Beyond COVID-19: Guidance for Churches

On March 16th the President and federal health officials held an afternoon press conference giving guidance for anyone, anywhere in the United States, who has responsibility for any group of people to change the way those groups gather, immediately and drastically. In our churches, these directives led to our current widespread suspension of public worship, small groups, and almost all ministry activities where face-to-face interaction is involved. This is a guide for those of us who are Christian leaders seeking to know by what criteria these restrictions can and should be lifted, partially or entirely. It's important to mention that these guidelines ought to be contextualized and weighed carefully by local congregations.

This guide has four parts

  • The design of a Christian leader: A perspective of the extraordinary moment in history in which we find ourselves, and the christian leader’s responsibility in these times. 
  • The condition and discipline of spiritual unity: A brief description of our aim for christian unity and what this does (and does not) look like. 
  • A phase approach to lifting restrictions: Detailed guidance and criteria for decisions about large and small gatherings. How to know when to lift certain restrictions. 
  • How should we communicate? A list of helpful messages that our church (and community) can hear from us — and harmful messages to avoid.

1. THE DESIGN OF A CHRISTIAN LEADER

At times of disruption and chaos, leaders play a massive role in shaping culture in our churches and in our communities. Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making and partner for theology and culture at Praxis Journal explains that “a leader’s responsibility is to speak, live, and make decisions in such a way that the horizons of possibility move towards shalom, flourishing for everyone in our sphere of influence, especially the vulnerable.” Leaders play that role through both symbolic action — what they say, how they say it — and through decision-making on behalf of others.

Because we believe that it is only Jesus who ultimately transforms and brings shalom, the church (and her leaders) are uniquely set apart at this extraordinary moment to shape culture in the United States more now than in a generation, maybe ever. Christian leaders must seize this moment, laying down our rights of what we are entitled to do — legally or otherwise — for what we should do — outsizing our role for the flourishing of others. 

The church must not be outpaced in presenting a posture of love, service, solidarity, and concern for the welfare of others—especially the most vulnerable. 

The church should be above reproach when it comes to our concern for our neighbor and for one another. We should be going out of our way to promote the welfare of others. In this way we maintain a conduct among outsiders that is honorable, so that all may see our good deeds (1 Peter 2:12).

We also recognize that this current pestilence gives a new face to the vulnerable. We are not simply dealing with epidemiology, but with economics and politics as well. In our leading and planning we must also consider those who have become profoundly aware of the effects of a suffering economy, business loss, or diminished work hours. Many who previously enjoyed certain economic securities are in the midst of acute inhospitable conditions. Without question, many people are feeling the pain of the virus and the cascading effects of social distancing. We must meet this concern with compassion, courage, and vision. 

The church must be the ultimate example when it comes to how we exercise our rights and responsibilities. 

We are to steward our time, resources, privileges, and permissions not primarily for our own indulgence but for the service of others. Our Lord shows us that the values of his Kingdom are not the same values in this world. The Christian life is about dying to self not claiming what belongs to us. Christians have a unique time to ask the question ‘what is beneficial?’ Rather than ‘what is permitted?’ We are permitted to gather, according to federal guidance, But ‘can’ doesn’t always mean ‘should’. The vast majority of secular organization everywhere are taking drastic measures to be absent from public exposure. Christians, more than anyone else, should be leading by example. 

We ought to lead not out of fear or merely out of desire to appear courteous — but chiefly because no other group of people on earth have been secured with the blood of Christ, knit together solely by His grace, and providentially formed by God to be a blessing to others. 

2. THE CONDITION AND DISCIPLINE OF UNITY

As Christians, we should seek unity in this matter, and all matters. But what is Christian unity and how is it important for us now? The Bible describes unity as both a condition and a discipline. It is something static and the result of our adoption into Christ and also something that can be strengthened or weakened among Christians (by faith or disobedience, respectively). The Apostle Paul demonstrates this when he says, 

“…walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).

And also here, 

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5).

I include this section in this guide because I know that we will not all agree in all these matters. But that does not mean we cannot be unified. As a spiritual condition — we are united together in a bond so intimate, relational, and permanent because we are the body of Christ. Yet, we are called to pursue unity because it is a discipline as well. We ought to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Our motivation to stand in solidarity in these matters ought to be motivated by our spiritual condition. 

