Church in the Time of COVID-19: Reflections from Latin America
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the planet, the eyes of the world are turning toward Latin America. Most countries in the region locked down early, many with restrictions that would be unthinkable in the United States. Stay-at-home orders are enforced with heavy fines and even jail time, as citizens may only leave their homes for essentials, generally for limited hours once or twice a week. The quarantine and border closures dealt a staggering blow to the countries’ fragile economies, and countless workers found themselves without income.
Even still, the virus has spread like wildfire. While some countries have controlled the spread, others have experienced the horrors of midnight funerals, mass burials, or even bodies left outside of hospitals as health care systems teeter on the edge of collapse.
The Church of God in Latin America has not been immune, either to the virus or to the resulting economic crisis. Several pastors and countless church members have been infected. The church in Tela, Honduras, recently lost a key leader, a father of young children, to the virus. Church services have been suspended for months, and since very few congregations have an option for online giving, pastors have gone weeks without income. Churches that can collect tithes and offerings do not receive much since so many of their congregants have lost their jobs.
The situation is dire, and, yet there is a sense of hope. Even as we hear stories of struggle, we also see that God is at work. Nearly every conversation reminds us of how much we as North Americans have to learn from our brothers and sisters south of the border.
A few days ago, I participated in Costa Rica’s monthly pastors’ meeting. Because Costa Rica has thus far struggled less than many countries, some churches have been allowed to open with strict hygiene protocols. Services are restricted to one hour and fifteen minutes (they normally last at least two). Congregants must wash their hands and sanitize their shoes on arrival. They have to wear masks and maintain social distancing. And, perhaps most difficult, singing is strictly off-limits.
During the meeting, the pastors had an opportunity to talk about how their churches are doing. Those who have held services expressed sadness about not being able to greet the congregation with handshakes, hugs, and kisses. In a warm culture, physical distancing is awkward. As one pastor explained, those practices are not just a custom; they are a lifestyle. Another pastor described the fear he felt as a police car drove past the building several times during service. If the police spot any violation of the strict protocols, the church can be closed immediately—and indefinitely.
Those whose churches have not been able to open lamented the limits of technology. An online service requires significantly more work than a live one, and the pastors know that there is less engagement. Some people simply play the service in the background during other activities. Others choose to listen later, and many never connect at all. As people grow more accustomed to watching the service in their pajamas at their convenience, one pastor expressed concern that people are losing the habit of setting aside Sunday mornings as a sacred space for the Lord. “In a mere four months,” she said, “the culture of the church has completely changed.”
As they spoke, there was an air of heaviness as we collectively grieved the loss of church as we know it.
But then came a word of hope. Pastor Ramón Mendoza, the president of the group, reminded us that God’s divine hand is using this time to guide us back to the basics: the Word, prayer, and community. The conversation that followed was incredibly encouraging, and I believe it can provide insight to all believers who seek to honor God and serve His church during the pandemic.
The pastors admitted that in the early days, they took temporary palliative measures designed to hold the church together until life returned to normal. Now they are realizing that, while governmental restrictions will likely fade over time, church will never be the same as it was before March 2020. As the conversation unfolded, the pastors began to share about the short-term adjustments they have made and the longer-term plans they have developed, even in the face of uncertainty. They do not know what the future holds, but they recognize that churches that are not willing to adapt will end up closing their doors for good.
In Latin America, exuberant singing and even dancing is a central part of most church services. Many churches pour significant resources into their music programs, creating an experience where people can pour out worship and praise to God. It’s difficult to have service without it, but Pastor Ramón reminded us that temporarily losing the music ministry can also drive a church back to the centrality of the Word. Indeed, during the recent quarantine, pastors around the world, including Costa Rica, have transmitted their sermons online. One church uploads a kids’ Sunday School class. Others send out reflections and devotions through WhatsApp. One pastor in a small town sends printed sermons and Sunday School lessons to the homes of her senior saints. Ramón encouraged pastors to use the current restrictions to continue embracing the opportunity to do more teaching and preaching, for nothing sustains a believer like the Word of God. If a church is not rooted in the Word, no music program will sustain it. Music comes and goes, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.
The pandemic also offers us an opportunity to develop our prayer lives. As one pastor from Nicaragua said on a previous occasion, “Now is not the time to watch more TV series. Now is the time to get serious.” We have seen pastors from around the region connecting online at all hours of the day and night to pray. One pastor shared at the meeting that a women’s group will be holding a virtual vigilia, an all-night prayer service that is popular in Latin American churches. Any kind of new normal must include more opportunities for prayer.
The pastors were also concerned about how COVID-19 will has affected community life in the church. Social distancing is important for physical health but terribly detrimental to spiritual health. In the conversation, the group shared ways to keep social distancing from becoming congregational distancing. Some conduct small groups on Zoom. Others have their leaders call church members on a weekly basis. The pastors also recognized their own need for community, agreeing to meet weekly via Zoom to pray for and encourage one another. Some also participate regularly in the Latin America-wide Zoom services that have developed in the wake of the crisis.
While our services will undoubtedly look different when the days of COVID-19 are over, Pastor Ramón reminded us that there is no pandemic or quarantine that can stop the church. This virus has not taken God by surprise. He has not been left scratching His head, wondering what to do with the church. The church will always be the church. We will always be called to the Word, to prayer, and to community. The methods may change; indeed, they must change. But they change because the mission remains the same: this lost and broken world still needs Jesus.
To illustrate this point, Pastor Ramón brought us to the story of the paralytic in Mark 2 in which a crippled man needs healing and his friends try to take him to Jesus. They cannot get into the house where Jesus is teaching because of the crowds, so they are faced with a dilemma. Should they leave him in his suffering or take creative steps to get him to Jesus? In the end, they decide to lower him through the roof. Ramón reminded us that all around us are people crippled by hopelessness, isolation, bitterness, fear, and despair. We as the church are called to bring them to the Healer—if not through the door, then through the roof. If that doesn’t work, try something else. What matters is getting them to Jesus.
As the conversation drew to a close, the feeling shifted from heaviness to excitement. “I actually like what’s happening,” Ramón said. “It’s a challenge. I’m happy because I see God training His soldiers for future battles. I believe that there will be tougher circumstances coming in the life of the church, but God is developing us, and I am enjoying the process of planning what we are going to do next.”
No one knows what the future holds, but Latin America has taught us that God is at work, even in the most impossible circumstances. If we are willing to hold our plans loosely and cling tightly to Him, He will do more than we ever imagined. In the midst of so much uncertainty, may we rest in the knowledge that the One who called us is faithful, and even in quarantine, we are never, ever alone.