Note: The intent of this article is to inspire your church to think carefully about its practices and imagine fresh ways of caring for its community during the coronavirus outbreak. The contributors to this article are not medical professionals or public health officials, and we offer these recommendations in a spirit of humility. While this article has been updated in response to the escalation of the coronavirus outbreak since it was published on March 6, some of the advice here may not be applicable to the situation in your community today. In making decisions for your church, we encourage you to follow the advice of your local public health authorities.
For the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus and COVID-19, check with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Public Health Agency of Canada, or the equivalent public health organization in your country. For resources to help your church continue its ministry, spiritual care tools, and devotional materials, visit our coronavirus church resource center.
M y husband is the pastor of a church less than five miles from the nursing facility where the first U.S. deaths from COVID-19 occurred. Since then, the panic surrounding the novel coronavirus has only increased, and not just in the Seattle, Washington, area. But as Christians, we’re called to act out of something other than our anxiety. God has not given us “the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, KJV).
During a coronavirus pandemic, the church is called to be levelheaded and loving. So what steps should churches take in light of the spread of the novel coronavirus?
There’s plenty of speculation about how the virus will spread and how many lives it may claim, but we ought to remember that we can’t be certain how things will unfold. Without being able to predict the upcoming months, the actions churches take should be ones of prudence. And we should be especially attentive to the most vulnerable in our congregations and wider communities.
Below is a set of recommendations for churches to follow during the coronavirus outbreak. Some of these recommendations were written at an earlier stage of the outbreak and may not feel as relevant to your church’s situation today.
How to figure out what your church should do in response to COVID-19
Update: On March 15, the U.S. CDC recommended that all gatherings of more than 50 people be postponed for eight weeks. We do not recommend North American churches hold in-person worship at this time.
The risks in your community might appear very different than they were last week, or even a few days ago. Here’s how you can monitor the outbreak and prayerfully consider your response to the current reality in your community.
Throughout the process, ask God to help you discern truth from misinformation, prudence from panic, wisdom from fear. Pray for the capacity to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, NRSV).
Get the facts about COVID-19
Before your church leadership makes any decisions, read the most recent updates about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 from the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Public Health Agency of Canada, or the equivalent public health organization in your country. Make sure you understand what is actually true about COVID-19, how it spreads, and who is at risk. Because SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus, scientists are still learning about it. Don’t assume that last week’s information is accurate.
Consult your local public health authority
Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the latest information about the virus, visit your local public health authority’s website. That might be a state, county, or city public health department. These groups are closely monitoring the situation in their region and are also getting the latest information and recommendations from national health authorities. They will have the most appropriate recommendations for you to follow.
Based on the situation on the ground, your local public health department will offer the most appropriate recommendations for your area. It may advise anything from simple precautions like regular handwashing and staying home when sick, to canceling public gatherings, to involuntary quarantines and travel restrictions.
Consider your congregation
One thing that seems to be consistent across worldwide COVID-19 cases is that certain groups are more at risk of contracting the disease or developing acute and even fatal complications. If your congregation has many people who fall into a high-risk category, your church leadership should consider erring on the side of caution as you make a decision. This is an act of hospitality toward your congregation’s most vulnerable members.
Consider your community
At the same time, recognize the role your church plays in its neighborhood or city. Churches are places of hope and of connection. In many cases, they offer important social services. Though your church might find it necessary to suspend worship services, figure out how it can still serve the community. Don’t disappear or go silent.
Make a decision about what your church should do
Once your church leadership has armed itself with the facts and accounted for the demographics of the congregation and community, ask for God’s guidance and make decisions.
Communicate your church’s decisions to the congregation and community with humility and confidence. Give people ample advance notice for things like canceled services and other events. Expect pushback. Do your best to frame the decisions within the gospel. (For instance, you may explain that a certain decision is a way to love your neighbors.) Continue to communicate clearly and regularly with your community throughout the outbreak.
Meanwhile, be prepared to make changes to a decision at a moment’s notice. If possible, have your leadership team put together a set of procedures for handling increasing levels of response. Of course, we pray that the spread of the virus is slowed or even halted, so you might instead find yourself having to decide, on a Friday evening, whether you should tell your church that you are actually meeting on Sunday morning!
Best practices for church worship services
Much of this section of the article was adapted or taken directly from an article written by Jeremy Smith, who pastors a church in Seattle. The original article’s recommendations were compiled by faith leaders in the Seattle area following an informational meeting with public health officials in King County, Washington. These recommendations do not come directly from the health department or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; instead, they apply the information to churches’ situations. As the coronavirus spreads, please follow the advice of your local health authorities.
Below are recommendations for handling church-specific situations. Above all, as your church makes decisions in the coming weeks and months, follow the advice of your local public health department. Similarly, consider the demographics of your church, always keeping in mind the most vulnerable people in your congregation and community.
If your church can’t meet in purpose and has never livestreamed worship before, here’s a basic how-to guide for setting livestreaming without expensive equipment or technical know-how.
Should churches continue to have worship services?
If your community is the site of an outbreak, your church should strongly consider suspending in-person worship services, especially if your congregation has a high number of people over the age of 60 or with underlying medical issues. Government officials in many communities have advised residents to avoid bringing large groups of people together.
One option to consider if you can’t meet in person: livestreaming your service. Here’s a guide that explains the absolute simplest way you can set up livestreaming.
