How churches can serve during COVID-19 crisis by working 'outside the box'

Tony Perkins is President of Famly Research Council. This article appeared in the Washington Times on April 5, 2020.

After assembling a state-wide conference call with pastors, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts explained he needed their help. “Government can do a lot of things, but what it can’t do is show love and compassion,” he told me recently. And one way to do that at such a time as this is to respect the social distancing requested of churches to halt the spread of a dangerous virus. 

As communities and our nation respond to the coronavirus sufferers with medical and economic aid, there is a role for the church — on the front lines of our communities in a unique and personal way. As it says in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” 

People of faith must put loving hands to work, and there are many things we, the faith community, are uniquely able to do. But in this present crisis we have to have a paradigm shift; churches have to think and act outside the “box” — the four walls of the church.    

In Hebrews 10:25-27 we read: “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”But this encouragement to gather together must be balanced with a need to respect our government when it acts to protect the common good. And even in the Bible, Moses as the civil leader of Israel established guidelines for quarantining in Leviticus for those who were contagious and a risk to others. As people of faith, we have to do what’s best for the people of our communities.

We can worship together in innovative ways. Some churches may want to try a “Drive In” worship service in their church parking lots or neighborhood business lot, with speakers set up, or even by using an FM transmitter that reaches short distances. Services can go online on a website or on Facebook. There are lots of options for connecting.

But there is no better time than now to put into action Christ’s expectations for how we treat people in need, laid out in Matthew 25, which says: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

1. We can help the hungry and thirsty. 

Most churches already work closely with food banks and food delivery for those in need, and those public-to-private partnerships have never been more important. Churches can also expand their benevolence committees for economic and food support. Many of us have had a meal delivered at a time of crisis and know what a life saver that can be.

2. We can open our doors and facilities for strangers (and neighbors) in need.

Churches can work with officials so that people won’t be left alone. Houses of worship can also be locations used for medical care. In Alabama, Pastor Chris Hodges of the Church of the Highlands worked with Birmingham officials to provide a testing location that has already served hundreds. Many churches operate food banks, day care and elder support that will continue, operating with all the caution urged by the CDC. 

3. We can visit the lonely and ill — but maybe not in person.

Now is the time to activate those church phone trees and e-mail chains to check in on our friends and neighbors to ensure that they have support and know they are not alone. We live in a digital age, so we may be able to use Skype or do a Google Hangout for Bible study or to share some comfort and prayer with someone feeling stressed. 

4. We can practice social distancing when together.

Church handshakes right now will give way to a wave and passing the offering plate suspended for a drop box at the back or online giving. But giving as an act of worship and greeting each other in love continues. For some really practical tips, Health and Human Services Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives offers guidelines for how to keep our faith communities both active and healthy.

We may need to stand further apart right now, but we don’t have to stand alone. 

5. We can model faith and pray without ceasing. 

Our peace of mind can’t be tied to external events that change every day but must be grounded in an eternal God, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. Whether it’s the coronavirus today or an unknown tragedy tomorrow, hard times impact us all. As a faith community, we must pray without ceasing but also live a life of service and serenity that helps others understand how to handle adversity.