How the church can respond to the coronavirus

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 peopleWashington 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.


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:

Elizabeth Graham

Elizabeth Graham serves as CEO for Life Collective, Inc. Elizabeth is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband Richmond enjoy raising their two children in east Tennessee. Read More by this Author

F. Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood was elected as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2022, after a year of leading the organization as acting president. Previously, he served as chief of staff at the ERLC, as well as the entity’s director of strategic partnerships. He brings an expertise in public … Read More

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Senior Pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. Before he was called to pastor Central, he served as the Executive Vice President of the ERLC team. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern after attending Texas A&M University. Phillip and his wife, Cami, have been married since 2005, … 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 University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The … 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