This article was updated at about 6:10pm on March 13, 2020 to reflect the most current recommendations and guidelines from health officials.
On Wednesday, March 11th 2020 the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus or COVID-19 to be a pandemic. This is uncharted territory for all of us. It is important that we respond wisely, courageously, compassionately and with faith.
Toward that end here are a few recommended “Best Practices” for churches, pastors and members.
For Pastors And Churches:
1. Immediately discontinue all large gatherings
In order to flatten out the infection curve it would be wise to cancel all large church meetings including your regularly scheduled times of worship. This isn’t the first time that churches have had to do this and, should the Lord tarry, it will likely not be the last. During the height of the Spanish Flu in 1918 most churches suspended public gatherings – including their regular worship services. Once the infection rates began to decline, churches pressured the government to relax on those restrictions, which they did, and all went on as before. (To review that history see here).
After consultation with our Board of Elders and city health officials we have made the decision to conduct a closed service this Sunday, with only essential personnel in the building. This service will be livestreamed on our website and Facebook page.
At this point, we are only planning to adopt this format for this Sunday. We will wait to review the best recommendations of provincial and city health officials before determining a plan for March 22nd and beyond. However, at this moment, until our health officials understand the scope of the problem that we are facing, cancelling all large group meetings appears to be the loving and neighbourly thing to do.
2. Encourage people who are feeling ill or who have children who are ill to self-isolate
According to the information currently available through the CBC website:
“For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For seniors and those with underlying health issues, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. But the vast majority recover: people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while more severe illness may take three to six weeks”
Most of the people who contract the coronavirus will simply feel as if they have a cold or flu and therefore, they may be tempted to “tough it out” and carry on with normal activities. However, given the multi-generational nature of church, while you are “toughing it out” you may be passing on the virus to vulnerable seniors who are not as well fortified against this illness. Out of love and concern for these seniors, churches must encourage all those who are feeling sick to stay home.
3. Encourage seniors and those with underlying health conditions to exercise extreme caution
As stated above, seniors and those with underlying health conditions are the ones most vulnerable to this infection. Even if your church is continuing to hold public gatherings, seniors should be strongly urged to stay home. An act of love could be for younger, healthier congregants to visit the homes of those over 70 to ensure that they are capable of viewing church services on-line. Of course, it must be stated that those healthy congregants must take every precaution against spreading the virus to the seniors that they visit. Avoid shaking hands, hugging, kissing etc. Out of an abundance of caution consider making use of approved masks and latex gloves.
4. Practice appropriate “social distancing”
When services resume, encourage people to forego their customary hugs and handshakes in favour of waves and nods. For the introverts among us, this will feel like heaven on earth, whereas for the more socially wired this will feel like a sacrifice of love. Regardless of how it feels to whom, the practice of foregoing physical contact has been demonstrated to flatten out the infection curve and slow the spread of this type of virus. Churches should post signs in the lobby and entrance ways reminding people of this temporary measure.
If you do not already make use of individual cups and precut cubes of bread for communion, consider adopting such practices for the duration of this advisory. This practice appears to have become common among Baptists during the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918; which itself is a reminder that we have been here before as Christians, and should the Lord tarry, we will no doubt be back here again.
It may also be wise to forego the passing of the offering plate and instead to place the plates at the front of the church and to encourage people to put in their offerings at either the start or end of the service. It would also be wise to look into online giving options as well.
5. Make good use of on-line technology
As stated above, our own Board of Elders has just now decided to cancel this week’s public gathering and to instead conduct a closed service. The service will be broadcast via our website and Facebook page but will be closed to the public out of an abundance of caution.
To be clear, this is not a healthy way to do church over the long haul and we must be clear about that with our congregants. One of the side effects of this pandemic is likely to be an unhealthy fear of crowds, community and strangers. We must push back on that and insist on re-engagement after this crisis passes. Church is not “listening to a sermon and some worship music”. The gospel pushes back on isolationism and individualism.
“It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18 ESV)
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19 ESV)
Closed services and online church is a stop gap measure at best. We will be re-evaluating this approach on a week to week basis throughout the duration of this advisory.
In the meantime, we are grateful for the blessing of this technology. We recognize its limitations (I am feeling a little nervous about preaching a sermon to a gathering of 5 people) but we are thankful to have it. I would encourage anyone watching our online service to announce their presence in the comment section available on Facebook. Say hello and please be sure to share your prayer requests. To encourage you in this way, I will read some of those prayer requests and pray for them during the closed service.
To learn more about how to make good use of online technology during this situation see here.
However you do it, it is important for pastors to address their people this week.
Whether you choose to carry on with your regular preaching series or speak directly to this situation, you need to address your people. Shepherds do not abandon the flock. Shepherds do not watch Netflix while their people are panicking. If Martin Luther could visit people during the Bubonic Plague, you can preach a sermon during COVID-19.
