enough…
I can contribute to the change, and I can cooperate with the Author of change, but I can’t cause my heart to change. The Author of change is Jesus, Who comes and dwells in the heart when someone accepts His invitation to abandon self-rule (a form of rebellion against God), to accept responsibility for personal sin, and to surrender life governance to Him. The result becomes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The Spirit of Christ indwells a person for the purpose of salvation… not just from a future hell of separation from God, but also from the present “hell” of being dominated by a dark and unruly heart.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit…” – John 7:37-39
Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The “flow” of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of my heart begins as I accept and trust the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates my heart (Psalm 51:10-11). My only hope for change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of my heart (Philippians 2:12-13).
However, Jesus limits this process of heart transformation to those who are “thirsty” for change (John 7:37) and those who are weary with the “self-made” approach to doing life (Matthew 11:28-30). So let me pause here a moment before I wrap this up [selah]:
- Am I thirsty?
- Do I really want to change?
- Am I ready to abandon my efforts “to make it” and to be “successful” in the eyes of others (or even in my own eyes)?
- Am I ready to accept His “yoke” and enter into a learning relationship with a living Jesus who is self-described as “gentle and lowly in heart” – knowing that He is going to make my heart like His heart?
What are the implications here for ministry?
“If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” – Luke 11:10-13
In Luke 11:10-13, Jesus makes it clear that the Father is ready to release His Spirit into the life of the man or woman who “asks” (or “thirsts” in John 7). I need to ask… I need to thirst… I need to want His Spirit to transform my heart. I need to engage Him with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12)—the Holy Spirit is a Person who can be “grieved” and “quenched” (Ephesians 4:30, 1 Thessalonians 5:19). Change is not automatic, but requires my cooperation with and sensitivity to the Spirit.
Jesus ridicules the notion that earthly fathers would give their children stones, serpents, or scorpions. The father’s heart should be tender towards the child who is crying and hurting. Our churches are populated with individual pastors and members who are crying out for change. They are longing for God to come and transform their churches, their communities, and their lives. They are asking and they are thirsty. They want more than the external activity and programming of the average church… they don’t long for a building or relocation program (“stones”?), a lengthy “how to be a success” sermon series (“serpents”?), or an ecclesiastical power struggle (“scorpions”?).
They want the “real deal”—they want Him—a life in the Spirit.
On August 8, God broke through. Less than a year later, Brainerd had baptized 77 and led a congregation of 150.
The converts immediately abandoned animism, alcohol, and adultery. The change of life was permanent and dramatic.
In less than two years, Brainerd died – at age 29.
Are you losing hope that God could do a mighty work in your life or in your church? This might be the very time He is about to move! Don’t quit now… keep praying until He shows Himself strong to you and your church.
In the book of Acts we have a record of the “starting line” of the Christian church. Beginning at Pentecost, believers reached out to the lost in dozens of languages and cultures throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Although they encountered many obstacles and disappointments, the early Christians penetrated their world with breathtaking speed. So where does effective ministry begin?
Effective ministry begins…
When I understand that all of my resources combined will never be enough to do the job. (v. 1)
On the day of Pentecost we find the disciples gathered together in one place. With all they had experienced with Jesus and armed with the Great Commission, we would expect them to be out in the streets, preaching the good news.
However, in Acts 1:4 and 1:8, Jesus made it clear that the disciples needed something more in order to fulfill their mission of local and global evangelization. Years of intensive training and sitting at the feet of Jesus were not sufficient. By telling them to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, Jesus was underscoring a basic truth: in my own strength and abilities I will always be inadequate to do what God has called me to do (Zechariah 4:6).
Power for the task is a gift, not an achievement.
When I am filled with and fully dependent upon the Holy Spirit. (v. 2-4)
Heralded by the sound of wind and the appearance of fire, the Holy Spirit came to rest visually on each disciple as a fiery flame. Through this imagery, He makes it clear that each individual disciple needs His guidance and enablement in ministry. It is not enough to have a Spirit-filled pastor and staff in my church. I need to cultivate a personal relationship of love and obedience with the Lord Jesus Christ through His Spirit.
It was common when I ran track in high school for some runners to start too soon: this was called “jumping the gun.” They were forced to go back to the starting line and begin again. Have you “jumped the gun” by attempting to do ministry apart from the Holy Spirit?
When I am willing to do whatever it takes to share the gospel with my world. (v. 5-11)
Moved by the Holy Spirit, the disciples immediately began to speak in the languages of at least 15 different nationalities gathered in Jerusalem to observe the Jewish feast. Now the Spirit did not have to do this. Using the language of business and trade, the disciples could have simply spoken Greek or Aramaic. They would have been clearly understood by most of the crowd.
The Holy Spirit wants to help us overcome every obstacle posed by language and culture. Unlike Islam which requires seekers of truth to study the Koran in Arabic, the good news of Christ is to be shared in the idiom and within the cultural norms of peoples around the world.
Was it comfortable for the disciples to speak a language they had never learned? I doubt it, but the greater purpose of proclaiming the “wonderful works of God” (v. 11) overwhelmed all personal preferences and tastes. Are we willing to do whatever it takes to communicate the gospel in terms others can easily understand?
When I accept that some people will reject me and my message. (v. 12-13)
In verse 12, some people are asking “what does this mean?” In verse 13, others are mocking the disciples, accusing them of being drunk.
Some people will reject and ridicule you and your message. Paul taught we should expect persecution whenever we begin to live our lives with reference to Him in all we do and say. (2 Timothy 3:12)
However, there will also be those who want to know more. Endure those who reject you so that you can impact those who respond positively to you.
When I embrace a deep sense of evangelistic urgency. (v. 14-21)
Quoting from Joel 2, Peter announces to the crowds that the arrival of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of prophecy. Everyone willing to call on the name of the Lord (v. 21) could be saved and subsequently filled with the Spirit (v. 18). He also explains that these are the last days, describing signs and wonders which will immediately precede the “day of the Lord.” (v. 20).
Life is short and time is short. Anyone and everyone can now call on the name of the Lord. Armed with the leading and power of the Holy Spirit, God’s people ought to be deeply motivated to broadcast the good news.
Let’s go to the starting line for effective ministry and allow Him to launch us into His work—just like He did for the church at Pentecost.
Reproduced here with permission, this message originally appeared in the March-April, 2004 issue of Preaching Magazine (Vol. 19, No. 5). Edited by Michael Duduit, Preaching Magazine is written almost entirely by those who share a calling to the ministry of preaching. Each issue contains practical feature articles which offer useful insights to strengthen your preaching. Every issue contains a selection of model sermons which reflect the best of preaching across the United States and beyond.
In a church parking lot one Sunday I passed a small truck that had a new bumper sticker on it I had not seen before. It said, “Stop World Whining.”
I stifled a laugh as I thought about the many times pastors have to handle dissatisfied members in their church. Have you ever felt like saying, “What do I look like? God’s complaint department?”
Complaints, problems, and disagreements will always erupt in our churches when we least expect them to. They can be threatening and discouraging to the forward movement of the church. But hang in there.
When I played football years ago, one of the drills we used to run required us to hit a line of defenders, spin off and around the line, and continue running down field. The early church was like that. When they encountered complaints in the church, they addressed the issue head-on, spun off the problem using a Spirit-guided solution, then continued to grow and expand in a dramatic way (Acts 6 & 15).
“Stop World Whining”? It would be really be nice wouldn’t it? Yet, the Lord seems to use even whining to propel His church forward.
He is risen!