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Social Distancing
By Dan Vis
March 23, 2020
Comments: 20

As the current coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, more and more governments are calling for massive social distancing. And churches everywhere are shutting down in concern for their members. What's a good church-going believer to do? Part two in this series explores this important question...

Man at home alone...

Up until now, I can count on one hand the number of times I've missed church in my last three and a half decades as a believer. Fellowship with God's people has always been an important part of my life, both as a lay member, and as a pastor. I've encouraged thousands to memorize Hebrews 10:24-2524 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. which warns us about "forsaking the assembling of ourselves together", and that this would become increasingly important "as ye see the day approaching".

Corporate worship was actually one of the primary purposes of the Sabbath. "The seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation" (Leviticus 23:3Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings.). The word convocation, means an assembly or gathering. Which helps explain what it means that God "sanctified" the day (Genesis 2:3And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.), or that He "hallowed" it (Exodus 20:11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.). The Sabbath was set apart (sanctified) for a holy purpose (hallowed): corporate worship.

That's certainly how Jesus seemed to understand its purpose. "As his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day" (Luke 4:16And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.). Paul too would go into the synagogue "as his manner was" on the Sabbath. In fact, in Corinth, he was "in the synagogue every sabbath", apparently some eighteen months without a single miss (Acts 18:4,11And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks. . . . And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.). And of course, in the new earth, we're told "from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD" (Isaiah 66:23And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD.). That gives a pretty clear pattern, that worshiping with other believers should be an important part of our life.

Closing Churches

Then came the coronavirus, and life twisted. Within just a few short weeks, Americans have gone from watching the news headlines apprehensively, to a near total shutdown. Restaurants, theaters, gyms, hotels, schools--all closed. And the few stores open have near empty shelves! People everywhere are encouraged to work from home, home school their children, and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. In some ways, it feels like a war zone.

It's amazing, how quickly things can change, isn't it? Just one week ago, I was preaching about the seriousness of the coronavirus in my local church, trying to simultaneously raise awareness of the importance of taking health precautions while also encouraging members that we can safely put our trust in God. One week later virtually every church in my conference closed its doors.

Here's a link, by the way, to part one of this series, which was a summary of that sermon: A Thousand Shall Fall.

Today, I want to try and think through the implications of our current situation, and perhaps offer a few suggestions as to how we as believers should respond to the challenges raised by social distancing.

Thank Your Leaders

If your pastor, or conference, has recommended closing down church services, my first suggestion is to thank them. Send an email, or give them a call and share a word of encouragement. Even if the action was directed by local health officials, it was still a difficult decision to make. Every week this continues is going to have a severe impact on every church and conference budget--not to mention their evangelistic mission. But in my view, it is the right call.

Some may look at the small number of infections in their area, the even smaller number of fatalities, and the fact most people recover in a few days without major symptoms--and conclude closing church doors is an overreaction. Or worse, that is shows spiritual weakness, or a lack of faith, or courage. That's not the case at all.

The use of self-quarantine and isolation to contain an infectious agent is clearly a biblical concept. So is frequent washing, for that matter. The books of Leviticus and Numbers are full of remarkably advanced and detailed instructions for using these weapons to control various kinds of disease outbreaks. That we should apply these concepts to the current epidemic is clear for several reasons.

“The use of self-quarantine and isolation to contain an infectious agent is clearly a biblical concept. So is frequent washing, for that matter. That we should apply these concepts to the current epidemic is clear.”

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First, the number of confirmed, reported infections is likely far lower than the actual count. And it's increasing fast. To get a better idea how widespread the infection is, experts suggest taking the official count and multiplying it by at least 50. Where testing is more aggressive, the situation may be different, but here in the USA, testing has so far been largely unavailable--making the official count meaningless. Next, assume that bigger number is going to double every 3-4 days, which is the current estimate of its rate of spread. To put it differently, the number of real infections could double 10 times over the course of one month, bumping the count up a thousand fold in just 30-40 days. Unless we act immediately, it's soon going to be everywhere.

