The COVID-19 Crisis, the Church, and the World
by Dr. Craig von Buseck
Earlier this year, I was set to travel to Africa for the first time in my life. We were going on a mission trip to teach pastors who have had only minimal Bible school training. And then I wasn’t. The culprit? The coronavirus.
This was just the beginning of the adjustments that we all had to make as the world came to grips with this hyper-contagious disease. The pandemic didn’t just affect individuals, but businesses, schools, and yes, churches.
When the world went into lockdown, so did the church. But just as the Spirit of God cannot be contained, so Christian leaders around the world found multiple ways to shine the light of Jesus to the world in this time of fear and crisis.
Just as Paul used the Roman roads and sailing ships, and Luther used the printing press to carry the gospel message to the masses, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, churches and ministries have utilized the Internet and social media to continue to reach out with the love of Jesus. Church services, Bible studies, and prayer groups started meeting through Facebook Live, Google Groups, and Zoom meetings.
I work for Inspiration Ministries in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the first week of lockdown, we started a daily time of prayer using Zoom and Facebook Live. The first day, we had 5,000 people who viewed the video and joined the prayer chat room. After only a few days, that number doubled and is continuing to grow.
Churches innovated in other ways, including meetings held in drive-in movie theaters or church parking lots where people remained in their cars while the pastor and worship team ministered from a stage built for the occasion. The vast majority of churches practiced social distancing in these services, both for the protection of their congregation, and also to honor governmental guidelines.
Of course, whenever you have a clash of constitutional rights against the need for public safety, you are going to have controversy.
One example of this occurred on April 7 in Greenville, Mississippi, when Mayor Errick Simmons issued an order banning all religious services, including church drive-in services. The city’s police department enforced the order and ticketed members of Temple Baptist Church with $500 fines for attending a drive-in church service.
Mayor Simmons’ actions prompted a response from U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who publicly criticized the mayor’s decision saying:
“In times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.”
According to the Associated Press, the mayor quickly backtracked, waiving the fine and rescinding his order. Facing two freedom-of-religion lawsuits and pushback from Attorney General Barr, Mayor Simmons announced that people may attend drive-in church services during the coronavirus pandemic, but they must keep their windows up.
The mayor also said local churches may allow up to 10 people at a time in a building for worship services that are shown online or carried on TV or radio, as long as those inside the church follow public health guidelines to maintain a safe distance from one another.
Similar controversies erupted across America, including the case of the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, who did not allow churches to hold drive-in services on Easter Sunday. On Fire Christian Church of Louisville had been holding drive-in services for weeks in line with CDC guidelines, but was told to stop just before Easter.
“The prohibition of drive-in church services goes beyond those guidelines . . . and unlawfully targets houses of worship,” said Roger Byron, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, a law firm representing the church. “Many churches across the nation are holding drive-in services to balance the spiritual and physical health of their communities.”
Pastors in other states have held massive drive-in services with the approval of the mayor, chief of police, and the governor. The move to ban drive-in services was especially upsetting to residents because of the timing just before Easter, and because local businesses and restaurants continued to operate drive-in windows.
U.S. District Judge Justin Walker issued a temporary restraining order saying, “On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter,” the Louisville Courier Journal reported. Walker banned the city from “enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire.”
Churchgoers there “face an impossible choice,” the judge wrote: “skip Easter Sunday service, in violation of their sincere religious beliefs, or risk arrest, mandatory quarantine, or some other enforcement action for practicing those sincere religious beliefs.”
Despite the controversy, ministry opportunities have grown tremendously during the COVID-19 crisis as people look for hope and answers in the midst of fear. Charisma News reports that Faithlife, a church technology company and maker of Logos Bible Software, recently released results from a survey of church leaders across the country revealing that 15% of participants noted increased engagement in online midweek services and small groups.
“We believe that increased midweek attendance during this pandemic is significant for several reasons,” said Faithlife Founder and CEO Bob Pritchett. “We know by now that many people at home, both Christian and non-Christian, have been tuning into church services remotely, and that is wonderful news. But to see midweek attendance spike so sharply is encouraging because it shows that more and more people are seeking to not simply check off their Sunday service box, but truly engage with God’s Word and connect with the church.”
Faithlife’s survey also showed that 40% of participants have seen their services reach a broader audience, including non-members, non-Christians, individuals who have never been to church in addition to those who have not gone for several years.
As believers, let’s continue to pray for healing and comfort for those fighting this outbreak. Pray for world leaders who are making difficult decisions, balancing public safety concerns with civil and religious liberties, as well as the economic impact. And pray that this disease will be quickly contained and eradicated.
In the end, I’m still going to visit Africa—just not now. And that’s ok—better to be safe and to minister again when the time is right.
Dr. Craig von Buseck is the Managing Editor for Inspiration.org. He is an author and a popular speaker. His most recent book is I Am Cyrus: Harry S. Truman and the Rebirth of Israel from Iron Stream Media/LPC Books. Learn more at vonbuseck.com.
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