Churches in various regions of the United States and Canada are already having to decide whether they will host Sunday worship services because of the potential spread of COVID-19 through large gatherings. While most regions in North America are still weeks away from really knowing whether or not they should follow suit, those who oversee church planting groups can preemptively help church planters prepare their leaders and communities for an effective and immediate response. An appropriate response does not necessitate giving into hysteria. Instead, it means being good stewards over the work of God in these communities during a time of uncertainty and preparation.
Here are five ways denomination and network leaders can help church planters think through how to respond in the midst of what seems to be a growing outbreak:
1. Help church planters respond prayerfully and thoughtfully in their public communication.
North America is not at a point of panic; however, COVID-19 should be given appropriate attention. Because church planters are public communicators, both in-person and online, it is important that they consistently model the appropriate level of concern to their church plant. A prayerful posture and the right tone matters greatly during these early stages. Help church planters craft their public communication (ie. sermons, prayers, emails, social media posts, etc.) by pointing them to the most reliable sources for information such as the CDC or the Office of the Surgeon General. Lastly, as public communicators, church planters should not engage in coarse joking or stereotyping of those infected by the virus because this is an issue of Christian integrity and witness.
2. Help church planters think through sanitation procedures for their gatherings.
One of the immediate responses church planters should implement—even as soon as this week—is to increase sanitation options for their gatherings. In addition, teams should be prepared to wisely greet people, safely prepare food and communion elements, and thoroughly sanitize equipment. Regardless of COVID-19, these are good standard practices for health and cleanliness. The CDC has provided a guideline for how large groups and events can prepare and respond: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/large-events/index.html
3. Help church planters develop a contingency plan for large gatherings.
While some regions of North America are seeing higher numbers of diagnosed cases leading to events and gatherings being postponed or even canceled, most parts of the US and Canada are not there yet. However, it will help church planters to know what the precautionary measures are when it comes to travel policies and minimizing risk factors. Of course, if there is an increased concern federally or at the state level, churches should follow the appropriate recommendations. However, networks and denominational leaders can help them begin thinking through how to communicate regularly, meet virtually, continue discipleship and training, and collect tithes and offerings.
4. Help church planters discern how to lovingly and safely serve their local community.
Crises are always an opportune time to show the love of Christ to a community. For church plants, this is a great opportunity to bring hope and care to people who may feel panicked or uncertain for what they fear may or may not take place. However, the right response should also be a safe response. You can help church plants think through how to do safe and helpful outreach benefiting the community while also mitigate risk factors for those who participate. This is especially an important time to pray for and to serve populations who are at greater risk, such as the elderly and those who lack access to health care.
5. Help church planters strengthen their core leadership and discipleship during this time.
Last, this is a great time to remind church planters to strengthen their core leadership and their commitment to mission and discipleship among new believers and those who are not yet Christians. If in the event a church has to stop meeting for a time as a matter of safety, there can be ways in which you help church planters continue to do leadership training and discipleship. In fact, some of these innovations could lead to ways of doing discipleship that they had never thought of before. Churches have seasons of growing fruit and then they have seasons of growing roots. You can help them discern how to grow roots during this challenge—especially if they are in a region where they have to meet infrequently for a season.
Your communication with church planters and their churches should be prayerful and encouraging, but also appropriate and informational. This means that any communication is better than no communication, but helpful communication is what you are aiming to provide.
Ultimately, the mission of God moves forward despite an outbreak or a pandemic. But we have also seen from history that when churches provide an appropriate and courageous response, the mission of God can move forward in the midst of an outbreak or pandemic. We pray for North America and the rest of the world that God will supernaturally slow down the spread of COVID-19. And we also pray that churches in North America and the rest of the world will enthusiastically increase the spread of the gospel during this time.