By now, I do not think anybody’s year has ended up as expected.
Some are especially vulnerable in this global pandemic. But this threat is so universal that we are seeing prominent celebrities, mighty members of Congress, and even the Prime Minister of one of the most powerful nations on Earth stricken with COVID-19.
Our world desperately needs faithful, biblically grounded churches. As we are all unsettlingly confronted with our mortality and fundamental fragility, the church of Jesus Christ can uniquely offer the only true, lasting basis for eternal hope, peace, and never-ending life in the face of the death and fallenness of our present world.
There is increased need for ministries churches offer to help people overcome such problems as unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence, and addiction.
And yet now the church is being undermined.
Suspending in-person gatherings, and shifting to creative alternatives where possible, are clearly necessary for preventing COVID-19’s spread. Given biblical teaching about loving our neighbors, valuing all human life, and not putting God to the test, there should be no question about Christians’ compliance with truly necessary limitations.
But these limitations are taking a toll. “Social distancing” obviously makes a great many ministries logistically more difficult. The Associated Press recently outlined how “Religious congregations large and small are being pummeled by a series of sudden financial hits not seen in living memory.” Offering plates are no longer being passed around, fundraisers have been canceled, others are no longer paying to rent church buildings, many members’ own income has declined, and the stock slump has hurt endowments. The AP cites a 2016 finding that one quarter of American Protestant congregations “had seven or fewer weeks’ worth of operating reserves.” Some will close permanently, some are laying off staff, and many are otherwise scaling back. Congregations with depleted finances will feel pressure to cut their missions budgets, even in such a time of great global need.
Perhaps a more helpful way of framing this challenge is not that “the church needs to step up,” but rather that we lay members need to step up. Because the church is not some third-person Other for us to simply dump demands upon. As the children’s song goes, we are the church together. Tasks for “the church to do” are really tasks for us to roll up our sleeves and help our churches do.
You can expect your pastor to feel overwhelmed, and perhaps intimidated or depressed. He or she may be thinking “they didn’t train me for THIS in seminary!” It is probably not helpful at this point to simply pile-on additional items to their already-lengthy to-do list.
Here are seven things we laypeople can and should do now to strengthen our churches, and their mission and witness in our hurting world, at this time:
The challenges facing your church are far too great for it to handle, even if you were making maximum use of your human and material resources. We need supernatural direction and help.
Time to re-double our commitments to regularly praying for our pastors, churches, and communities.
2. Continue to show up for church
Even though such cases appear to be rather exceptional, it is a terrible witness to a watching world to see any church insisting on prematurely hosting large in-person gatherings, recklessly endangering its neighbors.
And yet the Coronavirus has not canceled biblical teaching about honoring the Sabbath and not giving up meeting together, as some have begun doing. We simply must find safe, creative new ways to do so.
Typing in a brief comment of greeting or “amen” at an appropriate point in live online worship can encourage your pastor and other virtual attenders.
You can still invite friends to virtually attend church with you. Now the means have shifted to opportunities like “watch parties,” connecting online rather than in-person.
Whether or not you also listen to sermons or watch services from elsewhere, if your own church and pastor are biblically faithful, now is not the time to drift away from your church to merely float between shallow, one-way electronic connections to various other churches. Your church is not one of many stores in a shopping mall, existing only to offer the most of what you want at the lowest price. Numerous “one another” commandments of the New Testament are not realistic to fulfill without the continuity of community, commitment, and accountability that come from regular involvement in one local church, as well as, ideally, a small group.
3. Encourage your pastor(s)
Ministry is very hard work, any time of the year. It is difficult to overestimate the incredible pressure pastors face at all times. Pastors get depressed and discouraged, and wonder if they are making any difference.
Send them a brief letter or email of encouragement, period. Tell them what you appreciate how you and others have been blessed by their ministry. And do not attach this to any requests or suggestions.
4. Continue financially supporting your church
Without an offering plate passed to us, many of us may be tempted to forget to give as regularly. Giving online is an additional hassle. Dropping a check in the mail can seem even more of the sort of bother we may tell ourselves we will get around to… eventually.
But we still have a sacred obligation to keep giving, regularly. If our income has not dropped, neither should our giving.
If you have the means (or could find the means by living more frugally), now may be a time to prayerfully consider increasing your regular giving. Remember, our churches are facing twin pressures of decreased giving from others plus major new needs to meet.
5. Winsomely remind others to give
Some may be inclined to tune out financial appeals from pastors or other paid church staff, unfairly viewing those as “self-serving.”
This sometimes can make appeals from the rest of us more persuasive. This may take various forms, from a Facebook post to a word to your small group. Just be careful about celebrating your own generosity before others, as Jesus warned against.
6. Offer your time and service
I do not mean to shame anyone who is now unemployed, without much to financially spare at this moment.
But unemployment is no limitation to being able to give of your time, talents, and service.
The coronavirus lockdowns have gifted many of you with large amounts of uncommitted time, much of which could be invested in your church.
New ways of being the church together need to be researched and developed. Work must be done for various ongoing ministries to make major adjustments. Your church cannot launch new ministries to meet new problems in your community without volunteers.
Pastors and church staff CANNOT do this all by themselves.
This is a time for less-active members to become more active.
I have written here about some encouraging examples of how some faithful congregations in my conference of the United Methodist Church are now adjusting their ministries. There is much to learn from what others in the body of Christ are trying. Don’t be afraid to reach out (with deference to your church’s leadership), even if it means reaching across denominational or geographic lines.
7. Help your congregation explore seeking a loan or grant from the CARES Act
The recently enacted “CARES Act” stimulus package included provisions – which had vocal support from leaders from both major U.S. political parties – which allow American congregations and others to apply for loans, and loans which can effectively become grants (i.e., which do not have to be repaid), in order to make it through this time of economic distress.
Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition has a thoughtful article on why churches should not be afraid to apply for such loans and grants in such historically extraordinary circumstances, while warning us all against judging other believers who come to different conclusions. He notes how churches are making a costly sacrifice for the common good by closing their doors, and we would not expect government-funded fire departments to refuse to save burning churches.
The purpose of these grants from the “Paycheck Protection Program” is to protect nonprofits and small businesses from being forced lay off employees or even go out of business. If your congregation is facing Coronavirus-driven financial pressures, this program could save you from having deprive any of your church staff of their jobs, salaries, and benefits, and also enable you to make necessary rent, mortgage interest, and/or utilities payments.
Please make sure your church’s leaders are aware of this, if they are not already.
A deliberate, prayerful decision should be made.
But whatever you decide, do not wait long! A flood of other non-profits and small businesses have already applied for these grants, for which funds look likely to run out soon.
You may have some church members with backgrounds that could be helpful for completing the application process.
You can find further guidance in this recent Christianity Today article:
(UPDATE: It was reported on April 16 that this Paycheck Protection Program has run out of its initial money, and is no longer accepting applications at this time. However, leaders in Washington are in the process of negotiating adding additional money to this program, so that it could accept new applicants. So it would be good to be prepared.)
Let us all pull together as the body of Christ in this hour of great need.