I imagine that very few people outside a small cadre of experts—such as epidemiologists, virologists, and global health authorities—anticipated the global pandemic we are now living through. A few weeks ago, few had ever heard of COVID-19. Ever since the Fall, mortals have been beset by manifold crises—floods, earthquakes, wars, rumors of wars, famines, economic upheavals…and plagues. But who of us would have thought they would be living through the Great Virus Crisis of 2020? Some are no longer living through it, since this virus has taken them. How many more will join them? How much more will our lives have to change? God alone knows.
Pastors are uniquely placed to bring their flocks comfort and readiness based on biblical truth and on the character of the living God we serve. Pastors are there in times of trouble—when a friend or loved one dies, when a moral crisis hits, when illness threatens all we had taken for granted, when we suffer unemployment, divorce, or mental distress. They can be there for their flock during this trouble as well. Through the Holy Spirit, we can follow Jesus in comforting the afflicted. In Isaiah, we hear of the coming servant’s skill in serving the suffering: “The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary” (Isaiah 50:4).
How might pastors sustain the weary and the worried during this crisis?
One pressing problem is physical. Where should the congregation congregate when it is wise—and perhaps lifesaving—to practice social distancing? Some might argue that we should trust God and continue to meet publically, as long as we take precautions. We should trust God in all things, but not test Him (see Matthew 4:1-7).
Martin Luther chastised Christians of his day who said that taking precautions against the black death showed a lack of faith. He rebuked Christians who make “no use of intelligence or medicine.” This, he said, “is not trusting God, but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.” Amen, Brother Martin.
Since the stake are so high, it is prudent to suspend church meetings for this strange season of contagion. Of course, we should not give up “meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25). This is no habit, but an extreme measure for an extreme situation. The verse just quoted goes on to say we should encourage “one another—and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
Churches can continue to encourage their congregations—as an emergency measure—by offering teaching, preaching, and worship online. Notice I did not write, “holding services online.” Church services do not come in two modes: (1) in person or (2) online. Biblically, the church service is corporate, corporeal, and communal. We sing together, listen to preaching together, greet one another, have communion together, experience or witness baptism, and more—all in the same place at the same time. Paul says to the church at Corinth:
When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up (1 Corinthians 14:26; emphasis added).
But when a crisis hits, we do the best we can. Paul longed to have fellowship with other Christians when he was imprisoned in Rome, but he could not. So, he wrote letters to them. These became what are called the prison Epistles—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. We can apply this principle to our crisis. We long to come together as a church, but for now, it is not wise to do so. Yet we can make aspects of the service available online. To retain some solidarity, it is appropriate to invite congregants to watch the service in real-time at the same time as others. At least then, they can experience group simultaneity if not physical togetherness. My pastor is sending out the order of service through email to his congregation. Pastors and other church leaders should pray and think hard about how to conserve as much fellowship as possible given the limits we now face.
Pastoral visits in contagious times
Pastors are called, as mentioned earlier, to be with their church members in tough times. Loving presence is crucial to ministry. But how can we do this when we are told constantly to practice “social distancing”?
Pastors should practice relational triage. (In fact, we all should.) My Random House College Dictionary gives the general meaning of triage as “the determination of priorities for action in an emergency.” Thus, who most needs a home or hospital visit? What must be done in person (such as a funeral), what can be postponed (perhaps a wedding), what might be done electronically and from a distance? Some souls might be adequately ministered to through a text, a phone call, FaceTime, or an email. I meet often with my Pastor, but I am not in crisis, so less personal interaction must suffice for now.
Pastors will also need to discuss with their families what is an acceptable level of risk. A pastor with a spouse who is particularly vulnerable to the Coronavirus may not be able to make personal visits at all for some time. But a young pastor with a healthy young wife may be willing to take more risks to be with people in need. We must pray for wisdom from above and all the time (James 1:5; Ephesians 6:19).
It strikes me that pastors should address at least two theological matters in their teaching, preaching, and counseling in the days ahead:
Exercising Our Faith Under Trial
“Do not be afraid” is a recurring theme throughout Scripture. Since God is on His heavenly throne, His servants can trust Him in all things, no matter how grim life becomes. God calls us to rely on His power and goodness at all times. As Jesus preached:
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear the One who, after you have been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him!
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Luke 12:4-7).
We ought to fear God more than any virus that might kill the body. If we do fear Him—by holding Him in reverential awe and believing His word—then we need fear nothing else, for God cares for us more than sparrows or any other living creature. The Bible is a spiritual storehouse of comfort and encouragement during times of stress. Perhaps preachers will want to preach a series of messages on this theme. So many of the Psalms console us in times of distress. I often advise friends to meditate on Psalm 42, 43, 62, 91, and 139 during their trials. These and similar theological poems make apt texts for messages during a modern plague.
The Morality of Public Health
Pastors may want to teach and preach on the urgencies of public health measures, some of which require personal sacrifice. For the good of our churches, we should not meet together for a season. For the good of our society as a whole, we should practice social distancing. God told the exiles in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city to which they were exiled (Jeremiah 29:7). Jesus said we were the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:16-18). When experts are exhorting us to work at home, keep a healthy distance from others, to sanitize surfaces, and more, we should obey. When legal officials restrict activities for public health reasons under penalty of law, we should abide by these new laws, as Paul teaches:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God (Romans 13:1).
But some refuse to comply, thinking themselves exempt from risk or because they simply do not care. Simply put, that is sin. It is sin because it puts love of self above love of neighbor. It is not the way of Christ, who came in love to give His life for us.
Jesus called us to deny ourselves in order to follow Him and serve others. Extroverts will suffer more from social isolation than we who are more introverted. (I have enough reading and writing at home to occupy me for decades.) But I am half Italian, and we Italians love to hug, kiss, touch, and be close physically to others. But we can’t do that as freely now. Sadly, the Italians’ convivial and tactile culture may be part of why their country has been devastated by the virus. Ironically, out of love for others, we must distance ourselves from them physically.
I find it difficult to fathom all that we are going through with this global health crisis that is the Coronavirus. Life was relatively normal for most Americans just a month ago. We took it for granted that we met for worship. Now the whole world is aflame with this contagion, many of the rules have changed, and we are grappling for answers and life-saving strategies. But God remains God.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth is transformed and the mountains are toppled into the depths of the seas, though their waters roar and foam and the mountains quake in the surge (Psalm 46:1-3).
Pastors and church leaders make God their refuge and strength and thus rise to the occasion by marshaling practical and theologically-informed strategies in place for church life and by teaching the wisdom of Scripture concerning God’s faithfulness and our need to seek the welfare of the city during a time of crisis. Surely, there is much good work to do, no time to waste, and the resources of heaven to draw upon.