Second, while it is true most people recover, a certain percentage won't. And many more will have severe enough symptoms to require hospitalization. Current statistics suggest somewhere between 10% and 20% of those infected will end up in the hospital, and of those, as many as 1 in 10 will die. Others will suffer longterm respiratory problems. The problem is worse, when you consider many of those who attend most faithfully, are elderly--and are far more likely to suffer serious health consequences. Youth and young adults however are not immune. According to a recent CDC report, nearly 30% of those being hospitalized were between 20 and 44. And putting even one member's life in jeopardy unnecessarily, young or old, is simply unacceptable.

And here's the third point. You've probably heard people talk about "flattening the curve". That simply means slowing the rate of infection enough that our hospitals and other healthcare facilities are not completely overwhelmed by a massive influx of the sick and dying. While companies are racing to increase production, there are simply not enough face masks, ventilators, hospital beds, or anything else to accommodate the consequences of allowing this infection to run amok. Dramatically slowing its spread, is our only hope of ensuring everyone who needs health care can get it.

Eventually, the virus will run its course, or an effective vaccine or treatment will become available and make it manageable. In the meantime, we must use social distancing to protect our members and buy our society precious time. And our leaders should be commended for recognizing that.

Keep Worshiping

As long as we are in this situation, my second recommendation is to keep right on worshiping. While we may not be able to meet in our favorite church building, with all our favorite church friends, we can still worship God. When the Sabbath rolled around in Philippi, where no synagogue existed, and no church had yet been planted, Paul "went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made" and worshipped God there (Acts 16:13And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.). And later, when he was arrested in that city, "Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God" right from his prison cell (Acts 16:25And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.)! This is not to say there's no need to gather for worship--only that when circumstances preclude it, we can still worship God.

Try to find an old bulletin program, and follow the basic schedule, simplifying or modifying it as needed. Set the time you will start, dressed appropriately, and begin your service. Schedule time for lesson study as a family. Look up the lyrics of a favorite hymn for your opening song. Have someone take prayer requests, and lead out in your family prayer time. Have someone read a children's story. Someone else can do a Scripture reading. If your pastor is streaming a sermon for your church, listen to it. Yes, there are big names speakers out there who probably do a better job--but commit to staying plugged in and connected to your church. Do a closing song, and benediction. If you've been attending church any length of time, you know the routine. Just keep it simple. And trust God to help. If you have children, you'll make impressions they never forget!

Oh, and don't forget to take up an offering. Put it in an envelope and mail it to your conference or church treasurer. They'll be happily surprised.

“When cut off from our normal church worship, it is important to value those traditions that have nourished us for so long. Social distancing may prevent us from worshiping together, but our commitment to worship needs to remain strong!”

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When cut off from our normal church worship, it is important to value those traditions that have nourished us for so long. Social distancing may prevent us from worshiping together, but our commitment to worship needs to remain strong!

Stay Connected

While a home worship service meets some of our spiritual needs, it won't meet all of them. Part of the blessing of church attendance is the joy of building friendships, sharing together, serving one another, and plain old simple fellowship. If you are going to be away from church for any length of time, you are going to want to find a way to ensure you continue getting that fellowship.

Fortunately, technology can help many of us here. Facetime, Skype, Zoom, and other kinds of video conferencing platforms are a great way to connect with people. Or even a simple phone call. Or a text or email. Comment on a social media post. Or send an old fashioned letter! Consider doing something every day to connect with at least one person in your church. Not only will it keep your relationship cup full, but it may just help someone else who is not being quite so intentional about caring for their spiritual needs.

“Do something every day to connect with at least one person in your church. Not only will it keep your relationship cup full, but it may just help someone else who is not being quite so intentional about caring for their spiritual needs.”

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Call some of the elderly members in your church, and see if they have any special needs. Mostly likely, it will just be for a friendly person to chat with for a bit. Call some of the local church officers and see if there is anything you can do to help with the needs of the church. Call your pastor and let him know you are praying for him. If you have a church directory, start going down the list and call a few random people here and there, just to let them know you were thinking about them, and that you are praying for their family.

