Coronavirus and the Church

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If your church is anything like mine, there are leaders—lay and staff—trying to determine how to move forward as a faithful, worshipping community in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Do we cancel worship, or continue? If we gather, do we have enough disinfectants and cleaning supplies? What about Communion? And how do we ensure that the most vulnerable among us remain safe?

At Science for the Church, our goal is to strengthen the church through engaging with science. That often means we consider topics like origins, human uniqueness, or the question of divine action. But it also means helping the church leverage science to respond to situations like the one we currently face.

Two of our priorities matter specifically to the COVID-19 pandemic. First, we have to get our information right because good science can help us to make good decisions. Second, some of the best faith and science work is done in relationships between church leaders and scientists.

Getting the Science Right

COVID-19 is, as you know, a virus that impacts the respiratory system. What you may not know is that it is very similar to many other viruses. Remember MERS in 2012 or SARS in 2003? It is likely that COVID-19 came to humans from other animals, as has occurred before with swine-flu and avian-flu. Gordon College biologist Craig Story wrote an accessible introduction to viruses and COVID-19 for BioLogos last month.

Viruses like COVID-19 evolve from earlier viruses and have different characteristics which result in different impacts on their hosts. The Khan Academy has a nice module on viruses, including how they evolve. It is because of this evolution—much like that of the flu that reappears each and every year—that with each new variant, scientists must roll up their sleeves quickly to understand the characteristics and impacts of the newest strand. COVID-19 is still quite new, and scientists are still learning even the most basic information about it. So nearly every day there is new research released that can inform how we respond to the coronavirus.

This novelty is one of the challenges to getting good scientific information regarding any new virus strand. Each virus is different in how readily it transfers from host to host, how easily it takes over cells, and in what impact it has on its host. We have learned so far that COVID-19 spreads quite easily from human to human—it seems to be mostly via the respiratory droplets that come from coughing and sneezing—and has the most deleterious impact on older adults, especially those with heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease. But again, almost every day there is new research. To track it, you may consider this regularly updated Nature article or this collection hosted by Science magazine.

Another big challenge in an outbreak like this is staying informed as the virus spreads. The two best locations for tracking the disease and its impact, as well as learning the best safety precautions, are the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Relationships Matter

We know that ministry is ultimately relational, at least in part because where two or three gather in Christ’s name, Christ is also there working for the good of God’s kingdom (Matt. 18:20). As we noted above, science and faith, and pandemics like COVID-19, are also best handled relationally—even if we must maintain some physical distance as a precaution.

One of the best recommendations for churches (and many other organizations) is to create response teams—which in the case of a church should include a scientist (typically a healthcare professional) and a ministry leader. For those of you in ministry, let the healthcare professional help you navigate all the swirling information about coronavirus—they can help guide you to quality information. But we also need those ministry leaders to help think about the spiritual needs of their flock in a time that for many is filled with fear and uncertainty. Those teams should govern the decisions your ministry makes, in conversation with peer ministries and local and national officials.

Fundamentally, the reason the church is about relationships is because it is how God chose to love the world and therefore is how we also are to show God’s love to the world.

That includes caring for the least of these both near and far. COVID-19 is a global pandemic impacting individuals in well over 100 countries. To care in such a context means we must avoid fear and panic and let our prayers be a summons to faithful action.

Faithful action will look different in different churches. For some, the primary focus is on caring for and protecting the most vulnerable in your midst. The vulnerable might include those for whom contracting COVID-19 presents a dire risk or it might be folks who feel the pinch when you cancel services—be it Sunday worship or a food ministry—they depend on. For another church, it might mean supporting the decision makers who are responsible for the patients in the local nursing home, or the students in a classroom, or the employees of a business. Some congregations may have no direct contact with COVID-19—only a few inconveniences—and they can think more globally. Their work can be to pray for those hit hardest in China, Italy, Iran, Seattle, and New Rochelle (you could even pray over an interactive map tracking the cases daily).

We should not forget that there has nearly always been synergy between science and the church in our joint effort to alleviate suffering. The relief of suffering calls some of us to be scientists and others into professional ministry. Having both been called, let us work together locally and across the globe to address COVID-19. Let us maintain that togetherness to support the sick and help the suffering until the end of this pandemic and beyond.

In all that we do, may we follow Christ’s example of showing God’s love as we pursue relief for those that suffer. We can and should do so in partnership with scientists who can help us in our work. In doing so, we most certainly will strengthen the church.


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