Hello NWIBA Pastors/Leaders:
In my lifetime there has nothing that has been as life disrupting, as rapidly moving, and as ubiquitous as the COVID-19 virus. Nine-Eleven probably is the closest, but in many ways, this is even more difficult that 9/11. After 9/11, the impulse was to gather together. With this virus the imperative is to separate and create “social distancing.” This virus will have ramifications upon our society the effects of which we will not know for some time. Obviously, since the church is a gathering of God’s people, we are going to be greatly impacted by this crisis. That is, with a virus in which the way to reduce its spread is to create space from other people, gathering together with others in large groups for 1-2 hours on Sunday morning can be to say the least problematic.
The news related to COVID-19 is moving rapidly so much so that it has been difficult to have a consistent strategy in dealing with this in respect to our church gatherings. For example, the middle of last week, I felt confident suggesting that as you gather as a church, make sure you implement extra procedures that would assure a sanitized environment. Going into the weekend, however, the advice coming from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other governmental authorities suggested strongly that larger churches should not meet together. Finally, by Sunday night the CDC issues a statement recommending that all gatherings of 50 or more people should be canceled for the next 8 weeks. Indiana governor Eric Holcomb ordered all bars and restaurants closed to in-person customers and has encouraged that all follow the recommendation from the CDC to limit large events and gathering to 50 people. And today, President Trump advised Americans to avoid groups of 10 people or more. So, the recommendations have tightened and there is now universal agreement among the experts and governmental leaders that to prevent the spread of this virus, there must be a limitation on social gatherings.
Therefore, as our governmental authorities are working diligently to protect the safety and health of their citizens, I believe that the church should cooperate and be part of the solution, not the problem. We may not stand out well as good witnesses for Christ if the restaurants, bars, coffee shops, etc. are having to make sacrifices that we are not willing to make. In the end, this should not be a political issue, it should not be “we have a right to meet” issue, or “we’re going to do this to show the world” issue. But this issue is about respecting our governing authorities (Romans 13) and loving our neighbor (Matt. 22). The church of our Lord should be front and center in cooperating in bringing down the number of infected. This is how we love our neighbor and maintain our witness in the community.
Therefore, I would encourage our churches to seriously consider following the recommendation from the CDC concerning gatherings of 50 or more. However, there may be creative ways to maintain your gathering and continue to fulfill the spirit of the recommendation. For example, some smaller churches could have two services on Sunday morning, limit the number in each gathering to well under 50, and spread them out in the sanctuary. Other churches who have live streaming (or record their sermons) can have their congregants gather in homes on Sunday morning in small numbers for worship and listening to the sermon. Others may share their streaming pulpit with another church pastor who does not have streaming (or video recording) capabilities so that his congregants can watch his weekly sermon. There are probably other creative ideas that you may have about how to maintain your corporate cohesiveness during this time.
I realize that my suggestions are just that - suggestions. As the Association Mission Strategist, I can only give recommendations for our churches. However, as all Southern Baptists know, we believe in the autonomy of the local church! This is a decision that only the local church and its leaders can make…and make with a great deal more contextual knowledge of your church than I would have. I fully realize that our churches and their leaders are walking in uncharted territory. Debating closing or radically altering church services for a virus that hasn’t infected us or any of our congregants (at least not at the time of this writing) has to be one of the most difficult decisions that pastors and church leaders must make. Each pastor and his leadership must make decisions that are best for their people and their community.
In closing, for those churches who decide (some have already decided) to suspend services, there is obviously the concern of how this is going to affect them financially. My suggestion is to address this situation often and forthrightly. Remind your people through all your communicative means to keep giving to the church during this no-gathering interim. If your church has an online pay option, train and encourage your members to utilize this option. If they’re check writers, encourage them to mail in their checks. Send weekly or bi-weekly reminders of their need to give. Remind them that ministry of the church continues and there are many missional opportunities that yet remains to be funded.
Regardless of the decision of your church in this crisis, I am here to help you. Let me know if I can help add any clarity to your deliberations. One of the actions I would like to implement during this time is to have a way that we can dialogue so we can learn from one another. If there is enough interest, I may set up an association zoom account that each of you can join for weekly meetings until this crisis is over. You will be hearing about that soon.
I appreciate the opportunity to serve the churches of the NWIBA.
In His Service,
Dr. Wes Rankin
Association Mission Strategist
Northwest Indiana Baptist Association