Some are already calling it “the new normal,” but doing ministry in a time of social distancing, cancelled group meetings, and intentional isolation is hardly normal. Church leaders awoke to this reality Sunday, March 15, after health officials announced the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outside the Chicago metro area, and urged limits on public groups larger than 50.
For many churches, that meant cancelling services, the possibility of an extended period of no public gatherings, and the need for alternative worship delivery methods. What remains unclear in this sudden escalation of the Coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying fears is what ministry will be when human contact is risky.
With schools closed and restaurant service limited, pastors are asking hard questions about the kinds of ministry their churches might offer to their usual constituencies—the sick, home bound, and children. And how safe is it?
Many IBSA churches joined congregations around the world in going online March 15 in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“For precautionary reasons, all services from March 15 to March 21 have been cancelled,” Rochester First Baptist Church posted on its Facebook page. The Springfield-area congregation, like many in the region, had been planning to hold in-person services until health officials announced Sangamon County’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19 on March 14.
Churches are now likely to limit gatherings for much longer than a week, after a March 15 recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urging Americans not to gather in groups of 50 or more for eight weeks. Previously, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker had announced a ban on all public events over 1,000 people until May 1. The stricter guidelines from the CDC will force many churches to consider how several weeks of no in-person meetings will impact giving, fellowship, and mission.
During the first weekend of limited gatherings, churches scrambled to create worship alternatives. Many kept the number of people in church buildings small, and live streamed worship services online. Those that held in-person services worked to ensure churchgoers of increased precautions, like canceling the customary greeting time or donut table. Many churches spent extra time and resources cleaning facilities prior to the Sunday service.
Across the U.S., the spread of COVID-19 has closed schools and restricted travel. Many large-scale public events have been canceled, including the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. Chicago officials decided not to hold the city’s famous St. Patrick’s Day parade. Pritzker also announced all Illinois restaurants will be closed to dine-in customers through March 30.
Public health officials have signaled “normal” life may not return to the U.S. for a while. But Christians, while acknowledging the fear and stress brought on by the pandemic, have hope rooted in unshakable faith, Marion pastor Michael Nave said in a video posted on his church’s Facebook page.
“Straight from the lips of Jesus: ‘Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.’ Those were his words to his disciples when things were about to get crazy in their lives. Those are his words for us in a crazy time like right now.”
Nave’s church, Cornerstone in Marion, moved all services online March 15. Nave told his congregation he would be preaching from Isaiah 41 on the hope we have in faith. “When we’re facing chaos, when we’re facing times of craziness, God is inviting us—even commanding us—helping us to have faith in the midst of that fear.”
‘Preparedness, not panic’
Southern Baptist Convention leaders called more than 47,500 SBC churches to prayer on March 15, for an end to the pandemic, for government leaders, and for missionaries serving around the world. The International Mission Board has asked U.S. mission teams to forego international travel until at least mid-April.
The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, charged with planning the denomination’s annual summer meeting, announced plans for the June 9-10 event in Orlando are still in place, although a provision in the SBC Constitution allows the meeting to be canceled or held in a different location. “This provision would only be considered in an extreme circumstance,” the Executive Committee said March 6.
As churches navigate the COVID-19 crisis, several resources are aimed at helping leaders prepare their congregations for the virus. Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute has published a COVID-19 Church Planning Template at wheaton.edu. LifeWay Christian Resources has developed pandemic response resources available for free at MinistryGrid.com/coronavirus.
LifeWay also created a free children’s ministry supplement for parents and caregivers leading a home Bible study in lieu of Sunday school. “LifeWay Kids at Home” includes video content, downloadable activity sheets, and Bible teaching plans. The material is accessible at my.lifeway.com/redeem, with the redemption code: VZMD4SSQ38 (which churches are free to distribute).
For links to more church and ministry resources related to the COVID-19 response, go to IllinoisBaptist.org/covid-19-statement.
–Illinois Baptist, with additional reporting from Baptist Press
Photo: Cornerstone Church pastor Michael Nave (left) and creative arts pastor Dustin Keele talk about response to COVID-19 in a video on the church’s Facebook page.