COVID-19: Numbers and beyond, what Churches of Christ need to know
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Schools and restaurants closed. Sporting events canceled. Play dates with friends curtailed. And for weeks or months to come, the church youth group can’t gather.
As social-distancing policies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic force Churches of Christ to close their physical doors, teens find themselves with little to no social interactions outside of their homes.
Although 17-year-old Alisha Allred knew it was coming, she was heartbroken when the West Ark Church of Christ in Fort Smith, Ark., moved to online worship.
“I was so frustrated,” said Allred, a high school junior who has attended the congregation for three years and is present every time the doors are open.
For spring break, she was supposed to go on a youth mission trip to Guatemala. But because of the virus outbreak, the trip was canceled.
“Oh, I literally cried,” Allred said.
Many youth ministries have turned to video streaming and social media to maintain their connection with students. But without the routines of school and church, how will the lack of face-to-face interactions affect young people’s mental health?
The impact of this period of isolation will vary from child to child, said Chris Barclay, a Connecticut school psychologist. But the disruption to routines could be difficult, said Barclay, a member of Manchester Church of Christ, east of the state capital of Hartford.
“Both school and church are two of the biggest social connections that young children or young people have,” he explained. “And so with that being disrupted … that can be really difficult.”
This uncertain time can be especially hard for those who didn’t already have a strong connection with others or don’t have someone who is routinely checking up on them, Barclay said. That could include those who were already on the margins of youth groups and schools.
“As much as we like to say our kids are so technology-driven these days, I think we’re starting to see that face-to-face interactions are much more valuable than we realize,” Barclay said.
“As much as we like to say our kids are so technology-driven these days, I think we’re starting to see that face-to-face interactions are much more valuable than we realize.”
“There’s something to be said about knowing every Wednesday, every Sunday, you’re going to … kind of catch up with whoever and spend some time together and have some meaningful discussion about your faith and how your life is going and all of that.”
Christians, he said, should be reaching out to those who may be outside their social sphere and struggle with loneliness.
“That’s a Christ-like thing to think about: Who is that?” he said. “(Those are) the people that Jesus regularly sought out, people who were ‘outside the camp,’ so to speak.”
Barclay created a YouTube video, “13 C’s for Coping with the Coronavirus,” for his home congregation with advice for adults and children during this time. In the video, he discusses 13 things that people can do to help with uncertainty, stress and disruption the COVID-19 crisis may have caused.
One of the tips he shares is recognizing what is in one’s control and what is not.
“A lot of it is, ultimately, things that are outside of our control and things that we are actually told in Scripture to take to God. (We) put that out to him and kind of recognize there’s not much I can do about those things,” Barclay said. “But there are things that I can do … take care of myself, reach out to people I know, do deep breathing exercises.”
As many parents balance working from home with managing their children, Barclay suggests that communication is critical during this time for all family members.
“A good tool that I think about for communicating is checklists,” said Barclay, who was working at home alongside his wife, Caitlin, and their 15-month-old son, Griffin.
That list might include items that Dad is going to complete that day and that Mom is going to do — and assignments for the children, too.
“Everyone has that checklist … so I can understand what I need to do but also can respect what my other family members need to do,” he said.
This method can also help students feel a sense of accomplishment throughout the day, he noted, similar to the bell ringing at the end of a class period in school.
Technology offers many benefits in this time of social distancing, such as social media used by many youth ministries to engage students while they’re apart.
But the lack of human interaction with unrestricted access to the internet can also be a dangerous combination for young children, said Eric Tooley, a sex addiction therapist and member of CARE Church of Christ in Richardson, Texas. CARE stands for “Christians At Richardson East.”
“I think the dangers of our young people in a digital world and online world didn’t go away because of this crisis,” said Tooley, who leads the nonprofit Noble Choices. “By any stretch of the imagination, I think they’re going to be worse. And because of the isolation, the things we worried about with our kids online will be even a bigger draw for them.” That includes the “allure of intimacy” offered by pornography, he said.
“When we’re in isolation, we’re going to desire intimacy more than we ever have before,” Tooley said. “And so the lure of being pulled into false intimacy is going to be great. So parents need to do extra to maintain the safety of our young people online.”
Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing while online, he stressed. Monitoring softwares, household rules and open discussions with children are among the ways to provide such oversight.
Tooley urged youth ministers to explore ways for young people to do things while complying to social-distancing, such as a drive-in devotional or a scavenger hunt that could be done while staying in their cars.
Even with church doors closed, the mission of the body of Christ remains.
“I think it really gives us an opportunity to live out the truth that we say, that the church is not the building, the church is the people. At the same time, it’s a challenge.”
“I think it really gives us an opportunity to live out the truth that we say, that the church is not the building, the church is the people,” Barclay said. “At the same time, it’s a challenge because the comfort of the building is an easy access point to see everybody that I want to speak to and minister to and be encouraged by.”
Allred, the Arkansas teen, calls her church family “her people.”
More than anything, she just misses seeing those people face to face.
“I know you can do that (through) like FaceTime,” she said, “but it’s such a different feeling to be with your people, in person, face to face.”
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