The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing disaster that is changing our lives and our churches. It is shaping and shifting ministries and practices in substantial ways. We can see what is happening before our eyes, but what remains unknown is what church life will look like when this is our history, not our present. Much of our most effective and essential ministry habits are rendered ineffective because one of our greatest needs is to get close to people. People are dying, communities are hurting, businesses are being wiped out, churches will close, ministers will lose their jobs, and life is changing. Two realities emerge. One, the need to spread the gospel remains our high priority. Two, we are hard-pressed to do that in the disaster that surrounds our current circumstances.
I know a pandemic is a disaster, technically, but whenever that word is used, I always think of weather related disasters: tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes. We have friends still putting their lives back together in Tennessee, and other places, after recent tornadoes. I can’t imagine being in that situation while a pandemic spreads across the country. I’ve lived through some personal disasters, none more well known than a hurricane called Katrina. We lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast during that time, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.
The disciples of Jesus were not always moved to action in seasons of disaster. When 5,000 people were experiencing food insecurity, their best idea was to send them home. When an intense storm was about to dump them in Galilee, they were doing anything except believing that someone in their boat had a name that the wind and waves knew. On the other hand, when ten men with a contagion ran up to Jesus begging to be healed, he healed them all without so much as a flinch. The Gospels record him touching lepers, wandering into areas where the infirm were laying around waiting for water to stir so they could be healed, and willing to encounter the blistered bloody demon infested without so much as a hazmat suit or a bottle of hand sanitizer.
I agree, it’s not the same as dealing with a pandemic, but in the spirit of the Gospels, Jesus tends to point us toward the diseased, hurting, and those in despair. Even when our natural inclination is to run away. I’ll admit that when Hurricane Katrina flooded our little town of Pascagoula, I didn’t think we could recover. I didn’t see any way of undoing the damage. But then the first truckload of supplies came to town. We didn’t ask; they just showed up. People came with willing hands and hearts, and the spark of hope came with them. I know there are many of us who are disciples of Jesus who would like to close our doors in this pandemic and come out when the danger is clear (will it ever be?). But the Jesus in us just won’t let that be our plan of action.
Two things are at work here. We are keeping ourselves safe – for the sake of our families, neighbors, and loved ones. We are seeking to reach out – for the sake of our community and our Lord. I believe I see the church shining, mostly, in this pandemic.
Our online presence has increased exponentially. One meme suggested that in one moment all ministers became televangelists! We are streaming sermons, worship times, devotionals, and even just momentary check-ins. The availability of online messaging is just amazing. Most of it I have seen is positive, encouraging, and hopeful.
Our efforts to connect may have become digital but are nonetheless heartfelt. Many churches have plans in place so that every member is called during the course of a week. Elders are talking to people they have never had a personal conversation with. Ministers are giving encouraging words to the members they normally only see on Sundays. Some churches are encouraging members to call the people they usually sit next to when able to go to worship. There is a consciousness of those who are not connected on social media.
Our prayer and devotional lives are aflame due to having more time and less interruption. Prayer groups are forming. Bible studies and small groups are flourishing on platforms like Zoom. When the structures around us crumble, we realize that our only stability is the Chief Cornerstone, Jesus.
Our conversations are alive with brainstorming. Can we deliver meals? Should we drive up to people’s homes and wave and have brief conversations across the yard? Is there a way we can serve healthcare workers on the frontline with food delivery? Can we make masks and share them with people in the community who do not have access to them? How can we help our local businesses stay afloat in this economic disaster? Do we have any members of our church who lost their job who might need some help? These are the conversations of which I am aware. Every church will have to determine its own ability and strength to serve in such a time as this.
I have three suggestions for disciples in disasters.
First, take care of yourself and your family. It is sometimes easier to take on someone else’s burden than to face your own burden. We have to be honest with ourselves. We are also carrying some weight in this disaster. It might be that we have financial losses, deaths, or career challenges to deal with. Our spouses are dealing with this, just as we are. We may be exhausted or even overwhelmed. If so, we can hardly help someone else. If you need time to get your life in order, take it. You will be much more able to help another person when you resolve your own issues.
Second, listen. After Katrina, our church (Central Church of Christ in Pascagoula, MS) had supplies to share with the community. Some of them came through disaster relief agencies and some through individuals. So we had people coming to our building all day long. There was a brief form to fill out, and I often sat at a table with a hurting soul from the community to help them with that form. Almost all of them wanted the same thing. They felt a need to tell their stories. With tears in their eyes, they would say, “We lost everything.” I would say, “We all did.” And there was a connection. We often cried and prayed together. I realized then that I was not able to fix their problems, but I could hear them and care for them. If there are hundreds of thousands of deaths from COVID-19, then there are hundreds of thousands of hurting families and friends. What a gift you can give, if you can just listen.
Third, use your gifts. I’m amazed at some of the ways disciples have already thought of serving. Even with the civil laws in place that restrict us pretty significantly, the Spirit has gifted us to serve in certain ways. Asking the Spirit to reveal ways to serve using the gifts He has given you would be an excellent prayer. We can fall into the trap of seeing something someone else is doing and trying to replicate their practice. Sometimes that works out, sometimes that leaves us frustrated.
Galatians 5:25 AMP says, “If we [claim to] live by the [Holy] Spirit, we must also walk by the Spirit [with personal integrity, godly character, and moral courage—our conduct empowered by the Holy Spirit].” Conduct empowered by the Spirit will lead disciples to serve and love in times of disaster.
Forsythe Church of Christ