Responding to Coronavirus
Some advice on how church leaders should respond to the government restrictions around coronavirus.
The speed and scale of the restrictions to our lives and regular church gatherings in the light of the government’s latest Coronavirus advice have been dramatic.
The vast majority of churches will no longer gather for public worship on Sundays, many of their older members will be entering a period of enforced social separation, and many families will be self-isolating as their kids develop coughs and colds.
It is all too easy to become frustrated by these developments, which have disrupted our plans and undermined our routines.
Whilst we trust in God’s sovereignty and his good purposes, and desire to be good citizens who obey the authorities and submit to their advice, how should we feel about what is happening and how can we counter our negative emotions and adjust to the new situation we face?
Have a sense of perspective
The coronavirus, and the measures it has entailed, is not the end of the world. The evidence from around the world is that for the vast majority of the population it will be relatively mild, and they will fully recover. Many may not even realise that they have had it. In some countries, the infection rate is already falling, and overall deaths have been mercifully low.
For the vast majority of us, the present restrictions will be an inconvenience and a disruption of normal life, but little more than that. Our duty is to accept these limitations out of love and concern for the genuinely vulnerable they are designed to protect. We are being called to humble ourselves by putting the needs of others ahead of our own (Philippians 2).
We should also take a global and historical perspective. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world have endured daily persecution and restrictions on the practice of their faith that are far more extensive than we are facing. Down the centuries, believers have survived through wars, famines, and plagues, without the support of a democratic government or free health care.
We are immensely privileged and ought to be thankful for the many blessings that make our daily lives far more pleasant and secure than those enjoyed by most people from most times and places.
Hebrews 13v3 commanded believers in the first century to:
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
There are many Christians around the world with whom we ought to feel real sympathy at this time because their suffering is far in excess of our inconvenience.
Have concern for those in genuine need
Whilst for most of us our experience will be one of inconvenience, there are many in our churches and community who will be in great need and anguish as a result of the Coronavirus and the action that has been taken.
Some will die, often alone and in hospital away from their loved ones. Others will be bereaved. Many may face severe economic consequences as the economy falters, and they lose their jobs. Children who have been preparing for exams face particular stresses and uncertainty as A-levels and GCSEs have been cancelled. Some churches may face severe financial challenges, and some ministries, such as those running Christian festivals, risk bankruptcy.
There will be many of our neighbours who may have to self-isolate and have no one nearby to help them with shopping or to provide social contact. Medical staff will face particular pressures and have to make difficult decisions. Individuals with life-impairing conditions may have to wait longer for operations and treatment.
If our circumstances are relatively easy, we are not to take comfort in some kind of schadenfreude, nor do we rejoice simply because our lot is not as bad as others.
Rather we need to repent of the self-pity that so easily grips us in the face of the minor, relatively speaking, challenges we face. Only if we are liberated from this introspective self-pity will we be truly free to love and care for those who are genuinely in need.
We need to cultivate self-forgetfulness and contentment so that we can serve and be a blessing. We need to be outward-looking, not self-consumed.
Have trust that Jesus will keep his people
It is natural for pastors, in particular, to feel fear for their people as they are no longer able to minister to them in gatherings, nor in some cases to visit them personally.
We are robbed both of our roles and of the sense that we do something vital to help people remain faithful to the Lord Jesus. Perhaps we fear that they will fall away from the faith if we are not able to be there for them as we have been.
However, we need to have confidence that the Lord Jesus will keep his people through this crisis. If we have taught them well, then they ought to know that they can enjoy personal communion with him through his word and by prayer. If they have a habit of daily personal devotions this will sustain them.
Jesus is their Shepherd and he will not let them go.
Neglecting to meet together
We read in Hebrews that we should not stop meeting together as believers (Hebrews 10v25), but this is not a specific command to have church on a Sunday and home groups mid-week!
The context of Hebrews is a warning to Christians not to stop meeting due to fear of the social marginalisation or persecution they might experience at the hands of the unbelieving Jewish community. Those who stop meeting in these specific circumstances are thereby demonstrating that they are wandering from the faith and back to the world.
Our situation, in which believers are prevented from meeting together by a major health emergency, is totally different. Not meeting together in order to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus crisis does not indicate any drift towards apostasy.
In any event, we have many more ways of “meeting together” than those that were possible in the ancient world. The Hebrew Christians had no mobile phone, social media, Skype, Zoom or Facetime. Physical meeting was their only means of engagement with one another.
Albeit inferior to direct face-to-face physical contact, technology allows us to “meet” in other ways that would have been inconceivable to them. We have access to innumerable web resources, sermons on-line and live streaming. Let us rejoice and be glad, and make the most of what we can do!
The bigger point of Hebrews is that we need to encourage one another regularly to press on in the faith, reminding each other that Jesus is the all-sufficient Saviour, superior to all that has gone before. We can continue to do that in multiple ways.
Perhaps this enforced period of closure might produce some spiritual blessings amongst us:
- It might remind us of the importance of daily personal devotions and make us less dependent on pastors and teachers;
- It might help us recapture the Reformation vision that each family is a “little church”, encouraging dads to lead their families in worship and mums to teach their children about the Lord;
- It might force us to put the “priesthood of all believers” into practice as the needs of the members of our congregations and our local community overwhelm the capacity of the “paid professionals” we have set aside to do the work of ministry on our behalf;
- It might humble pastors as we realise afresh that it is the Lord Jesus who is the shepherd of the sheep, and we have made an idol of our own self-importance;
- It might cause us to appreciate our ministry of intercession for our people, rediscovering that our prayers for them are just as vital a means of ministering to them as our preaching and pastoral visitation;
- We might be liberated from an over-developed sense of responsibility for God’s people that drives us to overwork, either from a guilt-motivated desire to earn justification or assurance, or a doubt-motivated lack of faith in what God can do without us.
Make prayer a priority
In the absence of many of our regular activities, we should consider using the time freed up to pray, whether individually or in our households.
Key things to pray for include:
- Prayer for wisdom for our government and the rulers God has placed over us, as they have to make difficult decisions on our behalf;
- For those who are ill that they might know God’s mercy and the hope of the gospel in the face of death;
- For those who are bereaved that they will know the comfort of God and the hope of the resurrection;
- For those that are needy and vulnerable that they might be shielded from infection and that we might love them as we love ourselves;
- For those who are working to provide medical care and essential services that they will know God’s help and strength under immense pressure;
- For Christian business-owners and employers that they might know to act justly towards their employees at this time;
- For those who are facing the loss of income and livelihood that their needs will be met and that the church would generously support those who have no other means of help;
- That we would all know patience, long-suffering, and contentment in the face of the inconveniences we face;
- That we would joyfully obey the advice that is given for our own good and the good of others.