How some churches are responding to the “shelter-in-place” regulations

An interview with two pastors in California

March 30, 2020

I asked two California pastors currently serving through local “shelter-in-place” regulations to share what their reality is like as they lead through the COVID-19 crisis. Pastor DJ Jenkins with Anthology Church of Studio City in Los Angeles, and Pastor Alan Cross with Petaluma Valley Baptist Church in Northern California share their answers below. 

Dan Darling: Will you describe your church and surrounding community for us?

DJ Jenkins: With the help of the Send Network, our local association, numerous churches, and countless individual givers, Anthology Church was planted back in the fall of 2012 when our team moved to this influential neighborhood of Los Angeles. Studio City is a community of around 40,000 people, many of whom work in the movie and television industry. It’s a family-friendly place with a high percentage of progressive-minded folks, many of them from a Jewish background, along with many of the other transplants common to LA. It’s a place where the majority of people are very far away from a Christian worldview. 

After two years of getting to know the community, serving in practical ways, sharing the good news of Jesus, and meeting in our home, we began to meet publicly in our local recreation center. Since then, we have slowly grown through the ebbs and flows of LA life. We have a membership of 12 and an average service of 30-40. We like to say we are doing ministry “along the path,” referring to the hardest soil in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt.13:1-23).

Alan Cross: Petaluma Valley Baptist Church is a multigenerational church of around 300 members and attenders founded in Petaluma, California, in the late 1940s. We are in south Sonoma County in the North Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. Our city has around 60,000 people, with 500,000 people in Sonoma County and 250,000 people in Marin County directly to the south of us. Our area is largely unchurched with a very small evangelical influence. I arrived here to pastor last spring from Alabama, and my family has been settling in with work, school, and activities over the past 9 months.

DD: How has church life changed since the COVID-19 crisis and state “shelter-in-place” notifications?

DJ: In some ways, nearly everything has changed. The city of LA and the state of California both issued versions of “shelter-in-place” orders last week, but before that had already closed city recreation centers. Since we meet in a rec center, we were forced to shift our Sunday gatherings. Our team immediately made quick plans to create a Zoom livestream service, complete with multiple cameras, worship slides, and all the regular aspects of our Sunday services, save the practice of communion. We have an introduction, songs for corporate worship, a Scripture reading, a corporate prayer, a sermon, and time for announcements. For us, the “face-to-face” opportunities a Zoom livestream provides over a taped worship service are worth the live production from our separate living rooms. In addition, we’ve moved our small groups to Zoom and added some Zoom prayer meetings throughout the week. We’ve also begun to utilize the Slack platform to create more community and try to foster more continual interaction.

AC: The San Francisco Bay Area took strong measures to call for social distancing and isolation a few weeks ago. Sonoma County recommended no meetings larger than 50 early on and then put forward a “shelter-in-place” order last week, which means that all unessential gatherings and work must cease as people are encouraged to stay at home. Our church staff and leaders began preparing for this weeks ago as we saw the news about the coronavirus spreading around the world, so we were prepared when the “shelter-in-place” order came. 

Seeing “community” happen through a computer or phone screen and people caring for one another and sharing the good news of Jesus reminds me that God is on his throne and is not shaken, though our church structures have shifted greatly.

We did not have online church options before this, but our staff quickly mobilized and moved all of our church ministries online. We use YouTube Live to livestream our Sunday service, and we are using Zoom for our Bible studies, small groups, prayer times, staff and leader group communication, and church-wide meetings. We are using Facebook and Instagram, along with email, to let people know what is happening with the new weekly schedule of online meetings. And, we are calling people and encouraging folks in the church to reach out to others daily.

DD: What’s the most challenging part of pastoring through this crisis?

DJ: I struggle with how to best take on the responsibility to care for our members and shepherd them in light of not being able to meet face to face. I’m especially sensitive and concerned about our single members who don’t have anyone at home and are isolated. In addition, our older members have a more difficult time with technology, so it’s been a challenge to help them get on the various platforms. In many ways, I’m just as busy as I was before (I’m in my final semester of my M.Div. at Gateway Seminary), and now my children and wife are all at home together as we seek to adjust to the new reality of school and work from home. The emotional stress is greater in this new reality. In addition, we are wrestling through how we reach out to the community when we can’t meet people or gather anywhere.

AC: I am struck with the weight of making sure people are cared for and of trying to stay at least one step ahead of a rapidly changing situation. We want to continue to minister to people and hold out the gospel while also not endangering our people. So, we have had to think ahead, plan, use the tools in our hands, innovate rapidly, and develop platforms and structures that enable us to connect the church together in ways alternative to in-person meetings. 

Then, there is the weight of what is happening, my concern for my people, prayers for their health and protection, concern for their jobs and livelihoods, and also the grief that comes with the church being scattered. While we are working hard to keep everyone connected and to keep ministering to people, this past Sunday was hard for me. After preaching and the worship service, I looked out into an empty sanctuary and grieved the church that was not there. They were in their homes in isolation for their good, but I missed the body of Christ worshiping God and feasting on his Word together. One day soon, we will be together again.

DD: How are you finding hope amid the chaos?

DJ: I’ve sensed the Lord at work in significant ways in my own heart and in others in fresh ways. Seeing “community” happen through a computer or phone screen and people caring for one another and sharing the good news of Jesus reminds me that God is on his throne and is not shaken, though our church structures have shifted greatly. So far, I think our people have adjusted well as a church. The majority of our members and regular attenders have all been meeting together virtually. Also, I’m incredibly thankful for our leadership team of two pastors and three deacons who have come together and worked hard to meet all the changing needs. I could never do it alone!

AC: God is at work in the midst of all of this. I am hearing stories of answered prayers, people in our community tuning in to our livestream who would not normally go to church, and church members ministering to and encouraging one another. I am praying for and with people who are pressing into God and focusing on him. There is a seriousness that has come upon us and an awareness that we need to be the church right now for each other and for our community. And, my goodness, my staff. They have been amazing. They have worked, innovated, labored, prayed, and have transitioned the church to a solid footing in the last few weeks with an amazing attitude. I am also just taking time to appreciate my family and the amazing blessings that God has given me in allowing me to pastor here in this moment in time. 

DD: How can people pray for regular pastors like you?

DJ: In many ways, the same way you always pray for us. Pray God draws us near to himself, that we lead and plan and teach out of faith in him and dependence on his power and strength, not our own. Pray especially for our emotional health as we are burdened with the needs of our church and communities. And pray for wisdom—so many practical decisions have to be made around finances and Easter and the future in a world where every day seems to be a new reality. Thank you, and God bless you!

AC: We have been telling one another that God is not surprised by any of this, that we are not to fear, that we are to trust God, that we are to seek wisdom and have humility, and that we are to rejoice in the Lord. Please pray that I [am]e5 able to continue to do that. Sleep is becoming more difficult as I am praying and thinking through all that needs to be done each day and night. The burden of caring for souls in the midst of this is heavy. How do we stay ahead of this so we can continue to lead and not be overwhelmed by what is going on? 

The people in our community are feeling anxious over what’s to come. As the number of the coronavirus cases grows and the economic impact of this settles in, we want to minister hope to our community, and I want to love my church well and point them to Jesus. Our hope is in the Lord, but pray that we keep our eyes focused on Jesus and not on the wind and waves around us, and pray that we would tell a better story of hope, grace, and the love of God in the midst of these trials.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24