The United States is currently united around the push to “flatten the curve,” to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in order to reduce the strain on the healthcare system and ultimately save lives. Each day seems to bring new reports, recommendations, and executive orders that affect everyone, including churches.

Most churches have been compelled to shut down on-site activities for the first time. The stress of shutting the church doors weighs heavy on everyone.

What if social distancing might reunite us spiritually? It wouldn’t be the first time. I pastor the First Baptist Church in Jackson, Michigan, a 181 year-old downtown church, which I’ll abbreviate as FBC JXN. One benefit of an established church is its history. With our doors closing to on-site worship services, I decided to go down to the church basement and peruse our archives. I was surprised by what I found.

The 1918-1919 Flu and the End of a War

Shockingly, the 1918 flu took more lives than the fighting in World War I, with an estimated 500 million people infected worldwide, and an estimated 50 million people deceased. In the United States, the flu took an estimated 650,000 lives, causing the US life expectancy to drop by almost 12 years![1]

American Red Cross Workers in St. Louis, MO.
From the National Archives and Records Administration.

The flu wasn’t just a global challenge in an abstract sense; it changed life at home for our church. In Michigan, more than 15,000 people died from the flu, causing a 15% increase in total deaths in 1918 over 1917. In our county, Jackson County, the death rate in 1918 increased by 26%. Between January 1918 and April 1919, Jackson county’s death toll ranged from a low of 58 in July to a high of 291 in October. That October proved important in the state.[2]

On October 19, 1918, the State of Michigan’s Board of Health, along with Governor Albert Sleeper, issued the closing of all public gatherings. Included in the closures were religious gatherings.[3] Church closings were unheard of then too. At the time, Jackson newspaper wrote that it was the first-time church services had been closed in Michigan in 217 years, since the first Michigan church started in 1701.[4]

On November 2, 1918, Michigan reported that it had received notice of 789 new cases of the flu.[5] Despite the continued threat of the flu in the state, gatherings would be re-opened in Jackson on Nov. 6, 1918, by the order of Mayor William “Cap” Sparks, who had been told by Governor Albert Sleeper to use his own discretion for the decision. Five days later, World War I ended.[6] It was a time of great change, but even with the doors to public gatherings reopened, the world would still fight to survive the flu epidemic.

In the midst of such change, somehow FBC JXN grew spiritually and in numbers. In the period of 1917-1920, the church increased its membership by 135 members and its overall giving by 58%.

How did they grow in the face of such trying times? Let’s take a look.

Maintaining Mission in a Pandemic

1. Serving the Community

FBC JXN served it community despite the anxieties of war and the fear of sickness. The church became a gathering place for Red Cross Auxiliary meetings. The Red Cross had been tasked by U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue with supplying the needed nursing personnel and emergency equipment to combat the flu epidemic.[7]

Red Cross workers in Boston, MA during the flu outbreak.
From the National Archives and Records Administration.

In the only three surviving church bulletins from 1918, the announcements begin by describing the upcoming Red Cross work on Wednesdays at the church. In just 3 weeks in August 1918, the Red Cross reported in the newspaper that volunteers at FBC JXN helped make 497 8×4 compress bandages for medical supplies 112 high absorption war bandages, which they called tampons at the time.[8] When the city and country were in need, FBC JXN gave money, building use, and volunteer time to serve the community.

Flash forward to 2020, our church is still trying to serve the community in the midst of a lockdown. FBC JXN works with over a dozen other churches to run the Jackson Personal Care Ministry, which serves hygiene product supplies to Jackson county residents. During the spread of COVID-19, providing cleaning supplies takes on even more importance. To continue providing the supplies to Jackson residents, the pantry was forced to modify their distribution plans outdoors to keep volunteers and clients safer. The continued service to our community is an important part of being the church to our neighborhood. In the face of challenging times, reaffirming your missional purpose unifies your church and its neighborhood.

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2. Renewed Worship

When churches had to close their doors in October and November of 1918, churches had to find new ways to bring spiritual nourishment to their members. Some pastors at the time mailed their sermons to their congregants.[9] At least for one Sunday, the pastor of FBC JXN, Charles H. Berry, went to the newspaper with his message. The local newspaper ran a column on Sunday, November 3, 1918, titled “Sabbath Day Thoughts by Jackson Pastors.”[10] In the newspaper column, Pastor Berry, wrote about Bread and Butter Christians, but more on that message later. Pastor Berry’s message in the newspaper was likely read by more people than who would normally have heard his sermon in person.

Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper page from Nov. 3, 1918.