While you are at it, think of other friends and family you haven't seen in a while. They may be stuck in their house, feeling cut off too. I've had a couple super nice surprise phone calls this week, and initiated a couple, myself. Perhaps this little bug will get us all thinking more about our most important relationships.

Build Systems

Churches with strong communication systems already in place should be able to weather social distancing fairly well, if they are careful to use those systems to encourage increased interaction. Churches without that in place can try to use this quiet time to build key systems, and should in fact, make that a key priority. Here are 4 vital system I suggest you consider prioritizing during this time:

1. Weekly Newsletter. One way to keep everyone connected is to publish a weekly email or print newsletter. Keep it simple: a short note or devotional from the pastor, news and announcements, a list of helpful resources, and whatever else you like. Keep information flowing.     

2. Prayer Network. Every church should have a prayer network in place, where members can submit prayer requests, and a prayer coordinator can forward appropriate requests to as many members of your church as you can get to participate. Promote it each week in your newsletter, and emphasize the need for prayer now more than ever.

3. Church Directory. If you church doesn't have a directory, have someone get busy compiling names and emails and make sure church leaders have access to that information. Be sure to get permission to include members contact information before distributing it, of course. And if you already have a directory, make sure members who need a copy can get one mailed to them.

4. Collaboration Tools. Rather than stopping everything, every committee in the church should be doubling down on planning and re-strategizing. What can that department do now, in light of the current crisis? Small committess can meet by teleconference. The church board may need to get everyone on slack, or zoom, or in a facebook group. Something. Find a tool that gets you moving forward.

“Churches with strong communication systems already in place should be able to weather social distancing fairly well. Churches without that in place can try to use this quiet time to build key systems.”

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Build these four systems now, while you have the opportunity, and your church may just come out of this crisis even stronger!

Organize Groups

For years, FAST has been a strong proponent of organizing churches into small groups. We call them Care Groups. And churches that have made the effort to organize their church this way are already in a strong position to provide spiritual nurture and support to members.

Even if those small groups cancel face to face meetings, which I support, it is still easy for small group leaders and members to connect by phone, text or video via any of a number of various platforms, to check up on each other and pray. A group of 8 or 10 could even try to do a virtual group prayer time, or a digital live Bible study. If you are part of a group already, connect with other members, and discuss ways to support each other and adapt to the changing circumstances.

If you church doesn't have a small groups program, discuss it with your pastor by phone. Suggest dividing the church into zones or districts and assigning each member to one. Identify potential zone leaders, and invite them to help oversee that group with periodic calls, texts, or video. Encourage them to see themselves as assistants to the pastor, reporting problems members are struggling with to church leadership, and also disseminating information from church leadership to members. The current crisis is the perfect incentive to get this moving!

“It is hard for a congregation to give individualized spiritual nurture and support. But small groups are a great way to strengthen church bonds, and it can work even when face to face interaction is difficult.”

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It's hard enough for a congregation to give individualized spiritual nurture and support. In times of social distancing, it's impossible. But small groups are a great way to strengthen church bonds, and it can work even when face to face interaction is difficult.

Last But Not Least

And last but not least, pray for your church. For church leadership. For the members. Make this a daily prayer. Ask God to preserve your fellowship, and your unity. That God will spare each member from the pestilence in our midst. That this time of social distancing will end quickly. And that our churches will find a way to recover rapidly, and get back to our focus on mission.

We can also pray God will use this experience to strengthen our faith. That we would examine our lives, become more sensitive to the times in which we live, more committed to finishing the work. The increasing perplexity and confusion in our world is only an indication the Lord is returning soon. They are birth pangs of a glorious coming day. Pray these indicators will arouse us to our need for a deeper experience with God, for a greater outpouring of His Holy Spirit, for true revival.

Perhaps with that prayer, God will do something even more wonderful than just turning this pandemic...

