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Fostering Community During the Pandemic

October 9, 2020

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Earlier this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading quickly, all manner of places where people normally gather began closing their doors. Businesses that could, asked their people to work from home, restaurants moved to take-out service only, and most churches took their services online.

Many churches have emphasized that they are not “closed.” Instead, they are still very much open and actively engaged in the daily work of ministry. Still, while some families have come to enjoy “doing church” from the comfort of their couches, most would agree that in not being able to gather as a community of believers, something important is missing. Physical health may be protected by social distancing, but emotional and spiritual health can suffer.

Our need to connect

In one of the most comprehensive and longest-running studies into the importance of social connection, the Harvard Study of Adult Development began following the lives of more than 700 men when they were teenagers in 1938. More than 60 of the original participants, now in their 90s, are still taking part.

Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, director of the study, summed up its findings by saying, ”People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected.” And by the same token, “People who are more isolated than they want to be are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain function declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of social distancing, one-third of adults aged 45 and older felt lonely, according to a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. And now, some six months into the COVID-19 crisis, about 45 percent of adults in the U.S. say worry and stress related to the pandemic are having a negative impact on their mental health, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

We were meant to do life together

From the very beginning, God declared that it is “not good” for people to be alone. It’s a theme woven throughout the pages of Scripture: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

To live a healthy, effective, joyful life, the importance of social connection cannot be overestimated. In the book of Hebrews, we see the early church exhorted in that direction: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Apart, yet connected

As with so many church leaders, Rev. Nathan Howe of the United Methodist Church in Berea, OH, recognized the vital importance of continuing to connect despite the pandemic, even if that meant “meeting together” online. Remembering the first such service, he said, “It felt weird to preach to an empty sanctuary but it’s good to still be here and realize that no matter how far apart we are from one another the Spirit of God unites us and we’re still part of the same body of Christ.”

At countless churches, people are staying connected through whatever means possible: Zoom calls, Facebook Live events, and simple phone calls to check in with people, see if they need anything, and to offer a word of encouragement.

Writer Lori Hatcher said the pandemic has given her a new appreciation for so many things she once took for granted. In a recent article on iBelieve.com (https://www.ibelieve.com/food-home/things-i-hope-never-go-back-to-normal-after-covid-19.html), she said that despite many forced separations, she has seen new types of compassionate connections being made. “A woman on our neighborhood Facebook page offered to shop for elderly and immune-compromised residents. Another loaned her iPad to a neighbor so she could ‘see’ and talk to her husband quarantined in a nearby nursing home. A third volunteered to help floundering parents homeschooling their children, It’s rare that a whole group of people has experienced something this drastic together, and with that common understanding has brought a beautiful togetherness.”

Never going back

While many people long for life to return to some semblance of normalcy, others are beginning to envision a new normal. They’re seeing the many good things God has brought about in the midst of so much uncertainty, and they want to emerge from this crisis with changed hearts and new habits.

So, consider cataloguing the many ways your church has been strengthened by the pandemic. Encourage people to write down the unexpected blessings they have experienced this year, the ways they’ve seen people serve each other in creative ways, and the lessons God has spoken into their lives.

It would make for a very powerful sermon. And it could serve as a roadmap for spurring one another on toward love and good deeds well after the pandemic has ended—and even more than before it began.

Matt Bell is the author of Trusted: Preparing Your Kids for a Lifetime of God-Honoring Money Management. He speaks at churches and conferences throughout the country and writes the MattAboutMoney blog.

This article should not be considered legal, tax, or financial advice. You may wish to consult a tax or financial advisor about your individual financial situation.

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