Article

How the church can respond to the coronavirus

Mar 12, 2020

Note: This article is intended as a starting point for your church as you are planning to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We will be updating this article as this fast-moving situation progresses.  

How should churches handle COVID-19? That’s the question congregations around the country are grappling with as the World Health Organization recently declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Should they continue Sunday services? Should they cancel small groups or Sunday School? Should they change their practices for serving the Lord’s Supper or passing the offering plate?  

These are not just abstract questions anymore. With over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 in America currently, this is a pressing issue for churches around the country. The landscape is constantly shifting as different regions take different actions that could impact churches. At the time of publication, some of these government actions include Santa Clara County in California limiting large gatherings beyond 1,000 people; Washington state forbidding gatherings of over 250 in certain areas around the hard-hit Seattle region; in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced a ban on gatherings of 100 or more in the state; and, Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky recommending cancelling public gatherings, including churches of all sizes  

What should churches do as COVID-19 swells and government guidelines shift? Before addressing what churches should consider or how they can take practical steps, it is important to look at the bigger picture of why this is an issue at all.  

Why should churches care about COVID-19?  

COVID-19 has provoked mixed reactions in the church.   

Faith communities have found themselves at the center of the spread of COVID-19 in America. The city of New Rochelle, New York, has implemented a containment zone in response to a COVID-19 epicenter emerging around a Jewish synagogue. Hundreds of people who attended Christ Church Georgetown have been asked to self-quarantine after the church’s rector, Timothy Cole, presided over services and served communion just prior to being diagnosed with COVID-19. Furthermore, churches are often made up of senior adults who face some of the greatest risk from COVID-19.  

But the church’s concern for COVID-19 should also be rooted in its theological foundations. Every person is worthy of dignity and respect because they are made in the image of God, which means that we should seek to care well for them in trying times such as these. Yet, difficult situations create opportunities for Christians to model the call of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves.  

What should churches do about COVID-19?  

What does it look like to love our neighbors as ourselves during this COVID-19 pandemic? When disaster strikes, churches are often faithful to rise to the occasion in disaster relief or community support. But churches can’t respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way as  other disaster scenarios. Yet, the church always has a role to play when our communities are hurting, and pastors and church leaders need to be compassionate and creative as we identify ways to serve our communities and meet their needs.  

But what can the church do right now about COVID-19? Some in our churches feel a sense of helplessness during this evolving situation. Church leaders often lack sufficient medical expertise. It is difficult to stay on top of shifting guidance from public health officials. But, in the midst of all this uncertainty, there are four key things every church can do to address COVID-19.   

First, churches should identify reliable, local sources of information. Our culture is facing a crisis of trust in its institutions and information sources. So, in a pandemic situation, it is essential that church leaders identify reliable information at the local, state, and national level to stay updated on recent developments. Likewise, churches can mutually learn from one another about best practices and effective strategies. One key to aid in this effort to solidify information could be to establish a COVID-19 response team in your church, including medical professionals if possible, that is tasked with developing and implementing the other aspects of this guide.

Second, churches should assess their practices. Even if churches aren’t sure what they should change, they can at least begin by better understanding what they are currently doing. Churches can evaluate their procedures and seek to enhance them in light of emerging information and guidance. Congregations should focus on key elements like the ones covered in the final section of this guide.

Third, churches should overcommunicate their plans. It’s not enough to simply change what your church is doing. Church leaders must also be intentional about communicating their plans to their people. This includes helping people know what has changed, why these shifts are taking place, and how the plans will help. Intentional communication can both encourage those who are scared and satisfy those who are skeptical. Churches should have specialized messaging encouraging prudence for the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. They should also provide support for parents in their congregation about how to have appropriate conversations about COVID-19 with their children.

Fourth, churches should encourage their people. When it comes to COVID-19, you will inevitably find people in your church who are either dismayed or dismissive. As COVID-19 has affected other countries, the social upheaval and personal isolation has fostered a range of mental health challenges for people in the community. While churches may not be able to confront the medical complexities of a global pandemic, they are uniquely poised to comfort the personal challenges of a panicked people with the hope and promises of God’s Word.

 How should churches respond to COVID-19?  

Let’s get practical. What are some specific practices that your church can implement right now to act on COVID-19? The ERLC recently surveyed over 50 church leaders around the country to ask them how they are addressing COVID-19 concerns in their churches and communities. The following is a summary of some of the most common best practices that emerged from their feedback. Our friends at LifeWay have also developed free training on “How to Prepare for the Coronavirus at Your Church.’  

Disclaimer: Every context is different in terms of church practices and community guidelines, so this is not intended to be an exhaustive or authoritative resource of ERLC recommendations. Instead, this compilation of practices offered by other sources should provide first steps for your church to think through how these principles and practices might fit best in your unique ministry context. In addition, it’s important to keep up the latest developments from organizations like the CDC and WHO.  

Cleaning and sanitation:

Worship services and church practices:

Kids ministries:

Travel and trips:

Alternatives to worship services and giving: The decision of whether to pause services is a significant one, which should be made with counsel from your church leadership, consideration of advice from local health officials, and with prayer and discernment. In past pandemics, churches have paused services for a time in response to government orders. In other situations, churches have continued to meet while undertaking extraordinary precautions. As your church is considering how to respond if your area becomes a COVID-19 hotspot, here are several alternatives to consider in your planning:  

Develop a threat-level plan:

Dr. Daniel Chin, a global health expert wrote an excellent article at Christianity Today, recommending that your church take action based on the threat level in your community:  

As cases of COVID-19 increase, we are seeing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about what the church should do. But responses can be based on sound epidemiologic principles. I use traffic light imagery to help churches think through their local risk of transmission and what kind of actions they should take (see figure). After all, all transmission of this virus occurs locally. Your actions should not be based on what is happening 50 miles away; they should be based on what is happening in your particular community.  

The article includes a helpful stoplight framework for thinking about the threat in your area and your response, which should increase as the threat increases. There are several helpful graphics at the piece, but the threat levels Dr. Chin defines are:  

  Read more at Christianity Today.  

Prayer:  

Overcommunicating with your church: 

Your vehicles of communication to your congregation: 

As a reminder, here’s a list of the numerous communications tools you have to keep your church apprised of the latest developments and steps you are taking regarding coronavirus. Your messaging needs to be clearly and consistently overcommunicated through all these channels.

Additional resources:

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Executive Vice President of the ERLC. He leads the ERLC team to develop innovative strategies to equip churches to address the key moral and ethical issues of the day. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern... Read More

Travis Wussow

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel. Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington DC office. He received a B.B.A. in Finance from The... Read More

Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood serves as the Director of Strategic Partnerships. Before coming to the ERLC, he served as the executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party from December 2012 to December 2016, where he managed the organization’s campaign apparatus at the federal,... Read More

Elizabeth Graham

Elizabeth Graham serves as Director of Events for the ERLC. Her responsibilities include strategic and long term planning related to events, organizational event development and execution, project management, budget development and execution, creative and production design, cross management and logistics... Read More