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Comments

Has social distancing shut down your church? How have you been adapting? Which of the suggestions above did you find most helpful? How important is it to find ways to press together virtually, when we can't get together physically? Feel free to leave a thought in the comments below...

Posted by Dan Vis on 04/06/20 
That's great Frances! I'm always glad to hear of churches adapting to the circumstances and continuing to support one another like that. Keep it up, and encourage your pastor!
Posted by Frances E. Jamison on 04/06/20 
My church is meeting via You tube and Zoom. It is so good to share with each other on Zoom for prayer meeting.
Posted by Dan Vis on 04/06/20 
Glad you found it helpful Cynthia! Feel free to share it with your pastor. He may wish to share it with the members of your church. :)
Posted by Cynthia Johnson on 04/05/20 
This is really nice.
Especially the part about worshipping at home by following the regular church's bulletin program.
Thankyou!
Posted by Dan Vis on 03/28/20 
That's awesome Lynn! We need more people to check up and offer to help. :)
Posted by Lynn Badger on 03/28/20 
Great ideas. Already doing some, calling the elderly and getting their shopping lists then dropping it off at their door. Checking on people is so important.
Posted by Dan Vis on 03/28/20 
Always...
Posted by Fiona van Wyk on 03/27/20 
You're welcome, Dan. Happy Sabbath. :-)
Posted by Dan Vis on 03/27/20 
Thanks Fiona! Definitely appreciate the prayers. :)
Posted by Fiona van Wyk on 03/27/20 

That's a good explanation, Dan - trying to build the aeroplane while flying! It says a lot! I feel for you. I shall keep your new plans in my prayers that God will give you clarity how to make them work. It's wonderful how God has inspired you all these years, to keep on working on FAST and improving, improving. It is a lovely site, and just seems to go from strength to strength.

You are doing a wonderful work there, Dinah, connecting the church members. The ones I think of are the ones that don't have computer facilities or smart phones, etc. These ones will need an ordinary phone call to make their day, when they are alone at this time.

Keep up the good work, Dinah. You are reaching many in this difficult time.

Blessings.

Posted by Dan Vis on 03/27/20 
That's encouraging to hear Dinah! It's easier for small groups to adapt as they can help each other in a more personal way. It is exciting to see so many people shifting to use new tools. I hope we'll continue to make the most of them once the virus has receded!
Posted by Dinah Robles on 03/27/20 
Praise God for small groups and also for the different platforms available making it possible to connect with church members. We are in process, most of our small groups still meet now online. We are using zoom and still orienting the older members to it. We have regular online worship service and our conference provided online children’s Sabbath School last Sabbath. Links were provided to parents. You’re right, all of a sudden, church needs to adjust to the current situation to serve the congregation and the community. May the Lord continue to guide and lead us so we can serve others, too. Thanks for your input.
Posted by Dan Vis on 03/26/20 

Thanks for mentioning Whatsapp Fiona! Definitely another great platform. And several other messaging services like it. I've been finding more resources, lately, probably need to update this article.

Yes, let's remember those who live alone, to check on them as best we are able. These are difficult times. As for Bible study, we have a couple big ideas we're thinking about trying here at FAST. Keep us in prayer. I read somewhere saying it's like trying to build the airplane while you are flying. It does kind of feel like that!

Posted by Fiona van Wyk on 03/25/20 

Thank you for this excellent post, Dan. You touched on many points that are very applicable here in New Zealand.

I use Whatsapp to connect with my family overseas, and it is wonderful to be so closely in contact with each other, yet so many miles apart in reality. There is a video feature as well. We share photos, and videos and comments.

This is an ideal time to make use of the media for sharing spiritual insights that one does not always have the time for in a usual day.

It is the ones living totally alone that I feel for, during this time of isolation. No company, no visits, and not seeing anyone for days on end, except for shopping day. This can be a challenge mentally for some. May the Lord sustain all these dear ones.

It is true, as others have said, that this is the time to do some deep study, consider our doctrines, and whether we can give an account for our faith when asked. Now is the time to sharpen our explanations of Scripture and memorize some Scripture to go with our statements of beliefs.

