The other day I read a headline claiming that first responders are collecting hundreds of bodies from homes each day in New York City, most of whom are believed to be unreported victims of the coronavirus.
Where is the church at this moment? I wondered.
Over the course of history, the church has made its presence known during times of pandemic and plague in a way society simply could not ignore. As I sit in my comfortable house and consider which Netflix show to watch next, make plans with my husband regarding our work schedules, and take up running for my mental health, I’m haunted by the thought that this pandemic might pass with no discernible trace of the corporate church on the front lines. What will historians write about us in future centuries?
One writer recently described Martin Luther’s stance on a Christian response to the plague: “We die at our posts.” This statement thrills me with a desire to wholeheartedly enact this calling. But I’m finding it difficult to know exactly what my post is right now.
Something burns inside me to move beyond sharing links to church services on Instagram.
The American church has already responded in two ways—submitting to our authorities and proclaiming the gospel to our social circles.
Unlike our ancestors, Christians now have a pretty thorough understanding of the germ theory of disease, and the collective wisdom says it’s more loving to our neighbors to submit to our authorities and professionalized health-care workers by staying home. It encourages me that though a few struggled to accept this order at the beginning of the outbreak, most evangelicals seem to be humbly participating in social-distancing efforts.
But when I read the ancient words of bishop Dionysius describing how the church responded during the plague of his day—“Heedless of danger . . . they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need”—something burns inside me to move beyond sharing links to church services on Instagram. What are the next actions we can take?
Lyman Stone, a former Lutheran missionary, recently wrote, “The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.” Considering these words, here are three actions I believe the corporate church could take to follow in the footsteps of the historic church’s earlier epidemic responses.
1. Find ways to be digitally present to the sick and dying.
The church has historically run to, not away from, the dying at the risk of her own health and safety. This was true in the early church, this was true of the monasteries, this was true of the reformers, this was true of the entire modern missions movement.
The church has historically run to, not away from, the dying at the risk of its own health and safety.
If it’s not true for the church today, then I would argue it’s because we haven’t gotten creative enough. We know physically attending to the sick in hospitals would spread the disease further. However, we must recognize the inhumanity of dying alone and work against it.
In the past, the church was the first to sit in the presence of the suffering and dying. While even hospital chaplains are now kept from this physical act, we are not barred from being digitally present. Many hospitals have been able to set up iPads for COVID-19 patients to call loved ones. Could we fill those hospital iPads with the sounds of singing, prayer, and Scripture (Eph. 5:19)? Could we digitally sit by the bedsides of strangers, acting as the mouth of God when we cannot be his hands and feet? This is a time for churches to organize and reach out to local hospitals to seek to bolster their chaplaincy programs.
2. Sacrifice our finances.
Our physical presence with the sick and dying is limited in an age when medical care is no longer the purview of the church. Yet there will be few limitations on what the church can do in this pandemic’s encroaching financial fallout.
Famine lurks behind almost every plague. I’m convinced that in this modern pandemic, the church will be judged less by how we served during the outbreak and more on our service when the emotional, psychological, and financial fallout arrives.
I feel confident that the church will lead in addressing the emotional and psychological needs our world will face. I am less confident regarding the financial decisions we will make.
There will be few limitations on what the church can do in this pandemic’s encroaching financial fallout.
Some Christians are feeling a financial pinch during this time—we’re paying for childcare we’re no longer benefiting from, or we ate the cost of a vacation we can’t take. Others are facing more significant financial trials—the stock market has forced us to rethink our retirement plans, or we’re tightening our ministry budgets.
But many are—or will be—financially ruined. Small-business owners, wage workers, and those in the arts and entertainment have been devastated, and they do not know when their income will return. On the global stage, economic downturn means entire communities will suffer the inevitable closing of factories and shifting of supply chains. We must remember that poverty itself is a health crisis.
Other than caring for the sick and dying, the clearest precedent that the historic church has left us is to give our worldly possessions to care for the poor during times of distress.
Other than caring for the sick and dying, the clearest precedent the historic church has left us is to give our worldly possessions to care for the poor during times of distress.
This is a time to call on our deacons to rise and lead, and for the laity to respond en masse. We need to make sure our churches have wise and equipped deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–13), who are bold both in making known the needs within the church and also in proactively, even aggressively, understanding the needs of their churches’ local communities.
On an individual level, Americans are beginning to see stimulus checks arrive in their bank accounts. For some, these checks will help stem the tide of financial ruin. For others, it will be a surplus. If you’re in the second camp, I encourage you to consider how your newfound abundance might bless those suffering during this time. We would do well to remember Proverbs 19:17: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”
3. Plant churches. Plant churches. Plant churches.
There is not going to be an “end date” to this pandemic. There won’t be a day on which we’ll gather in crowds to confidently proclaim the world safe again. Instead, we are likely to face a slow and gradual lifting of restrictions. Though we’ll probably be allowed to have small groups meeting within the year, large events will take longer to return.
If this proves true, our large churches will face difficult decisions. Some will continue meeting digitally. Some will defy authorities and regather.
Pandemics in church history have often meant the spread and the growth of the church. By this, historians don’t mean big churches grew bigger.
But what if we saw this as a time for a massive explosion in church planting across the United States? What if this scattering of God’s people forced us to rethink how church is done? What if our megachurches saw this moment as a gift from the Lord to go local?
Pandemics in church history have often meant the spread and the growth of the church. By this, historians don’t mean big churches grew bigger. They mean that as society was disrupted and scattered, the church grew. We need to consider what “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” looks like when the only place to go is your local neighborhood.
We still have an indefinite period of isolation and disrupted schedules, so now is the time for large, centralized churches to strategize major shifts in their ecclesiological practice. We have time to prepare for radical localness. May our churches be ready when we’re allowed to meet in groups of a few hundred.
I’ve been praying for many years for revival in America. Since the beginning of this outbreak, I’ve wondered how we will see the Lord at work. I thrill with the thought that the limitations of this pandemic could bring about the greatest church-planting effort modern America has witnessed. Do you?