There are all kinds of divisions among God’s people: race, social status, national background, personal differences and perspectives, etc. Unity does not mean sameness. Knowing that we are all one in Christ and in the same family of God should motivate us to honor and love one another.  

In whatever decision of actions you and your church make, I hope that above all things we maintain the posture and practice of unity, helped by asking the following questions: 

Are my decisions…? 

  • Humble — Not arrogantly claiming our rights and perspectives. 
  • Patient — Not quick in decisions, but taking time to see the perspective of others.
  • Long-suffering in love — This is a kind of love for others who have wronged or simply bother us. We don’t write people off because of their perspective, but we love.  
  • Eager to maintain peace — Go out of our way to promote flourishing of our sister churches and leaders. 
  • Looking to the interests of others — Our decisions have real-life impact on others. We make decisions not only for our church, but decisions that benefit others. 
  • Seeking same-mindedness — Desiring to live in harmony with others, and avoid acting or thinking in a way that disrupts that harmony.

3. A PHASE APPROACH TO LIFTING RESTRICTIONS

Uniquely in our lifetimes, every single person we will interact with in the coming days is experiencing vulnerability like never before. And so, our efforts in leadership in our churches come down to maintaining and mobilizing trust. Trust begins not with concern for ourselves, but concern for others. Maintaining and building trust requires taking steps to communicate a well-thought plan that acts boldly to love our neighbor and glorify God. A suitable approach to lifting restrictions ought to be seen as a dimmer switch rather than an on/off switch. The detailed 3-phase approach to lifting restrictions is outlined below in the chart.

Proposed Criteria to be satisfied before proceeding to phased opening: 

  • Downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period. 

Guidelines for all phases: 

  • Continue to practice good hygiene and adhere to CDC guidance, particularly with respect to face coverings.
  • People who feel sick should stay home, not attend a worship event, and should follow the advice of your medical provider. If any person, child or adult, has experienced an illness or symptoms related to a contagious illness within the past 24 hours then they should avoid coming to worship and other church-related gatherings. These symptoms may include: 
    • Fever
    • Persistent cough
    • Runny nose
    • Pink eye
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Extreme irritability or exhaustion
    • Or any others symptoms related to any contagious illness
  • Churches should develop and implement appropriate policies informed by best practices regarding social distancing, protective equipment, use of disinfection of common and high-traffic areas, modification of handling and administration of The Lord’s Supper, and other activities where viral transmission is likely.
  • Churches should also increase the frequency of their cleaning and sanitizing of the toys and surfaces in our kids' rooms and common areas. Appropriate items should be laundered and items that cannot be cleaned should be removed from the classrooms for the time-being.
  • All are encouraged to utilize the resources available to us all. Consider the recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention which include suggestions for practical hygiene.

Vulnerable Individuals refer to:

  • Elderly individuals.
  • Individuals with serious underlying health conditions, including high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and those whose immune system is compromised such as by chemotherapy for cancer and other conditions requiring such therapy. 

This guidance is the result of medical and public health information about COVID-19 that has been available to the public. This guide simply takes into account the best public information on the matter and might even change or be adjusted on a regular basis, as what we know continues to evolve.

4. HOW SHOULD WE COMMUNICATE?

As mentioned earlier, christian leaders exercise their leadership through decision-making and also through symbolic action — what we say, and how we say it. In these times, we may be tempted to focus solely on the urgent needs of those within our immediate sphere, and of course we cannot neglect these decisions. But just as important for bringing shalom are our well-chosen words. Christian leaders have a message to share and many comments or phrases hinder our most basic posture and message of love for others. Here are some phrases summarized from the above mentioned essay by Andy Crouch, and some added of my own: 

What we SHOULD NOT say: 

“Everything’s going to be fine,” or even, “You’re going to be okay.”

This is not true even on the most normal day. In particular, most people we interact with are going to experience a great deal of distress in the coming days. Almost certainly they will witness distress, through the media and in person. We should be preparing them for real difficulty, and the truth that God will be present in whatever difficulty they encounter.

“You’re overreacting”

It is absolutely true that people immersed in media of any kind react to news and rumors in unhelpful ways. But meeting anxiety with an accusation of overreacting is not likely to help. What is almost certainly true, however, is that our reactions are misplaced — that we are reacting in ways that do not increase our trust in God and our love of neighbor. 