I think of Romans 8:28And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. and also the point that nothing comes to us except with God's permission. So even this crisis time God has allowed to see how we will fare trusting in Him to keep us well and mentally stable.

Thank you again, Dan. Blessings there with your family. May the bonds between you all be even greater after this time of forced social seclusion. :-)

Posted by Dan Vis on 03/23/20 

Some great points Kathy! Thanks for sharing. I especially appreciate the importance of reaching out to our older members, who are especially vulnerable right now. It's worth mentioning however that experts claim nearly 2/3 of seniors above 65 are on facebook, not to mention other platforms. So while some are not connected, as you point out, many are.

Actually, it's the younger generation who are abandoning facebook for other platforms! :)

I also appreciate your point about using this time to deepen our walk with God, to spend extra time in prayer, and Bible study, and in examining our own hearts. I'm sure many are concerned for what is to come and seeking the Lord, which may well be the exact reason He allowed this crisis...

Posted by Kathy Kendall on 03/23/20 

Here are a few thoughts and suggestions for this time of reduced (physical) social interactions . . .

While many of us (actually, probably everyone who reads this) are more-or-less "tech savvy," there are many among the "older generation" who are not, and these are the ones most likely to feel isolated or alone. They don't do email. They don't do text messages. They don't do FB, or use any other "social media" platform. They might not even have a "smart phone" or a computer, or even Internet.

Most of these people rely on Sabbath School, church, and prayer meeting as their social outlets. Those services may be the only time all week when they even see another human face, or have any kind of human interaction other than family . . . and, sadly, many do not even have that.

These people will need extra phone calls and letters.

While talking with my sister Sabbath afternoon, she made an observation that I had not thought of: Maybe, instead of surfing the media channels for sermons, we should use the Sabbath hours during this time of "no physical services" for deep personal Bible study, serious reflection, and much prayer.

A good place to start might be with a prayerful review of the life of Enoch, as spelled out in the Spirit of Prophecy. Enoch practiced "social distancing" for an entirely different reason . . . to keep sin from becoming "common" to him, causing him to loose sight of it's exceeding sinfulness.

Here is one to get you started: Patriarchs and Prophets, pages 84-88, and here is a link to all the references to Enoch in the Spirit of Prophecy.

John the Baptist also practiced "social distancing" for the same reason as Enoch. "He distrusted his own power to withstand temptation, and shrank from constant contact with sin, lest he should lose the sense of its exceeding sinfulness." (Desire of Ages, page 101, paragraph 4. Here is a link to all the Spirit of Prophecy references to John the Baptist.

This would also be a good time for a prayerful heart searching, to make sure our lives are actually in harmony with God's revealed will through the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy (as opposed to being in harmony with society and "social expectations") and to do a thorough, systematic, review of all of our beliefs, so that each of us can "give an answer to every man that asketh you, a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear" (I Peter 3:15But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:).

Posted by Dan Vis on 03/23/20 
Yes, my thoughts exactly John! If we make the right choices now, we could come out of this even stronger, and better prepared for more troubling times. Good post!
Posted by John Gilmore on 03/23/20 

We are using zoom, too, Ryan. I'm glad it allows people to interact by phone (including land-lines) as well as by computer.

Dan, I see this as an opportunity for us all to learn new ways to interact with each other as we seek the growth of God's kingdom. We also may learn tools that will help when the final events become even more challenging that in this crisis.

Posted by Dan Vis on 03/23/20 
That's fantastic Ryan! Sounds like you have good, tech-savvy leadership in your church that has mobilized to meet the needs of the situation quickly. Kudos! And yes, if we use the added time we have to reevaluate our priorities, we could come through this spiritually stronger...
Posted by Ryan Richard on 03/23/20 
My church, the Fairview fold has been using zoom for our Sabbath school and weekly ministry meetings (prayer, men"s and women's group, Bible study). We also do livestream of divine hour at 11am. This is a challenge but in a sense a big blessing as we slow down and reflect on our relationship with God, family and our fellow men.


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