Churches — just like so many other institutions and businesses — are grappling with how to best serve their communities during the age of social distancing.
Despite the challenges, multiple Christian leaders with whom The Western Journal spoke see the coronavirus outbreak as the faith community’s time to shine the light of Jesus.
William Vanderbloemen, CEO of a Houston-based consulting firm that serves some of the nation’s most renowned churches, said he has been fielding many calls from congregations around the country since the crisis broke.
COVID-19 has forced people, and thereby churches, to act in very unnatural ways, he explained.
Vanderbloemen pointed to the creation account in the Bible’s book of Genesis, where God created the land, sea, animals, plants, heavens and finally humans in His own image, saying after each it is “good.”
“The first thing God says is not good, He said it’s not good for people to be left alone,” Vanderbloemen said. “We are hardwired to be in in-person relationship with one another.”
The former pastor recalled how the church he led was filled to overflowing after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The same was true in 2003 following the shuttle Columbia disaster, which particularly hit home in Houston, the location of the Johnson Space Center.
“People want to be together and they want to hear a message of hope,” Vanderbloemen said. “I think there is this incredibly innate longing for people to be together right now, and we can’t.”
So they’ve done the next best thing, which is to connect online and through phone calls and texts.
John Leach — executive senior pastor of Life Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — said his church, like many larger congregations, has broadcast services online for years.
To that, it has added daily online devotionals and prayer focuses during the time of enforced physical separation.
“We’re using this as a chance to expand, not pull back,” Leach said.
The church’s leadership has set four goals for the congregation, which is a few thousand strong: Stay in faith, stay compassionate, look for opportunities to serve and remain a community.
To the objective of remaining a community, Leach said church leaders have reached out to over 1,000 members so far just to check in and see how they’re doing.
Brian Bowman, the lead pastor of Valley Life Church in Phoenix, said his church has done the same.
“We just took our staff and sort of had to reassign everyone to, basically, communications to stay in touch with our membership and the people who regularly attend,” he said.
The church is also seeking to network with not only with its congregants but also other churches across the Phoenix metro area and beyond to set aside the beginning of the 19th hour of the day as a time of prayer focus against the pandemic.
“The idea is that at the 19th hour of the day, which is 7 p.m., we’re just asking everyone to pray to end the COVID-19 virus,” Bowman said.
Among other projects, Valley Life is establishing a website to connect people with needs and those willing to help, such as elderly members looking for someone to go shopping for them or others who might need financial assistance.
Bowman contended the church’s job is to be a beacon of hope during these challenging times, particularly when media outlets such as CNN and others in society tend to highlight the bad news.
“The church is the only institution there that really can provide hope to be a part of the solution, as well as hope beyond this life,” he said. “We really think we are the only hope of this type that is out there.”
Fritz Hager, who serves as executive pastor of Bethel Bible Church in Tyler, Texas, agrees.
“I don’t know how people who don’t have faith stay sane in times like this,” he said. “There is a peace and a calm that people of faith should have.”
Hager is a veteran of the Persian Gulf war who later became a chaplain with the Texas State Guard, deploying during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
— Fritz Hager, Jr. (@fhagerjr) September 6, 2017
When leaders in his church — including both staff and elders — call around to members of their congregation, “We just encourage people to place their hope in Jesus, who is unchanging and who is good and whose purposes and plans are better,” he said.
Hager related that he has been dialed into the coronavirus outbreak for the last month because he has a sister living in northern Italy, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Though we aren’t gathering at any of our campuses today, you can still join us online at 9 AM or 10:30 AM! #BethelBible
— Bethel Bible Church (@bethelbible) March 15, 2020
Michael Maiden, the lead pastor of Church for the Nations in Phoenix, focused his Sunday message on providing hope, titling it, “Everything Is Going To Be Alright.”
“God’s promise to us is true: He’s a very present help in time of trouble,” the pastor told his online audience, quoting from Psalm 46.
“In the day of difficulty, the day of calamity, God says, ‘Trust me, I’m going to make this good,'” Maiden added, a reference to Romans 8:28.
He told The Western Journal, “This is a time for believers to grow closer to God, to feed themselves, to turn away from overflooding their senses, overflooding their minds with negative news reports.
“It’s OK to know the facts. It’s not OK to feed your fears to the point you’re submerged by discouragement.”
Maiden also encouraged Christians to actively look for ways to help others, especially those who suffer from anxiety and depression.
“We should be pretty aggressive in this season, not just hunkering down for ourselves, but to make sure we’re caring about people,” he said.
“When someone’s name or face pops up in our mind, often that’s the Holy Spirit telling us to pray for them or to reach out to them,” Maiden said. “It’s a great time for that.”
All the faith leaders expressed optimism that their churches and many others around the world will come out of the COVID-19 crisis stronger.
Maiden sees it as a time for believers to exercise their spiritual muscles.
“We’ll be stronger in the important stuff,” he said, which is loving God and loving people.
Leach views what’s happening in the world right now as the opportunity for a “reset.”
“We’re hoping there’s kind of a reset even when everybody goes back, maybe we go back with different values,” he said
The pastor argued it is not limited to the church community, but people in and outside the church are having a chance to rethink their priorities.
“We kind of live in a more reclusive neighborhood, and we’ve been finding that everyone’s been out, everyone’s been talking way more than they have been in the three, four years we’ve been here. It’s so nice,” Leach said.
Vanderbloemen’s company has put together a website of resources for churches to learn how to go online and other best practices during the coronavirus outbreak.
The consultant anticipates church attendance will spike when congregations are able to meet in person again.
“I think there is a pent-up hunger and whenever this thing passes and people are actually able to get out and get together, I think you’re going to see a storm surge of church attendance,” Vanderbloemen said.
— William Vanderbloemen (@wvanderbloemen) March 24, 2020
He encouraged people to pray for their pastors and continue to financially support their churches, as they are able.
Bowman said if churches handle the crisis well, it could be among their finest hours.
“I could not be prouder of not just ours, but other churches all around, and not just in Phoenix, either, but I have friends all over the country and worldwide that are saying, ‘Yeah, we’re leaning in to this trouble rather than retreating or blaming or worrying,'” the pastor said.
“My church is mobilized like I’ve never seen before,” Bowman said.
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