Should we close the Church for the Coronavirus?

“Please don’t come to Mongolia.”

I have been asked to visit many countries, but Mongolia’s the only place I’ve been asked to avoid. In 2003 I was heading to Ulaanbaatar for a church conference. I was packed, I had my visa, but at the last minute the organizers asked me to stay home. Why? Because I was from Hong Kong, ground zero for the deadly SARS outbreak.

The SARS virus originated in China. But an infected doctor came across the border, passed the virus to tourists staying at the Metropole Hotel, and those travelers carried the virus to 26 nations. By the time the virus burned out, nearly 800 people had died.

It was a scary time for Hong Kong. Everyone wore masks. A colleague working three floors beneath my office caught the bug. Companies and schools closed down.

As a pastor, I had to ask an important question: Should we close the church for the duration of the outbreak?

Many pastors are facing the same decision today in regards to the coronavirus. They are getting calls and texts from concerned Christians suggesting they close doors and cancel services. What should they do?

At the time of the SARS outbreak, we were meeting in the heart of one of the busiest districts in Hong Kong. Walking from the subway to the church you could easily pass a thousand people. What if one of them was a SARS carrier?

It would’ve been a simple matter to close the church. No one would have argued with me. But after praying about it I came away with a strong conviction. “Unless we are ordered by the authorities to shut our doors for medical reasons, the church will always remain open for business.”

Would I make the same decision today? I’ve got four kids. In all honesty, it would be a tougher call.

Pastor, I am not going to tell you what you should do in your church – let each one be convinced in their own mind. But let me share four lessons I learned while leading a church in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak:

1. Fear and paranoia will sideline more Christians than any virus

No one in our church got sick, but some folk hid in fear. A little anxiety is understandable, but crippling fear is something to overcome.

The thing with the coronavirus is it’s novel. We’ve never seen it before. In America and other rich societies, you are far more likely to die from the ‘flu than the coronavirus.

(UPDATE Jan 2021: That is no longer true. The Center for Diseases Control estimates as many 61,000 Americans die each year from the ‘flu. In 2020, five times as  many Americans died from COVID-19. COVID is infectious and deadly.)

But COVID-19 is new. We don’t have a lot of immunity to it. At present, there is no vaccine. When a ‘flu virus spreads, it bumps into people who’ve had the ‘flu or who have been vaccinated. But when COVID spreads, there is much less resistance. How deadly is COVID-19? We really don’t know. It could be bad or it might burn out by summer. We would be wise to treat it as the infectious disease it is, but that’s no reason to hide in fear. Imagine if Jesus had been afraid of lepers!

2. Whenever people are afraid, racism will rear its ugly head

In Auckland this week, a Chinese doctor sneezed on a bus, and an old man yelled at her to “go home before you kill us all!” Never mind that we need good doctors or that this one was a Kiwi.

Look out for your Chinese neighbours. Be friendly to exchange students. Eat at a Chinese restaurant and support your local Chinese businesses. Be normal.

3. If you decide to close your doors “until this thing blows over”, keep in mind it might be a long time before you reopen

The SARS outbreak of 2003 lasted eight months. The Bird Flu epidemic of 2005 lasted twelve months. The West African Ebola virus that landed in the USA in 2014 was part of an epidemic that lasted two years. There is always something bad happening. If you are looking for reasons to close a church there are always plenty.

(UPDATE March 24, 2020: In New Zealand we have gone into total lockdown. Your country may have a similar rule soon. If not, you may face restrictions on the size of public gatherings. Which means the decision might be made for you. Have a plan. Live streaming, small groups, house meetings – like they did in the New Testament – are all good options. Here are some other fun things you can do in quarantine. And here’s something DL Moody would have done.)

The year 2003 was a frightening year for Hong Kong. Even so, the year was not without highlights. We kept our doors open as did most churches. In hindsight, we risked little. The real heroes of the day were the doctors and nurses. Unlike doctors in certain other countries, Hong Kong’s healthcare workers did not abandon their stations. Their courage under fire was an inspiration to us all.

One notable doctor went above and beyond the call of duty. Joanna Tse Yuen-man volunteered to work in a SARS ward and caught the virus after trying to resuscitate a patient. She died a month later on May 13, 2003.

Who was Joanna Tse? She was a Christian who laid down her life for a stranger. The public marveled at her sacrifice.

Joanna Tse shone in a dark time. After her death, her church printed booklets telling her story. These booklets went to schools, universities, and hospitals. If memory serves, they were also available in 7-11s. People snapped them up. The demand to hear Dr. Tse’s story was so great that the church had to print more booklets. In the end they printed something like a quarter of a million copies of her story.

The high demand to hear Dr. Tse’s story reveals a telling truth:

4. In times of darkness, people crave the light

In every crisis there is an opportunity and the coronavirus is our time to shine. You may not be asked to volunteer in an infectious ward, but you do have an opportunity to fight the related infections of fear, racism, and paranoia.

So shine.


