Around the world, religious meetings and traditions have played a unique role in the spread of the coronavirus and subsequent containment efforts. That reality has held across the spectrum of religions from Buddhism to Judaism, Islam to Hinduism – but Christianity is unique in its potential vulnerabilities to a pandemic. The story of churches and the pandemic is one that Christians should give some attention to. We can learn a lot at this historical moment.
So many of the rituals, traditions, and basic tenants of Christian faith and culture seem at first glance to position the faithful in the direct path of the pandemic’s advance. Scripture explicitly encourages Christians not to forsake gathering together with fellow believers (Hebrews 10:25). How did Paul and the apostles imagine that to work during a stay in place order? Today, as we fight to push the coronavirus back from our societies, an additional impediment has been presented by many Christians and churches. It is rights-based activism that exasperates efforts at containment and goes well beyond the mandates of scripture.
Early Spreaders – Churches and the Pandemic
As the virus moved beyond China in late January and February, churches were a consistent hot zone for the virus to spread. In South Korea, doctors diagnosed the first coronavirus case on January 25, but a significant outbreak did not occur for nearly three more weeks. A short while later, on February 18, South Korean doctors diagnosed a 61-year-old woman with the virus. She was only the 31st case in South Korea. Four days passed, and 15 more people from her church came down with the virus. One month later, thousands of South Koreans were positive for the virus, and the church was the location where the outbreak burst into the public sphere. As believers gathered together, shoulder to shoulder in prayer, they spread an invisible virus to one another, then went home and carried it to the rest of the country. According to the BBC, by March 25, a single South Korean church was the source of more than 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country.
The practice of corporate worship presented a perfect environment for the disease to spread. COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks – or in the case of church services, sings or prays – within a 6-foot radius of another person. The exhaled infected droplets are breathed in by a nearby person, and infection occurs. Similarly, when the exhaled droplets land on a shared surface, such as a passing offering plate, a hymnal, a distributed visitor’s card, or even the sleeves of a fellow believer who is being hugged, then the droplets make contact and transfer to another person. Following that contact, the person needs only to touch their eyes, nose, or mouth with a contaminated hand, and we then have contagion. (The average person touches their face 23 times per hour.)
A megachurch on France’s border with Switzerland was the sight of an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus that included at least 17 deaths by the end of March. Pastors from Burkina Faso were in attendance at the French church and took the virus home with them to their own megachurch of 12,000 people in West Africa.
In Ukraine, a Russian Orthodox Church was the location for a local outbreak. A Pentecostal church in Sacramento, California, was a link to the growth of the outbreak there. Church events in North Carolina and Arkansas were hot spots for the virus spreading in those cities and states. Multiple church-related clusters in Kansas dominated the spread of the virus in middle America. Revival meetings at a Kentucky church facilitated the spread of the virus in Appalachia. Church services operated as a contamination zone for one of the hardest-hit areas of Alabama.
Across the US and the world, churches played a crucial role in the spread of the coronavirus since February.
But it could have been worse. Once the coronavirus dangers became known, most churches aligned themselves to the national strategy of containment. Stay in place orders were respected. Churches normalized and embraced social distancing. Throughout the world, most churches were empty on Easter Sunday in a surreal and historical moment that demonstrated the gravity of the situation. And thanks to the wonders of modern technology, from video conferencing to Facebook Live events, the scriptural mandate to not forsake gathering together with our fellow believers was honored. That unprecedented nature of fellowship at this point in history probably inspired us to all treasure one another a little more in this historical time.
Exceptions to the Rule
There have been exceptions. It is at the point of the exceptions that social distancing strategies fail, and pandemics persist. Exceptions take shape when individualism is prioritized above the corporate good. Unfortunately, these exceptions also allow ignorance among some within the church to be highlighted in the lens of the national media.
In Florida, Rodney Howard Browne continued church services with meetings that included gatherings of more than 500 people at a time. After swearing that the church would “never close,” Browne was arrested and eventually agreed to close the church meetings. Browne complained he was the “victim of a tyrannical government.”
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell was charged with six misdemeanors after he continued to hold services I violation of the stay safety orders meant to stop the spread of the pandemic. From Texas to Ohio, Virginia to California, this goofy trend by various churches continued, and as it continued the pandemic spread, people became infected and, in some instances, died.
The Church Is Not A Building
As a believer who takes my faith very seriously, the most frustrating piece to these stories is how unnecessary it all is. The church body is not required to gather together in the same building on a Sunday anywhere in scripture. Scripture does not describe the church as having anything to do with walls and rooftops. The church is about the gathering of the believers, however, and wherever that may be. The building is irrelevant. The building is an addition born of convenience, and that then grew into a tradition. Today when we say we are going to church, we are usually referencing a building. That was not the standard set in scripture.
…the Kingdom of God is within you. Luke 17:21
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. Matthew 18:20
These were the guidelines and understanding of first-century believers who “went to church” often amid widespread persecution. The luxury of a building was not available to them, but the church grew both spiritually and in headcounts.
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God, and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:46,47
Many church leaders in the pandemic today have put a focus on the church building ahead of a focus on church life. Some did this because they have become servants to the traditions and blindly miss the much simpler and attainable standard of scripture. Others have done so out of defiance to defend their rights to religious liberty. No government can order their church to stay home! This is foolishness.
Responsibility Greater Than Rights
Many of the early apostles and Christians died in state prisons, dungeons, and torture chambers. Their dying breaths were not wasted arguing for their rights but declaring the truth of the gospel for which they were willing to die. The rights to religious liberty are a wonderful thing. Celebrate them. But we should not misplace our rights to religious liberty as something higher than our responsibility toward truth and righteousness. That includes the second greatest command of Jesus – love your neighbor. One of the easiest ways to love your neighbor today is to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus to them.
God was not surprised by the pandemic. He did not establish His church to be either a victim or a conduit for the pandemic. He established His church to be the Body of Christ in the earth. In the face of a historical pandemic, we should step up to that role with a sense of responsibility and wisdom for our neighbors and a sense of integrity and righteous fear before God.
Additional Reads About Churchs and the Pandemic