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Lucas Presson

Lucas Presson is the assistant publisher of the Southeast Missourian.

Opinion

Churches have a role to play in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Add churches to the list of entities affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

With guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), White House and Missouri Governor's Office, many local churches have made the decision to postpone services for the next two or three weeks as we practice social distancing aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center officials met with faith leaders on Tuesday to outline the local situation. Current guidance recommends canceling or postponing events with 10 or more people in areas affected by the virus.

As I write this column, there are no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Southeast Missouri. One individual, who lives in Scott County and works in Cape Girardeau, was diagnosed with the virus. However, as reported by the Southeast Missourian, she is being treated in Tennessee and showed symptoms after being out of state more than 12 days, which is beyond the average time of incubation. Still, testing has been limited so it's possible there are positive cases locally that have not been confirmed.

Jane Wernsman, executive director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, told the Southeast Missourian each group needs to assess the situation, but should churches choose not to suspend in-person services they should allow for social distancing within their places of worship and avoid handshakes and hugs -- this in addition to washing your hands and other good hygiene practices.

Still, just because you can gather doesn't mean you should -- not now. People will look at how churches respond to the pandemic. If faith leaders suspend in-person gatherings, it will reinforce the seriousness of the issue and, hopefully, lead more individuals to make better decisions about social distancing and personal hygiene.

This week I couldn't help but think about the similarities of today's church to the first-century church where individuals gathered for worship in their homes. Except the first-century church didn't have the technology so prevalent today.

I'm not one to default to technology over gathering for corporate worship. I certainly appreciate it when I can't attend, but there's value in coming together as the body of Christ. I actually feel a bit "cheated" when I can't attend services. But you can make a case that more people will experience church in the coming weeks than ever before simply due to the number of services being streamed online and the need for hope, encouragement and spiritual guidance.

A statement used by Willow Creek Church (home of the Global Leadership Summit): "The local church is the hope of the world." Much like the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, people are scared and need hope. They're asking tough questions, and looking to the local church for answers. What our communities see in actions and hear through online services can play a role in "flattening the curve" of the pandemic and affect the faith journey well beyond.

This is an opportunity for the local church. Wednesday evening I noticed several churches streaming worship services and Bible studies, including children's groups that previously did not have an online component to ministry.

In the coming weeks, people will be influenced about local churches, the ministry provided and the Savior we profess to serve. Whether it's helping with food for kids who depend on educational institutions for nutritious meals, checking on elderly individuals who are most at-risk, or helping families who will be economically impacted, churches can, and should, be the hands and feet of Christ.

Likewise, we know that when services are not held that giving also decreases. This can disproportionately hurt many of our smaller churches. So if you belong to a local church, continue to give. And give generously. Local churches can set the standard for how to respond (physically and spiritually) to the COVID-19 pandemic. People are looking for hope. How we respond as Christians may do more now to reach folks with the Gospel than at any other time in recent history.

Lucas Presson is assistant publisher of the Southeast Missourian.