When it was time to reopen churches, and with the end of the war, Governor Sleeper asked that Sunday, Nov. 17, 1918 be Peace Sunday. FBC JXN accepted the call and put on a special service, with the sermon titled “New World to Begin with November 11, 1918.” In his sermon, Pastor Berry said that “It is a foregone conclusion that the old world of yesterday is gone and gone forever. … The world preceding August, 1914, shall never return.”

Many of us are feeling the same in 2020; we have the sense that a new day has started, whether we were ready for it or not. Pastor Berry’s remarks conclude with a reminder to be vigilant, even after seeming victory in war, saying “we are not to drop back into our easy chairs and expect the world to take care of itself now and that we have no more responsibility.”[11]

Like most churches today, FBC JXN, has pivoted to online worship, not knowing what the eventual new world will look like. Each week we look for new ways to improve our worship and engagement. Since we’ve gone off the path of what has always been done, it’s a moment for our church to reflect on what really matters in worship. We hope to find an even greater appreciation for on-site worship, which we likely took for granted before. When the world resumes normal activities, things won’t be quite the same, but we will work to be an improved, more spiritually mature community when we gather again. But our responsibility will not diminish or end whenever the world starts to resume its “normal” behavior.

3. Intentional Prayer

Danger has a tendency to bring us to prayer. In 1918, our church bulletins every week had a special back page. Usually the space for announcements, now the back page listed the names of our church members who were serving in the war.

You might assume today that the back page was serving as an announcement; a sort of ‘hey look at who from church is serving.’ But of course that’s not actually the case. That back page’s prominence was there to remind our community to be in prayer for those who were most in danger. At church meetings of the time, those listed are endearingly described as our “soldier boys.” When it’s easy to start worrying about ourselves, it’s spiritually essential to start praying for others.

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Prayer has taken on some new expressions for us in our current moment. Now, with worship services online, the prayer time of our service includes asking our Facebook viewers to leave a prayer request in the comments. And those comments tend to be filled with prayer requests for those who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, for the families of those with someone who has tested positive, and for the doctors and nurses caring for these patients and potentially at risk themselves.

We’ve also added weekday video conference calls for prayer through Google Hangouts Meet. The simple way to jump on those prayer calls just requires dialing a phone number and then entering the meeting pin. For the tech savvy, there is the ability to video call from your computer or smart phone. It’s a way to connect while physically apart, with a special awareness that prayer for each other matters and needs to be cultivated during a health crisis.

In the midst of danger, the church must cultivate its prayer life. Ultimately, the health of your church’s spiritual prayer life rests on the commitment of its members to cultivate their own prayer life.

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4. Challenging People

You might be inclined to ask less of people when things get difficult, but Pastor Berry did the opposite. He challenged people for more in the midst of a difficult time. It started earlier in the year in 1918, when Pastor Berry ran a campaign “Go to church,” which sought to increase Sunday School attendance to 400 people.

Pastor C.H. Berry

Two weeks after church gatherings resumed in November 1918, Pastor Berry spoke before the local ministerial association. What did he choose to say in such a moment? He told them it was easier to be a hypocrite at church than a person with conviction. He talked about churches expelling people for dancing, drinking, and swearing, yet honoring those who rob widows and orphans, but know how to make long prayers and speak in church language.[12]

Pastor Berry wouldn’t let up on those inside his own church either. In 1919, Pastor Berry would make news headlines for a sermon in which he suggested that FBC JXN should “weed out the drones” in the church who do nothing but “growl or kick,” and some “who are too dead to do either.” That sounds like a difficult sermon. It seems that he didn’t name names, but he did name numbers, suggesting that out of the church’s 700 members, 400 could be depended upon. He suggested increasing the requirements of membership, a push that church membership isn’t about being on a membership roll, but living out being the church.[13]

While challenging the church could seem to push people away, ultimately, FBC JXN would grow by 135 members over a three year period under Pastor Berry’s leadership.

What does it look like to increase the call for engagement in 2020, especially while we are physically apart? One of the outcomes of being forced to move worship online for the season has been that more people have encountered and engaged with our worship services than we met in person. Having a chatroom during the service also has invited people to interact, to voice their prayer requests, and more, engaging worship and not just observing it.

Churches should be challenging their members to engage online and inviting their friends to join them. If you can’t invite a friend to online worship right now, you’re going to have a hard time ever inviting a friend to a church activity on-site. Online church life right now is a way for people to come together, and it offers something of great value in a time of uncertainty. Ask your church members to tag friends in posts, share videos, create Facebook watch parties of your services, and more. It’s time to challenge people to be the church and to grow the church.

