It was Christmas Day, 1996. In Victoria, BC, it was -8.1 degrees Celsius, a record low. It had been snowing there for 3 days, and people were enjoying their “white Christmas.” But the snow didn’t stop – four feet of it fell between Dec. 27-29, and the city experienced the third-highest snowfall in a 24-hour period, of any Canadian city on record. Quite an accomplishment for the city with the lowest annual average of snowfall in the country. The city became paralyzed; roads were impassable, ferries were docked, airplanes were grounded, and doors were blocked by the mounds of white powder. It was said that the city became so quiet, that you could hear sea lions barking on the shores from several kilometers away.
Yet, in the stillness and silence, Good Samaritans came out of the woodwork. Donning cross-country skis, they delivered food and medicine to shut-ins, and shoveled their walkways. Then they shoveled them again – and again. For Victorians, snow is often seen as a temporary inconvenience that disappears in a matter of hours or, at worst, a few days. But when the city found itself unprepared for the storm of 1996, it brought people together in never-before-seen ways. In fact, for some, it was the best Christmas ever. (See Vancouver Island Book of Everything, p.90)
Now, in 2020, we have the Coronavirus outbreak. As of this moment, there have been over 155,000 cases, and 5,000 deaths. See live updates here. Now, I’m no expert on this issue, but I find it interesting to observe the social effects and ask what we can learn. Here are a couple thoughts:
- Facts are Easy to Miss
We read headlines. We hear soundbites. But there’s a good deal of good information out there, if we look for it.
It has been said that, though we have no vaccine ready for this virus, the death rate is relatively low (compared to other such outbreaks) and that it primarily concerns those whose health is already compromised. But, this doesn’t mean it should be ignored. It is a tragedy that so many seniors are dying from this, and we need to protect them. Yet, encouragingly, the growth curve has decreased drastically in China and Korea, where the outbreak first began. Counter-measures are working, as can be shown here.
Moreover, given that the virus spreads through bodily contact and transmission of fluids (through the mouth, eyes, etc.), people have been advised to wash hands, avoid touching their face, and restrict contact with others. This is essentially what people already do to avoid the common cold and the flu, which kills many more people annually than this virus.
Yet, this has been declared a “national emergency.”
It is certainly serious, but how should we respond?
Here are some practical steps that churches can take:
And some more informed, balanced advice:
- The Power of Fear
I have never before observed such widespread panic in response to such a threat. Perhaps people who are older than me can compare this to the nuclear scares of the cold war, when people lived in fear of an atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets (see this article quoting C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on this). But for me, after seeing various wars, terrorist acts, and more deadly virus outbreaks occur on our planet, this time feels different.
People have been panic-buying toilet paper – of all things. One person has stockpiled hand wipes and is making a fortune. Stock markets are plunging. These seem like overreactions – especially given the data mentioned above.
Public advisors have wisely called for gatherings of 250 or more to be cancelled, in order to decrease the virus’s spread. As a result, major sports leagues have paused their seasons, school assemblies have been cancelled, and large churches have closed their doors on Sundays.
I have no objection to these recommended safety measures. But what about smaller gatherings, like school classes, social gatherings, and even small churches? My own church has needed to face this question.
No one wants to be labeled as the “bad guy” and be held responsible for spreading the virus. But I have visited malls, grocery stores, parks, and restaurants that remain open, though they accommodate more people than my church. Daycares and schools have continued, due to the low risk for young people. If they cancelled, much of society would come to a standstill. Healthcare providers, who are well-trained in sanitation, continue to treat patients in hospitals, clinics, and dental offices. So, should I still host my birthday party? Should my child go to music class? Should a small church still meet? Is it offensive if we do? Can choices be left up to individuals?
Sometimes, in this “age of outrage” in mass social media, it feels like the greatest thing to fear is the toxic reactions of those who are offended.
Now, to change gears a bit, how then shall we live?
What can be learned and gained from this?
What is Lost
For the moment, we have lost large public gatherings. Not long ago, we were wondering whether or not the Toronto Raptors will get another long playoff run, whether the Maple Leafs will finally win a playoff series, and whether the Canucks will finally see postseason play. At this point, they all appear unlikely. There are also no concerts, no school assemblies, and no large church services. A large void has been left. Is that good or bad? Without large church gatherings, is this the end of Christianity as we know it?
A Historical Perspective
After instructing a course in Early Church History, I can’t help but think of the incipient church as it existed in the context of the Roman Empire. Christianity was officially illegal, so Christians gathered in homes, in catacombs, and public squares. Christian gatherings had to fit into their everyday routines and the common places of life (see the book of Acts in the New Testament for more on this). Yet, before it became Rome’s official religion in AD 380, before priests wore fancy robes and led services in opulent cathedrals, the young church grew rapidly, as Sociologist Rodney Stark calculates:
And how did the church grow?
Rodney Stark also shares some ideas about that. Apparently, during plagues in 161 and 251 that killed up to a third of the population, the Christians were known for staying in urban centers in order to care for the sick. They also became famous for saving abandoned infants, who were usually female. Not only did this add children to their numbers, but it demonstrated their value and respect for women in general. These factors, in addition to their willing martyrdom for their faith, added weight to their message. Considering this, one might wonder what was lost when the church became wealthy and politically powerful. For more on this, look at St. Antony and the beginning of the monastic movement.
I have often told my church that buildings and pastors are “temporary luxuries” that we enjoy and use in this particular time and place in history. They can be useful tools for strengthening the church and serving the world, but they are not essential to it. Moreover, legal status and tax exemptions should not be taken for granted. If they are ever removed, along with the ability to hold large gatherings, what would be left?
One need only to look to countries like that today for examples. Who would have guessed that Iran would have the highest Christian growth rate in the world? Yet it is doing so “without buildings and central leadership.” Afghanistan is second highest. Moreover, the growth of the church in China has become well-known, despite the difficulty of many churches to gather publicly.
So, back to the question – when we lose large gatherings, what is lost? Have we placed too much emphasis on Sunday gatherings, while neglecting our more basic calling to discipleship and being good neighbors?
What is Found
Perhaps, rather than worrying about what is lost in the case of a pandemic, we can look for what opportunities come through this.
With the loss of professional sports and other large forms of public entertainment, a void has been created.
What will fill that void?
Will we binge-watch shows on Netflix?
Or, just as in the snowstorm of ’96, will we look up from our own affairs and look to our neighbors?
Now that we are forced to stop many things, will we discover that we never really needed them in the first place?
Will we, in the quiet, in our free time and enforced space to ourselves, find that God has always been there, waiting for a moment like this, to connect?
I’ve sometimes found, in moments of enforced stillness (computer crashes, car breaks down, bus is missed, a meeting is cancelled), that they come just when they’re needed most. And periods of extended rest can often be wonderful times to reconsider our life priorities!
So, in this time of great anxiety, as we feel a sense of loss and lack of control, what will fill the void? Where will we turn?
What opportunities will God bring, and what is He saying to you?
1 Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.
2 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
3 How long will you assault me?
Would all of you throw me down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
4 Surely they intend to topple me
from my lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.
5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.
6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
8 Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.