I will be carrying on with my Daniel series and conducting a Round Table discussion with one of my Associates regarding our best practices and continuing commitments as a church during this situation. I encourage you to do the same.
6. Continue to visit and care for older congregants
Now is not the time for us to abandon our friends and neighbours.
During the height of the Bubonic Plague Martin Luther continued to visit sick and ill congregants. His reason for doing so was simple and straightforward:
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11 ESV)
While most of Canadian society will be on lockdown for the next 3 weeks pastors must not be. Pastors, elders and deacons must be active and intentional in checking on seniors and others with underlying health conditions.
Most nursing homes have enacted a strict no visitation policy. As such, physical visitation with this segment of your congregation will not be possible, however, checking in by phone and through social media will be helpful. The large number of seniors who have signed up for Facebook in the last 5 years will make this job easier.
As for those seniors who are living at home, check in regularly by phone or Facebook. Visit all who are sick or in need. Wear a mask, wear gloves, use sanitizer, but do not neglect this duty. Make sure that they have adequate supplies and assist them in simple tasks such as taking out garbage, wiping down surfaces, preparing meals etc.
Make sure that deacons and approved lay visitors are keeping up with their visitation lists and practicing all appropriate safety protocols.
Make sure that sick congregants are secure in the Gospel. Remind them of the fundamentals of faith and do not leave until you are sure that they are secure in their trust in Christ. Pray with them and for them.
Let this crisis call us back to prayer as a primary duty! While we press pause on our programs let us accelerate our efforts in prayer. Pray through your membership list. Call your people and pray with them on the phone. If there are people who are very sick and appear not to be recovering, visit them and anoint them with oil as the Scriptures say:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14 ESV)
Let the oil fill the house with the reminder of God’s grace and power. Let it be the tangible presence of the love and concern of God’s people. Let not a single person pass through the agony of sickness, and even death, alone.
If we aren’t pastors now then we never should have been pastors in the first place.
For Individual Believers:
1. Wash your hands frequently and vigorously
As silly as it sounds, this is one of the most important things you can do to help flatten the curve of this virus.
Wash your hands under hot water with soap while singing Happy Birthday twice. It takes 20 seconds to eliminate the virus.
2. Do not hoard
Hoarding is unloving. When you buy 240 rolls of toilet paper or 17 canisters of Lysol wipes you are depriving your neighbours of what they need. Their families are important too. Christians are supposed to be the “share and sacrifice” people not the “hoard and deprive” people. Buy what you need to self-isolate for 14 days and nothing more.
If you have been hoarding toilet paper or Lysol wipes consider making your pastor and elders/deacons aware of this so that they can distribute your excess product to seniors in need.
3. Do not panic and do not spread panic
This is a serious situation but it is no time for people to be panicking – Christians in particular. In a recent article Dr. Miguel Nunez wrote the following:
“The average mortality rate is around 3.4 percent. The highest mortality rate was reported in Italy, estimated at a little less than 6 percent. The lowest mortality rate was reported in South Korea, calculated to be around 0.7 percent. … In reality, the mortality of this new epidemic will probably end up being much lower than reported, since up to 20 percent of patients remain completely asymptomatic, which means they will remain undiagnosed. If the number of cases of coronavirus increases, this increases the denominator with the consequent reduction in the percentage of mortality. The highest-risk patients are those older than 60 and those who suffer from a chronic disease, either respiratory or another type such as diabetes mellitus or renal failure. The mortality rate may end up being 1 percent or less, according to a published article in the New England Journal of Medicine. By way of comparison, the common flu in the United States has a mortality rate of approximately 0.1 percent. However, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Atlanta estimates that in the current flu season, between 20,000 and 50,000 people will die in the United States.”
The measures being taken at this time by the government are entirely prudent and are aimed at flattening the infection curve so as not to overwhelm the capacity of our health care system. If 10% of the people in your town were to develop pneumonia it would overwhelm the system and place people at risk. Prudent is the order of the day – panic is entirely out of place and will only make things worse. From this point on I recommend only posting information on Facebook from reputable sources.
4. Check-in on older relatives and neighbours
Now is not the time for us to abandon our friends and neighbours.
During the great plagues of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD Christians were known for their extraordinary courage. While every Roman with the ability to do so was evacuating the city Christians from the countryside were marching in to care for the old and the sick. Eusebius records:
“All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”
Historically, we have been at our very best during times of plague and sickness – and the world has taken notice. In the minds of many ancient Romans it was the fearlessness of the Christians during the plagues that proved the truth of their religion. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, emphasized that very point:
“How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the mind of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love kinsmen as they should … whether physicians do not desert the afflicted.”
The value of your beliefs is demonstrated in times of crisis and difficulty.
Now is such a time.
Let us arise and shine.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16 ESV)
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.
 Eusebius in Church History online reference: https://biblemesh.com/blog/the-compassion-of-early-christians/
 Cyprian of Carthage as quoted by Stark in The Rise Of Christianity, 116.