Don’t shake hands with others. Wash your own hands, frequently and for at least 20 seconds. Practice social distancing. Stay away from most people, but especially people who seem sick. Avoid large public gatherings. Don’t travel. In fact, stay home if you can. Oh, and please don’t touch your face.
That last instruction is especially frustrating because, after hearing all the others, the first thing you want to do is bury your face in your hands. Yet these commands are necessary precautions we are all learning to live with, as the Coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across our nation, bringing with it fear and anxiety to many.
With confidence in God’s care and providence, Christians possess the faith, hope, love, and blessed assurance to face all fears. At the same time, many of these new precautions that are designed to protect our physical health may now also require us to rethink some of our church practices and traditions.
For example, how does a church enjoy fellowship without handshakes, hugs, and shared meals? How does a church worship without public gatherings, or share communion while practicing social distancing? How does a church minister while staying away from the sick? And how does a church do missions without traveling? Let’s face it, the church was not intended or designed for isolation and withdrawal.
One of the phrases used frequently right now as organizational leaders explain their various decisions is “an abundance of caution.” It’s a reassuring phrase. It promises to do more than may even be necessary to make sure things are safe. And certainly, an abundance of caution is an appropriate standard when working together to protect our public health.
But for churches during this season, there is also an abundance of opportunity. The above questions, while challenging, give us an opportunity to think differently about how to fulfill the purposes of the church, even when our normal patterns and practices are preempted.
Instead of asking the above questions in exasperation, let’s ask them with excitement and creativity. How can we innovatively express fellowship during these days? How can we worship together, even if we can’t all be together? How can we minister lovingly to the sick from a distance, perhaps even more effectively than in person? Are there ways to be on mission, even with travel restrictions?
I believe there are positive, even powerful answers to questions like these. When someone from my Bible study or small group calls me and asks how he can pray for me, I feel fellowship, perhaps even more than I did during the last group meeting. If my church’s worship services are cancelled for public health reasons and a group works hard to help us worship online, I feel motivated to worship with a new sense of victory and enthusiasm. And when I ask my neighbors how they’re dealing with the anxiety of the Coronavirus, and share with them how I’m dealing with it and how I know the God who is helping me, perhaps I’m more on mission than I was willing to be when crisis wasn’t on the doorstep.
Underground churches in places like China and North Korea have had to ask some of these hard questions about how to be the church in spite of adversity for decades, even generations. And creative, growing churches often ask these questions, simply to be more effective or to reach more people. They may turn to technology, or partnerships, or new methods, or old methods deployed in new ways. But churches determined to fulfill their biblical purposes will demonstrate both creativity and resolve, no matter what obstacles or fears they face.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.