“There is nothing to worry about”

Not only is this inaccurate, it’s incredibly arrogant. All of us are trying to make the best decisions with the information we have. This phrase, and sentiments like it, communicate that the medical health experts, officials who have access to the most specialized counsel and data, and even those affected by the disease — are wrong. What we do know is that we are dealing with a highly contagious disease and everyone, everywhere should assume that the virus is present in their community. We also know that hand washing and “social distancing” can make a huge difference in its ultimate transmission rate.

And that is why we need to deliver several messages with all the confidence we can. 

What we SHOULD say: 

“Love is the reason we have changed our behavior”

Remember (and I’m surprised by how many are unaware of this) the reason to alter our practices, especially the way we gather, is not self-protection. For one thing, in the case of this particular virus, if individuals are young and healthy, infection may pose not much more threat than the ordinary seasonal flu. The change is needed because our vulnerable neighbors — those of any age with compromised immune systems, and those over 70 years old — are at grave risk. One of the basic axioms of the Christian life is that the “strong” must consider the “weak” (see Rom. 15). We are making these choices not to minimize our own risk, but to protect others from risk.

At the same time, some people are taking steps, sometimes extreme ones, to protect themselves and their families, often out of terrible anxiety, and this will likely increase as quarantine directives are extended. This is not a Christian posture. It is entirely possible to prepare, even to prepare urgently, out of love. Rapid decisions to prepare are not panic unless they are accompanied by aggression and anxiety. Christians should be preparing — urgently in some cases — but not panicking. Our precautions may look the same, but we do not change our behavior out of fear. In a very different context, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I want you to be free of anxieties” so that his community could serve the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32). We prepare for our expected needs, and others’, so that we can be free of anxieties and serve freely when the time comes.

“Prepare for trouble.”

This is not the same as saying, “Worry about trouble,” or a violation of Jesus’ command in Matthew 6 not to give thought for tomorrow. Our model here is Jesus, who warned his disciples over and over that their worst case scenario was going to come true. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected . . ., and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly” (Mark 8:31–32). Looking beyond his own fate, he also predicted the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces even as he wept over the city’s refusal to listen to his message of peace (Luke 19:41–43).

On the night before he faced the ultimate tragedy and disaster of Golgotha and the Cross, none of his disciples had any real idea what was coming in the days and years ahead (tradition says that all eleven original apostles died as martyrs). So even as he spoke words of comfort, Jesus made clear that his friends would suffer: “In the world you will have tribulation — but take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

There is no reason to expect COVID-19 to be the “end of the world” in any sense. Instead it falls in the large category of events that Jesus also prepared his disciples for, the “wars and rumors of wars” that would not mean the end of the world (Matthew 24:6).

So we should help those we lead prepare for trouble, facing whatever today and tomorrow bring, without anxiety. This means that all of us have the primary responsibility as leaders, as far as it depends on us, to be well-rested, soaked in prayer and contemplation, and free from personal fear and anxiety. We need to guard our lives as we lead, and trust that God will make up what is lacking in our own frail hearts, minds, and bodies. 

The best definition I’ve ever heard of anxiety is “imagining the future without Jesus in it.” When we realize that Jesus is present today and will be present tomorrow, we can be set free from worry. We need to teach and practice the Christian disciplines of prayer, praise, petition, and lament that help us see Jesus in our sufferings, both real and anticipated, and place our trust in him.

“Do not be afraid.”

In some ways this is the first word of the Christian life. Certainly it is the first word angels speak in the New Testament. We do not need to be afraid of anything — that will be true even when we are on our own death bed. The only thing to fear, as Jesus said, is the one who can cast body and soul into hell. But we have been rescued from that fear, and having been rescued there is truly nothing that can separate us from the love of God.

This is a time for grieving. We have an ache in our hearts and a longing to be with one another in meaningful fellowship and worship. But this is also a time for vision and hope. What we do as Christian leaders in the coming weeks and months have the potential to reshape the practice of Christian faith in our nation and, God willing, lead to a greater love for Jesus and neighbor. 

 

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Rev. Pete Rehrmann

Moderator