A coalition of leading Christian groups announced a new initiative to help small churches throughout the U.S. that are at risk of closing due to the coronavirus pandemic, answering Jesus' call to care for the "least of these."
Launched this week, the Churches Helping Churches Challenge seeks to assist congregations in low-income communities in urban areas that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 economic shutdown.
In an interview with The Christian Post, NFL player Benjamin Watson, national spokesman for the initiative, cited statistics from a recent Barna Group survey revealing that six to nine percent of pastors are unsure or not confident that their church will survive the coronavirus pandemic.
Forty-two percent of pastors said giving was "significantly" down and 28 percent said it was "slightly" down. Only around a quarter said it stayed the same.
Additionally, nearly a quarter of American churches (22 percent) have already reduced staff hours, reduced compensation or laid off employees.
“As soon as the news broke about the virus, I felt called to support other believers,” Watson said. “My father is a pastor in South Carolina, and a couple of weeks ago he mentioned that many pastors were saying they didn’t think their churches could make it through this pandemic if people weren’t coming through their doors every Sunday.”
“The Bible talks a lot about caring for the ‘least of these,’ and in many ways, that’s referring to the church. As the body of Christ, we all suffer when one suffers. Many churches won’t make it through this. As believers, it’s our honor and duty to support one another. This initiative is a way we can do just that.”
The Churches Helping Churches Initiative creates a Coronavirus At-Risk Church Relief Fund that provides $3,000 grants to small churches that are at risk of closing within the next three months due to a steep loss in financial giving.
The initial goal of the fund is to raise $500,000 during the month of April from Christian donors, foundations and large churches. As of Monday afternoon, Coronavirus At-Risk Church Relief Fund has raised $160,000. The grants will be administered by the National Christian Foundation and 100 percent of the proceeds will go directly to at-risk churches.
“A $3,000 grant may not sound like much, but oftentimes, it’s enough to get some of these smaller churches through the next week or the next month,” Watson said. “Many churches are just like small businesses that are struggling right now. While some may receive assistance from the government, it may take months to reach churches. By then, it may be too late.”
The federal government is offering $350 billion in assistance to small businesses, as well as churches and nonprofits, through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump late March.
Watson pointed out that when there’s any kind of economic downturn, minorities and low-income communities are most impacted. The coronavirus pandemic, he said, presents a unique opportunity for larger, more stable churches to assist at-risk churches in their own communities.
“Many of the churches that are at risk are in lower-income communities,” he said. “Situations like this hit them the hardest, fastest, and the effects last much longer. These communities suffer the most as opposed to the general public because they don’t have the economic buffer that some people in the country have.
“When it comes to bridging the divide, Galatians talks about how we’re all one body, meaning our actions need to come together with our beliefs. Ironically, something like this is an opportunity to do that. We’re talking about supporting those in our own communities, those we walk by or see at events. How do we enter into their lives in a time of need and give them bread?”
On the Church Relief website, the Churches Helping Churches Challenge also provides guidance and best practices for how large churches can pursue this type of outreach.
“We’re encouraging churches and congregations to think outside the box and think of the need in their own cities and counties,” the NFL star said.
Tragedy, he stressed, "has a way of making people open to the Gospel.”
“Whatever the situation, whether there’s a time of plenty or need, there are specific things God will have us do,” Watson said. “Part of it is praying and asking God for wisdom and discernment and the opportunities for the Spirit to lead you in how you engage and support believers and the lost.”
“People’s eyes and ears are open right now. When we’re faced with our own mortality, we realize the need for something greater than ourselves. We talk about God being the Prince of Peace, and the coronavirus is an opportunity for us to live in that peace and share that with a world who is searching for it as well.”
Organizations, churches, and individuals who want to give toward the fund and pastors of small at-risk churches can apply at www.ChurchRelief.org.
Along with the AND Campaign, the initiative is supported and organized by a collection of Christian groups and leaders, including the Pinetops Foundation, Movement Day, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Church of God in Christ, Pinkston Group, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, Jude 3 Project, and Pulse Movement.
While it’s important to support Christian groups fighting sex trafficking, persecution, and other issues overseas, Watson encouraged churches to also “look out their windows and help those they can see as well as those across the ocean.”
“In this time, be encouraged,” he said. “God has not forgotten you. While this pandemic has taken us by surprise, it hasn’t taken Him by surprise. We are not promised to have a great life full of comfort and no trouble, sadness, or fear.”
“What we are promised is that the same God who came down in human form and was there in creation is the Lord of our lives who knows what’s going on and promises to provide for all of our needs. He is with us through whatever we go through, whether it’s people suffering from this virus, persecution, or systemic racism. In the good and the bad, God is with us, and He’s in control even when things seem uncontrollable.”