Churches everywhere are looking for more ways to engage. That includes online classes, devotionals, prayer times, and more. It’s possible that being apart for this season might help people realize that they need to be the church in person, and might be even more engaged when on-site activities resume. Churches who ask more commitment of their community will get more out of their community. And it starts now.

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5. Generosity

It’s human nature to stock up in the face of danger. Just look around the toilet paper aisle at your local grocery store right now to see the desire to stockpile.

Somehow FBC JXN increased their giving during the end of World War 1 and the devastating health crisis. The church increased its budget from April 1917 to April 1920 by 58%, from $6,491 to $10,241. Even more, their missions and benevolent giving increased in that period by 206%, from $1,120 to $3,431. They didn’t just give money, they gave their time and effort. The church sent many supplies to the Red Cross, and to missionaries across the world. One church member even left to serve in China.

Pastor Berry’s Sabbath day reflection that appeared in the newspaper during the 1918 shutdown, “Bread and Butter Christians,” challenged Christians not to seek to profit from their faith. He refuted what he called a common Christian expression of his day, “it pays to serve God.” Pastor Berry challenged the church to serve God because God deserves service, not because of selfish ulterior motives. He asked Christians to follow Jesus, who would never have asked what it would profit him to go to the cross. Pastor Berry, ultimately, was calling the church to a stance of service for God and others, instead of serving one’s self. That spirit carried over into the church’s finances.

Flash forward to 2020, and churches don’t know how generous we will prove to be. Like most churches, we’ve added new online methods of giving to make giving easier from afar. But a drop off in giving when people don’t gather in person is typical, even if it need not be.

FBC JXN has committed to be generous in supporting the Jackson Personal Care Ministry hygiene product pantry that meets in our space. We have given money, products, and time to continue serving those in our neighborhood. We also have members who drop off supplies for the neighborhood in our outdoor Blessing Box, which invites people walking by to freely take supplies that they might need.

Blessing box outside of FBC JXN.

In the midst of the economic uncertainty of our current moment, we will be challenged to continue a spirit of generosity in the midst of scarcity. Those with a heart to serve the mission in the community, who spend time in prayer and worship, will be more generous than those who aren’t challenged to commit to the mission of the community.

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While the COVID-19 outbreak brings almost every person into an unknown territory with widespread stay at home orders and on-site closures, the church has survived and thrived in the midst of challenging times before. The church can do it again, because we rest in the embrace of the everlasting God. We didn’t choose this moment for ourselves, but it’s up to us how we will choose to respond in crisis. Will we spiritually distance ourselves, or will we commit to growing in our individual faith and our communal faith?

The church has the opportunity to shine Christ’s light in this moment. Will we serve our community, renew our worship, be intentional with our prayer, challenge on another, and be generous?

Our ancestors in the faith followed faithfully; now it’s our turn.

[1] See Julie Mack’s “Michigan’s deadliest year: Look back at 1918 flu pandemic” in MLive, Oct 15, 2018.

[2] See Julie Mack’s “See how 1918 flu pandemic impacted your Michigan county” in MLive, Oct 16, 1918:

[3] The University of Michigan’s “Influenza Encyclopedia” article on Detroit, Michigan reports that some synagogues in Detroit still gathered initially after the ban, but were told by police that religious assemblies were also banned from gathering.

[4] “Church services in Detroit stopped for first time in 217 years” in Jackson Citizen Patriot, Nov 3, 1918.

[5] See Leanne Smith’s “Peek Through Time: Flu epidemic of 1918-19 ravaged Jackson, Michigan and world” in MLive, Jan 13, 2012:

[6] See  the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing’s “Influenza Encyclopedia” article on “Detroit, Michigan”:

[7]See Dr. Marian Moser Jones’ “The American Red Cross and Local Response to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic: A Four-City Case Study” in Public Health Rep. 2010; 125 (Suppl 3): 92–104:

[8] Report from the “Red Cross News and Notes” in the Jackson Citizen Patriot on Aug 20, 1918.

[9] “Church services in Detroit stopped for first time in 217 years” in Jackson Citizen Patriot, Nov 3, 1918.

[10] I wish I could tell you if they did this each Sunday that churches were closed, but the Jackson Citizen Patriot’s digital archives from October 1918 are missing!

[11] “Messages of Praise and Reverent Thanksgiving Delivered From Jackson Pulpits on Peace Sunday,” Jackson Citizen Patriot, Nov. 18, 1919.

[12] “Men of Conviction are Barred from Church, Hypocrites Welcomed, Declaration of Rev. Chas. H. Berry.” Jackson Citizen Patriot, Nov. 19, 1918.

[13] “Should Weed Out Drones in Church, Says Rev. Berry.” Jackson Citizen Patriot. Oct. 6, 1919.