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16 Comments on Should we close the Church for the Coronavirus?

  1. Psalm 91:5-7

  2. Therese Kean // February 8, 2020 at 12:59 pm // Reply

    Thankyou Paul another great timely article.
    I don’t comment much but your articles are always spot on..
    I am a fellow Kiwi living now in Bay Of Plenty..
    The times we are in make for tough decisions..
    If Paul was saved by many dangerous situations… eg snake poisoning shipwreck etc then we also need to continue to stand in the faith we have through Our Lord..
    Fear is a curse IMO, I had many years of a deep seated fear of man weakness, which ( looking back on 3 decades of Very tough times )I know that all of those “ tough situations “ were tailor made for the Lord to use them to bring me to “ the moment “ in 2006 where He pinpointed a situation were I had fallen of a horse and hit my head and ended up with epilepsy..I was 10 years old… The prayer I had in 06 brought to light the fact that I had blamed myself believing It was my fault, I was encouraged to forgive me.. the instant change truely was miraculous.. And has brought great growth and healing from fear and neurological issues related to the epilepsy..
    Anyway I have learned a lot and it’s all been possible because of The Relationship The Lord has encouraged me with through his Revelation on a day by day basis..
    So this latest “ virus” appears to be fueled by media fear .. media have so much to answer for..but ours is to focus on Our Lord to bring stability to a fearing world as you pointed out..
    Thanks again for your wisdom Psalm 2..” Blessed are those who Trust in The Lord…

  3. Long time reader first time comment… well said and as was shared very timely and appropriate. Thanks
    Just a thought .. we can never ” close ” the Church. We can cause believers to not be able to enter the ” building ” thus not gather where they are accustomed to but the ” Church ” will be alive and well. This may seem like a minor point and surely not the focus of the article but my journey into the Gospel of Grace has made it a point worth keeping aware of .

    • Dave,
      I totally agree with you. I see that the church that Jesus built will NEVER DIE (at least that’s what I understand from Mt 16:18). The scripture says that “on this ROCK [petra – a massive rock: Jesus] I will build my church; not on Peter [petros – a stone]. What Jesus has established no one can “close”.

    • Adriaan Hattingh // January 15, 2021 at 8:40 am // Reply

      Exactly! I prefer to refer to the various buildings as congregations.

  4. Yes, fear is a powerful emotion to deal with, but how important it is to think each and every situation through. To pray and to seek God’s direction. Sometimes that puts us in difficult situations, ones that might even cost us our lives. But God can use that too. Faith is not always making the easy or safe choice!

  5. John Kenneth Cheeseman // February 8, 2020 at 3:30 pm // Reply

    The fear of SARS or the Coronavirus is not a fear of catching it but of dying. To take reasonable precautions is like saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure but to be engulfed or possessed by fear enslaves and devours. Out Heavenly Father cares for us more, though hard to comprehend than we do our children.

  6. Bruce Tessen // February 9, 2020 at 4:58 am // Reply

    Thank you, Paul! I especially enjoy reading the timely articles you write that relate to what the world is currently experiencing and how the church/Christians ought to respond.

  7. Let’s not forget that when Rome was hit with an outbreak of the plague, people left the city in droves but Christians remained behind to help their sick neighbors. They didn’t have the knowledge about viruses that we do, yet they stayed.

  8. Due to the spread of coronavirus, all religious, entertainment, and recreational activities had to be stopped. Please pray for God’s mercy in stopping the spread of the virus. May the Lord give wisdom to the authorities, healthcare workers, and medical experts in China so an effective cure can be found for patients. Thank you for sharing this article.

  9. Heavenly Father, I ask for your protection on those who live in areas where this virus has been spreading. Comfort them with your peace. Give their leaders wisdom to contain this threat. You are the giver of life and not destruction. Let your life prevail.

  10. Amen. Very timely as I was thinking about it also for our church if the corona virus gets worst.

  11. Jenny Beauchamp // February 19, 2020 at 10:11 am // Reply

    Amen and Amen LJP. Thanks be to God for His Blessings!

  12. I’ve been scared about this thing. I hear people say “it’s way worse than what the big media is telling” or “it’s secretly a population control bioweapon”. Can you pray me and my family will be protected?

    • Don’t be, as the Lord said; “Fear not” and we can, especially when we; “forget not all his benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities; who heals all your diseases”; as “There shall no evil befall you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.” Luke 8:50, Psalms 103:2,3 and 91:10.

  13. Peter Tobias // March 17, 2020 at 5:45 pm // Reply

    “In America and other rich societies, you are far more likely to die from the ‘flu than the coronavirus.”
    That is no longer true, unfortunately. In Lombardy, a rich part of Italy, doctors have to decide which of the many sick people with COVID-19 to give a ventilator and intensity care. Many more people die from COVID-19 than from the flu now. And Lombardy is merely a few weeks ahead of us.
    I’m still for keeping church open if not forbidden by authorities, but keep good distances to others when praying and singing and avoid physical contact.

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