No one was expecting the COVID-19 situation to escalate as rapidly as it has. As recently as March, it was still a question of if churches would cancel large-scale events. Weeks later, the majority had shuttered their doors. And while some churches are opening to attendees later this month, most intend to stay online.
“There is really not a script for this and things can change pretty dramatically day by day,” said Daniel Harrell, Christianity Today’s editor in chief, who joined the ministry in January.
Christianity Today recognizes that there is a tangible need for coverage with a commitment to “hope and clarity,” said Harrell, now more than ever. To that end, by late May, CT's ministry had produced over 300 articles, podcasts, resources, and webinars to encourage and equip leaders in the midst of the novel coronavirus, accessed by over 3 million leaders.
CT is in a unique position, being both a breaking news site as well as a platform for Christian thought journalism. Its coronavirus coverage has similarly had the same diversity of tone and scope. CT’s editors have:
- Reported breaking news of those who have gotten sick and attempted to help individuals discern fact from conspiracy theory.
- Shared narrative pieces from those around the world whose experiences inform ours.
- Offered resources to inform churches and support them during this challenging season of ministry.
- Created practical guides and resources for individuals and families to grow closer to God and pray for their communities during this time.
- Tackled several of the tricky theological questions that arise amidst suffering.
The diversity of the content represents a dual focus on serving the Church with robust theology and equipping it with practical resources. It’s helping the church answer the question: what does it mean to be faithful Christians during a pandemic?
One piece that unifies the practical and theological became the magazine’s May/June cover story. In March, as COVID-19 was ramping up in the United States, print managing editor Andy Olsen made a last minute decision to write a thoughtful feature piece called,“Who Is My COVID-19 Neighbor?”
“The coronavirus was quickly becoming the sole topic of conversation in the US and much of the globe, at least for the near term,” said Olsen. “We wanted to serve CT readers by offering them something that engaged with the moment and matched, in some way, both its immediate and historical significance.”
The editorial and design teams didn’t initially envision it as the cover story, but as Olsen’s work with Susan Mettes, whose reporting contributed to the piece, began to harmonize, it became clear that the piece was important and they chose to put it on the cover.
“The piece really ended up exploring some of the big questions facing all of us about who we're obligated, morally and ethically, to help in widespread crises,” said Olsen.
Unifying the theological and the practical has also meant offering spiritual encouragement to readers. President and CEO Tim Dalrymple wrote a daily devotional. His series, “The Hallway Through the Sea,” acknowledges readers’ fear and isolation, while also pointing to the beauty and hope we find in Christ in the midst of suffering.
As another recurring series, the podcast team of Morgan Lee, Mike Cosper, and Erik Petrik have created a weekly podcast called “Prayer Amid Pandemic” that focuses on stories of Christians throughout history, and around the world today, who followed Christ in the midst of sickness.
The aim of these materials, and the holistic nature of CT’s coverage is to “remind people that ‘God’s got this,’” said Harrell.
“On the other hand, there is a lot of anxiety around some of the fundamental theological questions: where is God, how can we pray, and how do we make sense of this? And while we search for hope, we also recognize that Jesus doesn’t promise us a deathless life. Or a suffering free life,” said Harrell. “So it’s left to us as Christians, and certainly in our particular role as Christianity Today, to remind people of that.”
Several articles have attempted to tackle this reality head-on, including one of Harrell’s favorites entitled, “Christians, Let’s Flatten the Curve But Remain a Religion for the Sick,” which calls for Christians to follow guidelines for combatting the virus, while not turning good health into a god or neglecting their communities.
The pandemic has a long reach, and CT as a ministry has not been unaffected. In some ways, it has created new challenges as writers are unable to travel and provide as much on-the-ground reporting. But it has also created positive opportunities. As people have been confined to their homes, their time has been freed up and they are searching for ways to band together. Events that used to take weeks to pull off now happen in a couple of days, like CT’s recent live streamed conversation with Biologos and physicist-geneticist Francis Collins.
The ease of collaboration is due in part to people being at home more, but also an increased sense of solidarity within the Christian community, says Harrell.
“N.T. Wright got back to me in 15 minutes!” he said.
The global nature of the pandemic has also created a banding-together of the global Church.
“This pandemic has provided an opportunity to pay attention to Christian leaders and churches across Asia, and now Europe, and eventually South America and Africa. We recognize that it’s a global pandemic and the Church is affected around the world.”
In an attempt to make CT’s coverage accessible to those affected, articles have been translated into Portugese, Spanish, Korean, traditional and simplified Chinese, French, Italian, and Arabic, with visitors from more than 175 countries represented on the site. Four in ten of CT’s readers are outside the US. These efforts have represented great advancements for CT’s global engagement by bringing more stories to the global Church, and from the global Church to CT’s pages. (You can read more about CT’s global engagement and translation work during COVID-19 here.)
CT is excited to minister to new readers globally as a way of continuing to serve leaders in the Church with practical, informative coverage. The ministry has been encouraged by the response to the coverage serving leaders specifically, such as the overwhelming response to CT’s piece on whether churches should stop meeting in-person, which is one of CT’s most-read article of 2020. Reader Jeremiah Swann shared that one of the articles directly affected his church’s coronavirus initiative:
Your article about the Church’s response to COVID-19 helped me to convince my fellow deacons at my church to begin to honor the request to not gather with 10 or more. I wanted a clear message to share with them with regard to their defiance of the measures being taken, and your article was right and delivered the message in a caring and thoughtful way! I greatly appreciate the responsible and compassionate leadership and guidance that your organization provides to the world. Thank you 100 times over!
Going forward, Harrell knows CT will continue to adapt to the ever-evolving situation and address the new needs that arise, both in the form of theological and practical questions: “I’ve been proud of the way people are finding new angles and succeeding. Our team has risen to the challenge.”
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Katie Bracy is digital marketing specialist at Christianity Today.