It was not too long ago that we learned about a virus that first appeared in Wuhan, China. OK, we thought, we have had swine flu (H1N1), types A, B, and C influenza, and other “bugs” sweep through populations, and worked through those. Communicable diseases are not new. Coronavirus could just be added to the list. But then, in the course of but a few weeks, COVID-19, a specific strain of Coronavirus, exploded around the world to the point it is now referred to as a pandemic (widespread, prevalent, pervasive, rife, rampant) and so severe in two countries, Italy and Spain, that they have basically shut everything down and closed for business as nations.
Because not much was known about its full health ramifications, because few tests existed for it, and because no vaccine has yet been developed for the Coronavirus, health authorities published guidelines. These guidelines are founded on the principle of containment – slowing the spread of the contagion while vaccines are developed, all the while hoping that summer weather will in essence pull the plug on Coronavirus, as has happened with previous outbreaks of flu. Everything from social distance to sanitation practices have been emphasized as ways to help contain the virus.
Although the Coronavirus pandemic is nationwide some areas are, thus far, much more seriously affected. I am not a doomsday purveyor of fear but I believe it is quite possible that we are looking into our future, a future where an increasingly interconnected world easily transmits (or our enemies do) new diseases on a global scale for which we are not prepared, a time when we are confronted by concerns over personal health, education, commerce, economy, transportation, supplies of food and other staples, the gathering of church bodies, and beyond. The Coronavirus pandemic could be a dress rehearsal for the future. Surely the time for Christ’s return is approaching.
HOW WE SHOULD NOT RESPOND
FEAR – There is significant difference between cautionary care and fear. Cautionary care measures and objectively considers possible negative consequences while making prudent decisions in response. Fear gives way to panic, which gives way to irrational and unwise choices. Fear seizes control and freezes God-given ability to make good decisions. God proclaimed, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
DISMISSIVE – When possible crises arise some people react, often out of fear or ignorance, by loudly dismissing the possible threat and even making light of other people who are attempting to gauge and appropriately respond to the threat. The fact is we don’t know how serious the Coronavirus is. Is there overreaction? Probably so. Is the continuous media attention hyping fears? Likely. However, a proper response to that extreme is not to try counterbalancing it with the opposite extreme – dismissing what could be a real threat. Voices that are condescendingly dismissive of the Coronavirus remind me of people who made light of the Surgeon General’s early warnings about a connection between cancer and smoking tobacco. Being dismissive is neither an intelligent nor responsible response to the unknowns about the Coronavirus. It is not wise to make light of what you do not know. And, mocking people who are struggling with fear about the Coronavirus is not a grace-filled, Jesus-pleasing, response.
HOW WE SHOULD RESPOND
REMAIN CALM – We need to take to heart Psalm 46:1-3: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
RESPECT GUIDELINES – Health professionals are doing their best to provide guidance as we work our way through the Coronavirus pandemic. Their containment strategy is wise, even if imperfect. Although government authorities could overreact for the sake of care and containment, they are attempting to fulfill their responsibilities to the public. We are all learning from this new experience and will get better at knowing how to respond in the future. Let’s respect and comply with guidelines as responsible citizens of this nation.
HOW PASTORS AND CHURCHES SHOULD RESPOND
BE PASTORAL – People need assurance and hope. They need to be reminded and encouraged about our source. They need to be reassured that church leaders are continually monitoring the current situation and prepared to adapt as necessary. They need to know they are not alone, that the church body, while taking precautions about social distance, is standing together (See model church letter below).
BE PRAYERFUL – We should be praying and leading our people to pray for the virus to recede, for wisdom in response, for safety in the meantime, for healing of those who have been afflicted, and for a breakthrough with a vaccine.
BE PREPARED – It is often crises, being confronted by new challenges or threats, that motivate us to seek God’s face and stir us to tune to the frequency of the Holy Spirit. It could be that the Holy Spirit will show us responsive creativity and innovations as churches during this season that we never would have seen before. If this is a dress rehearsal, then let’s make it count for the future!
Thank you, pastors, for your leadership of the church you shepherd as we navigate through this pandemic. I am reminded of what the Lord told His people as they anticipated crossing the dangerous, flood-swollen, Jordan River in order to enter the Promised Land. There were many threats. There were many unknowns. The Lord instructed them to “sanctify yourselves” (Joshua 3:5) in preparation for what they did not know they would confront. That meant both outward cleansing and inward resolve. What a prescription for today!
There is no single preferred model for how to lead the church through this pandemic, especially in light of the variations of impact of the Coronavirus across the nation. However, the following are helpful resources.