A phrase we hear a lot lately is “out of an abundance of caution.” We hear it from a weather person doing a news update from a laptop in the kitchen. We hear it from a co-worker changing an in-person meeting to a video conference call. We have, as we should, an abundance of caution these days. But do we have an abundance of love? Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). How are we doing?
While many are wondering how churches should function during the COVID-19 shutdowns, it might be time to pause and think more intentionally about what the Church is, and why we need her now more than ever.
We Need Help
The first thing to recognize is that people need help in this crisis. That starts with medical workers. One church in New York City established a COVID-19 Response Fund to bring food to hospital workers and provide for essential supplies. This is critical in this season when one hospital in their community had more than a dozen deaths in one day from coronavirus.
That church had their daily prayer call, and several doctors in the church joined, confirming that most hospitals were giving out no more than two masks weekly for those on the hospital front lines. Another small church contributed five percent of their annual budget to a local hospital’s foundation to arrange for the needs of medical workers.
People are also losing their jobs, with more than three million reporting unemployment in one week, the highest rate in new jobless claims in the 50–year history of its measurement. Churches are finding ways to respond by rallying together around those in need. Beyond the immediate family, church families are one of the first places to discover news of someone losing a job and can respond quickly.
We Need a Way to Help Others
This is the great crisis of our age. It will be remembered for generations and will define this emerging generation. In the United States, you can clarify what generation you are in by what great tragedy you remember first in life. For the oldest among us it was Pearl Harbor, then the Kennedy assassination, then the Challenger Explosion, then 9/11. For this generation, it will be coronavirus.
With Pearl Harbor and 9/11, a massive voluntary enlistment in the military followed each. But for this crisis, we also have a corresponding crisis of what to do about it. What we are told to do is to do nothing. Stay home. Do less, not more. People want to help but don’t know how to help. This is hard.
Local churches, however, are helping direct people to safely meet their neighbors’ needs. One North Carolina church established a safe way to serve food to their people experiencing homelessness. Two other churches, in Indiana and Oregon, created online forms for people to fill out letting the church know how they are doing and if they have need. The responses have been very transparent.
A network of rural churches distributed a “Designing & Activating your Church’s 90-Day Coronavirus Response Plan,” helping each church make intentional, yet individual, ministry plans.
We Need Connection
Unlike perhaps every other institution, organization or relationship in their lives, churches function from birth to grave. And so, the church can provide for intergenerational connections and innovative solutions to the isolation we must inflict upon ourselves in these days. Social distancing does not mean community is now against the law. We are just getting creative about how to bridge the physical distance between us. In some ways, this literal distancing has clarified the distance some of us feel all the time. We are a lonely people in a way, and now is the time that we need the church to help us create community, friendship and belonging.
We Need to Grieve
For many people, the only way they interact with the church is through funerals and weddings. In these days, funerals will be an incredible challenge. But churches can be a lifeline of connection as people lose loved ones for any reason. This is especially true for those who have and will lose loved ones from COVID-19, as they would have been isolated from them, not even able to hold their hand as they passed from this life, or to say final words to them in their darkest hours. Church families and leaders can provide a way to cope with this tragedy upon tragedy, somehow bringing “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair,” even if it is through coordinating an online service or coaching a family through the planning of a delayed memorial service. In these efforts, Christians will be called “oaks of righteousness,” as referenced in Isaiah 61.
There is another kind of grief to consider, however. Harvard Business Review recently conducted an interview with grief expert David Kessler titled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” In the article he said, “We’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” He notes that this grief is different from others, “… we’re feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain.”
In a podcast, “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup,” Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker and Dave Blanchard discussed the unique organizational challenge of this era. There are opportunities, yes, but there is also a flip side to that visionary and adaptable instinct that leaders can easily miss. “The creative potential for hope and vision is unparalleled right now — but paradoxically this creativity will only be fully available to us if we also make space for grief and lament.” Churches are places where lament and grief are part of the expectation and even the liturgy. In this crisis it will be critical for the church to love people in their season of grief and lament.
We Need Trusted Information and Equipping
In the podcast mentioned above, Crouch, Keilhacker and Blanchard add that this era is a “time to urgently redesign our work in light of what we believe is not just a weeks-long ‘blizzard,’ not even just a months-long ‘winter,’ but something closer to the beginning of a 12–18 month ‘ice age’ in which many assumptions and approaches must change for good … The priority of leaders must be to set aside confidence in their current playbook as quickly as possible, write a new one that honors their mission and the communities they serve, and make the most of their organization’s assets — their people, financial capital and social capital, leaning on relationship and trust … Yet we urge every leader to realize that their organization’s survival in weeks and months, let alone years, depends far more on radical innovation than on tactical cutbacks.”
With this in mind, churches need to provide trusted information and equipping in a confusing and disconcerting season. We can bring faith in a season of doubt, hope to these days of despair and love to all experiencing isolation.
People are hearing a great variety of different things in the news, everything from short-sighted dismissals to dire apocalyptic warnings. We have a chance to be faithful sources of trusted information as the Church these days. That will be a part of our task as we not only have an abundance of caution, but an abundance of love in the age of coronavirus.
David Drury serves as chief of staff at The Wesleyan Church Headquarters in Fishers, Indiana.