September 11, the Coronavirus, and Ministry

I was on the phone with my good friend Ed Stetzer a few nights ago, asking for his perspective on the impact of the Coronavirus on our culture and the Church. Ed is much smarter than I am on these sorts of things, and he articulated that there have been five culture-altering events in the last 120 years: World War I, Spanish Flu, World War II, September 11th, and the Coronavirus. Of course there are other important events that marked our culture and our nation’s history, but these five deeply impacted life in our world in very unique and profound ways.

While many ministry leaders were children or teenagers when 9/11 occurred, some of us who are leading ministries during this crisis were also leading ministries then. In many ways the season surrounding September 11th does not feel like twenty years ago, as the memories are still very vivid.

Because both 9/11 and the Coronavirus are such impactful tragedies, there are some ministry lessons we can remember from the time surrounding 9/11. And yet the two events are very different and require ministry leaders to respond differently.

Three Similarities:

Cultural Fear and Concern

In the weeks after September 11th, there were constant rumors of new attacks. There was fear for safety and concern about what life would be like in the future. The attacks and our response dominated the news, and people were afraid. There is fear now too, and the Coronavirus is constantly in our conversations.

A Reminder of Our Fragility

I remember grabbing lunch with a friend a few days after September 11th and everyone in the restaurant was quiet. It almost felt disrespectful to talk. We were mourning as a nation, and our mourning reminded us of our own fragility. The Coronavirus reminds us of our fragility too, as we are more aware that our health and our lives are frail.

Opportunity to Point to the Reason for Our Hope

Our faith does not eliminate us from crisis and pain in this world. Jesus told His disciples that they would have trouble in this world, but we can be courageous because He has conquered the world (John 16:33). The Christ who lives in us is greater than the circumstances surrounding us. We grieve, but we don’t grieve as those without hope. After 9/11, Christians were given many opportunities to share the hope we have in Christ. And now we have been given a sacred opportunity to point people to the Source of our peace and joy in the midst of the chaos, to point people to Jesus. I love how the CSB translates I Peter 3:15: “In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”

But there are some big differences between 9/11 and the Coronavirus – differences that require us to think differently as we serve people.

Three Differences:

The Event Is Still Unfolding.

For those of us who served people in the wake of 9/11, we were caring for people and shepherding people as they dealt with the pain and uncertainty of an event that suddenly occurred. The event happened; it was not happening. People, in many ways, were looking backwards and grieving. Today, we are dealing with a pandemic that is unfolding. For some, the worry about what is going to happen could even be more painful than what happens. Which likely means the unfolding event is going to impact how we serve people and our weekly rhythms of ministry for a much longer period of time.

There Will Not Be Large Physical Gatherings.

Churches were filled the weekend after September 11, 2001. People were more aware of their need for God and their need for community, and they flocked to gatherings. The gatherings helped us process our grief in community. Clearly, we are in a different time as we are being warned about the potential damage our large gatherings can bring – not only on the people in the gatherings but on those who are vulnerable who will interact with people who were at a large gathering. I mourn not being able to physically gather with my church, but I am thankful the gospel can be shared through technology.

The Poor, the Sick, and the Vulnerable Are Impacted More.

Unlike other events, the Coronavirus is going to have greater impact on the poor, the sick and the vulnerable than the rest of the population. When schools are cancelled, those who rely on meals at school are going to be severely impacted. The elderly are more susceptible to the virus. Those who earn minimum wage in the service industry are being deeply affected. This is a time when we must remember that pure religion is to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27).

In all these events Christians have been the light of the world and the salt of the earth. May we be so now!