(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.
One evening during the summer of 2012, I was making a nine-hour drive home after a difficult visit with my father. Lying unconscious for days in a hospital room, he was not expected to live. No one knew when death would come, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to go. Two hours after I left, I got the call that he had died. I could not control my grief. I had to pull over and stop repeatedly because the tears clouded my vision. I prayed aloud and struggled to process what I was experiencing with the Lord, but my heart was broken and the sense of loss was unbearable. I was having a meltdown.
I spoke with family members and friends during that long evening in the car. Each conversation was like a lifeline in an ocean of emotional chaos. Then I got a call from a friend that God used to help me. I began to regain a sense of God’s presence and His peace. My grieving process had just begun, but my meltdown ended during that phone conversation. Why?
What is a Meltdown?
A meltdown occurs when someone is overwhelmed mentally and emotionally. Confronted with a situation beyond their control, persons in crisis can quickly become helpless or hopeless (or both). The crisis can arrive as a single catastrophic event, or it can form though a gradual series of separate events, building in pressure and intensity until a person “melts down.” Normal reasoning and coping skills are suspended. Decision-making becomes extremely difficult. The crisis “rocks the world” for the affected person, dominating every waking thought and provoking powerful emotions.
Meltdowns happen because of unbearable and unexpected life situations. A wife discovers her husband has been having an affair. A man receives a pink slip after thirty‑three years with the same employer. A friend receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. A neighbor’s son shoots and kills his father. A teenage daughter tells her parents she is pregnant. A man dies on the way home in a traffic accident, leaving a widow and three children. Although the causes of the crises may be very different, the initial ministry needs of the hurting are often the same.
Four Needs You Can Meet
When the call comes for you to come to the side of someone having a meltdown, you may not feel qualified to help. Turn first to the Lord who is the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 3:3-4). He has promised to supply you with everything you need to serve Him (2 Peter 1:3). He is sufficient! Trust Him to work through you to meet the needs you will encounter. During a meltdown, people need support, stability, truth, and prayer.
Support. Overwhelmed by a crisis, many people struggle to express themselves and to make decisions. They need a compassionate person who will “listen” to their story or their silence, assuring them that it’s okay to share (or not share). After the initial impact of the crisis, affected persons may need help navigating their next steps. Protect them from being forced or rushed to make a decision that can wait, while affirming their ability to make those decisions that cannot wait. Practical ministry – like providing cooked meals or mowing the yard – reduces the stress on someone who is already overloaded by a crisis.
Stability. Most of us live in a world that is “safe” and that can be understood. During a crisis, an individual’s perception of the world around them can collapse. It is no longer a safe place. The trajectory of life has changed and the future becomes unclear and uncertain. However, your physical presence will often be an “anchor” in the storm. How long should you stay? The answer depends on whether the crisis is still unfolding, and whether the person has someone else who helps provide a stable environment. I have stayed overnight in hospital waiting rooms knowing family members were facing an end‑of‑life decision, unwilling to leave them alone. On other occasions, I have waited in someone’s home for hours until a relative or special friend arrived who provided a sense of safety and stability for the person in crisis.
Truth. Meltdowns cause people to become extremely vulnerable to deception and manipulation. We are engaged in a spiritual war, and we have an enemy that lies and attempts to blind us to the truth. Doubts and questions can form that undermine faith. You may be asked, “Why did God allow this to happen to me?” Don’t argue or try to defend God. I often reply, “I don’t know that I can adequately answer your question, but I do know this: He loves you and He is here and He has sent me to help you get through this time.” Christians are exposed to the same kind of troubles in this world as everyone else, with a major difference: He has not left us alone in our trouble (John 14:18)! Read verses from the Bible that assure God’s presence and activity during times of crisis (e.g., Psalm 34:18).
Prayer. A. W. Tozer is credited with saying, “Sometimes when we get overwhelmed we forget how big God is.” Prayer is a way of regaining our perspective during a crisis. During a meltdown, all we can see is our problem, but when we pray that can change! By gently leading overwhelmed people to pray, we put them in touch with the One who is greater than any problem.
On that dark night in 2012, what did my friend do that made a difference? He met needs I had for support, stability, truth, and prayer! When I answered his call, I could hear the deep concern in his voice. He listened. He assured me I was going to get through this. He gently pointed me to the Lord and reminded me of His care for me. He prayed with me. Although I would grieve for months to come, my friend’s act of compassion that night on the road helped me get through the initial tsunami of emotions associated with a meltdown.
For further reading:
Wright, H. Norman. The Complete Guide to Crisis & Trauma Counseling: What to Do and Say When It Matters Most! Rev. ed. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2014.
Wright, H. Norman. What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2014.
(Written to encourage deacons, this article was originally published as “What to Do When Someone Has a Meltdown” in the Summer 2018 issue of Deacon Magazine, a publication of LifeWay Christian Resources.)