After stirring music and the singing of hymns in the stately, nearly empty sanctuary of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., last Sunday, it came time for the children's message.
Though the children were absent and staying home with their families because of concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Peter Jonker, pastor of preaching, had some words and a hand-washing lesson for the young people.
Holding up a bottle of hand sanitizer, he said it is very important right now to have clean hands. He squeezed some of the liquid gel on his hands and reminded children watching the livestream of the morning service that they needed to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds — about as long as they sing the doxology that comes after the offering in their usual church services.
“So, let’s sing it as we wash our hands,” he said. Rubbing the sanitizer into his fingers, he began, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below. . . .”
COVID-19 is making this a time of uncertainty for all of us. Does our church hold services? If so, do we go? If we stay home, what do we do? But at the same time, churches are responding and finding ways — some of them quite creative — to remind people of the sure promises of faith in Christ.
The lessons at LaGrave Ave. on Sunday were both practical and theological.
“I think that by being able to watch the livestream and to hear the music that they normally hear — the Prelude, the Introit, the Chiming of the Hour, the Recessional, the Clarion bells (and the sermon) — there is a sense that this is the same at a time when everything else is completely different,” said Jonker.
In addition, he said, his church is finding ways to help its neighbors. Some church members, for instance, are volunteering to deliver school meals to students who are now confined at home.
Across the denomination as many questions swirl and changes in routine occur, as people are challenged in ways that are particularly new, the church can be an anchor in 2020 just as it has been for centuries in times of struggle and sickness.
For one thing, this could be a time of renewal as churches look at and try to adapt their worship services and practices to a new and quickly changing context, said John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, in a Facebook posting.
“As the world changes all around us, I continue to be so grateful for the pastors and pastoral musicians who are responding so creatively and thoughtfully — offering ample opportunities not only for weekly worship but also for communal daily prayer. Imagine this: COVID-19 as the source of renewal for practices of daily communal prayer, albeit in very different forms,” he writes.
Paul De Vries, pastor of Brookside CRC in Grand Rapids and president of the CRCNA’s Council of Delegates, said this serious virus does require people to take precautions. And at Brookside they have had to curtail activities. Even so, he said, we are “trying to be the church without the big building, large group meetings, and well-established programs and ministries that we have become so accustomed to.
“In some ways it is refreshing, and in an odd way, it’s an opportunity to be reminded that the church is not the sum of its buildings, worship practices, and large group gatherings.”
As in other periods in history when calamities struck, many churches and church leaders are right in the heart of the unfolding pandemic, seeking to offer solace to people feeling anxiety, to people whose loved ones are sick — and trying to do so when many questions about COVID-19 remain.
Destination Church in St. Thomas, Ont., had been planning to hold its normal worship service on Sunday, but it decided not to as it became clear that large gatherings in their area could help spread the virus and endanger whole communities.
“There is a lot of fear out there, so we are trying to be a reassuring voice where we can. I have two statements I have been using,” said Beth Fellinger, Destination’s pastor: “First, God is not surprised by this, and he continues to be faithful and present.”
The second, she says, comes from the wisdom of her grandfather, who would often say, “You pray towards heaven, but you swim towards shore. Trust God with everything and use common sense.”
Fellinger added that she is concerned for people who suffer and already have few resources — when, for instance, some other people have been able to buy all they need and more from grocery stores, hoarding items to use as the virus spreads. The church needs to be there for people in need.
On Monday, she said, her church put together 50 bags of groceries for people in the community.
“I suspect if at all possible many will stay connected by social media, but for those who do not have that luxury, the church will need to be vigilant in making sure we have protocols in place to be ears and eyes in the community,” said Fellinger. “This is not a time to fear but a time to reassure others that there is hope even in tough times.”
Having hope — even in the face of an unseen and deadly virus — was recognized by many who filled the sanctuary during the Sunday-evening service at Bethel CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa.
“As we sang ‘To God be the glory,’ we knew this was the last time we would be meeting corporately for some time,” said John Lee, the pastor.
Following the directives of Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, who ordered that there be no gatherings of 50 or more people across the state for the time being, the church decided to close for public worship services and other gatherings after last Sunday’s evening service.
Going forward, said Lee, will be the challenge of remaining a community of Christ followers while church members are isolated in their homes.
The church does have a radio program and will livestream the Sunday services, and that will help, said Lee, but it is by no means the same as meeting your friends face to face.
And in his congregation, he said, there are some people — mainly farmers — who have been especially hard hit by the fluctuating financial markets in recent days.
“The coronavirus has tragically taken human life, and it is also deeply harming human livelihoods,” said Lee. “Hidden in all the press . . . agricultural commodity prices have been hammered.
“For my largely blue-collar, agricultural congregation, there is deep pain and anxiety as over the course of a few days generational farms suddenly face staggering losses and unexpected, mounting debt. There is an aching pain and fear here that is tangible.”
Truly concerning, Lee added, will be the challenge of finding ways to be community and to hold on to deep human connection in these times of anxiety.
But there is, and always has been, an answer, he said:
“God invites us to respond to the anxiety of this situation without fear but, rather, with the deep trust and creative compassion that comes from knowing the Lord, to whom we belong — body and soul — in life and in death.
“God is also calling us to prayer. Let’s be in prayer especially for people at high risk and those already affected by this disease, including those whose businesses and farms have been affected by falling prices and disruptions.”
Scott Hoezee, director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, compared the COVID-19 outbreak to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Pennsylvania.
After the 9/11 attacks, people flooded into churches for prayer and comfort. But this situation is also totally different. “We need comfort and hope but cannot gather,” said Hoezee. “And that lack of togetherness compounds everything else and itself becomes part of the larger reason we need comfort and hope.”
During this time of unprecedented disruption, Hoezee added, church leaders are going to respond to the needs of their congregations in nimble and creative ways.
“Pastors and church leaders will need to provide pastoral care and some form of worship and meditation” — but from something far greater than the promised government plans and safety measures being urged around us.
“If this extends only a few more weeks,” said Hoezee, “it may mean no Easter services — and that will really be a test to help people feel resurrection hope without being able, quite literally, to put the human touch on it in fellowship with pastors and other believers.”