If there are no identified cases of the coronavirus in your community, you can hold services and other church events. However, you might want to encourage members of vulnerable groups (those over 60 years old and those with underlying medical conditions) to remain home.
Churches should communicate directly with vulnerable populations their support and encouragement to skip church if they are feeling sick or feeling vulnerable to getting sick. There should be no sense of shame if members decide to stay home.
Should churches offer communion?
This is a hard decision, and your church will need to decide what risks you are comfortable taking. However, if you do decide to serve Communion, you should take some precautions to make it a more safe process. The safest way to serve communion is by eliminating hand-to-hand transmission. In all cases, the people passing out the elements should clean their hands thoroughly and consider wearing gloves.
Avoid a common cup, including serving by intinction, because unclean fingers or breath droplets can get into the common liquid and potentially transmit or receive droplets of COVID-19. Even Catholic churches where the priest places the host on the person’s tongue risk getting water droplets from breath on the priest’s fingers, potentially infecting the succeeding folks. Additionally, putting bread cubes on trays and passing them down the aisles also allows for cross-contamination as people’s hands reaching for the cubes are not clean.
Instead, churches should switch to individual cups that can be served without hand-to-hand transmission, meaning that receivers’ hands should not touch cups other than their own. Church celebrants should practice how to hold the trays of individual cups.
Churches should take special care to disinfect tiny communion cups or to use single-use cups. (The most convenient way, though not cheap, would be purchase individually sealed, prefilled, disposable cups that have compartments for both juice and a wafer.) If you go the latter route, consider paying a bit more money for compostable cups so you are better participants in creation care.
Finally, celebrants should consider wearing gloves. The public health official present at the gathering for Seattle churches was not insistent that gloves must be worn, although she recommends that for food service. She allowed that a person with properly cleaned hands can offer bread safely as the communion host. But gloves would remove uncertainty, provided the celebrant keeps the gloves from cross-contamination.
See the next section (“Church environments”) for a recommended setup for cleaning hands before serving communion.
Should churches offer baptismal remembrance fonts?
Some churches have baptismal fonts at the entrance to the sanctuary or chapel so that congregants can dip their fingers in and place them on their foreheads to “remember their baptisms.” Because this is a common liquid that more than one person uses, it can potentially transmit COVID-19 droplets, so it should not be used by vulnerable populations.
Baptisms themselves can be done without transmitting droplets as long as none of the participants are infected.
Should churches pass the peace?
Not by shaking hands. King County Public Health officials recommend a distance of 4 to 6 feet from person to person in an enclosed space. That reduces the potential for sneezed or coughed droplets to transmit to someone else. Passing the peace by shaking hands not only violates that personal proximity line, but also has unclean hands touching each other.
Introduce your church to a new gesture of greeting, like folding your hands over your heart and then opening them palms out and down toward another person. Waving is always an option, too.
Some churches have practiced “elbow taps,” though people’s habit of sneezing and coughing into their elbows might make even this practice too risky.
Should churches pass an offering plate?
No. Durable objects can retain droplets of active coronavirus for hours or days, and certainly a few seconds while being passed down a pew or row of chairs. Even if an usher wiped the plate down with disinfecting wipes between each pew, the alcohol wouldn’t have time to dry and it would still allow people to transmit germs down the row.
Instead, follow the lead of churches in other parts of the globe that sing and dance and place individual offerings in a stationary basket or plate. The people move, not the plates. Perhaps churches should consider a stationary placement of the offerings during, before, or after worship.
This would be a great time to set up online giving. And remind offering counters to not touch their face or mouth while counting, as the virus could still be active hours or a day later, depending on the environment.
Should churches use hymnals?
Yes. Hymnals contain the words of the faith and encourage congregational singing. They should continue to be used.
But treat hymnals like doorknobs and disinfect your hands after use. Pick up the hymnal, sing the song or join in the liturgy, and then disinfect your hands before you touch your face or phone again.
Single-use bulletins are better than hymnals, but woefully a distant second due to environmental and congregational singing concerns. A better alternative is to project hymns on screens, rather than print more or longer bulletins and use more paper.
Keeping church environments clean
Here are some specific recommendations about church environments. All of these recommendations assume that your church is still holding worship services or other events.
How communion servers should clean their hands
Communion objects (plate, cups, etc.) are disinfected and prepared with clean hands and food service best practices. But what about the servers themselves?
The King County Public Health officials said that room-temperature water with soap is more effective than hand sanitizer. They recommend the following setup for sanitizing the hands of communion servers and priests and celebrants:
- A pitcher and basin (or an athletic event water dispenser with basin) to wet hands and to rinse soapy hands.
- A soap dispenser, which the participants use to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds (two times through “Happy Birthday”).
- Paper towels thrown in a trash, and then celebrant doesn’t touch face or other durable objects other than the communion items.
A whole team of servers can get this done in about two minutes, perhaps during a hymn or a liturgy led by a non-celebrant. It doesn’t have to add time to the worship service, but doing it in front of everyone will reassure people.
Cleaning the church building
Bleach is recommended for disinfecting durable surfaces. Anything that causes bubbles destroys COVID-19. “If it suds, it strips.”
Children’s toys and other durable surfaces in classrooms or nurseries should be disinfected often. Toys with fur or fabric (stuffed animals, for instance) should not be used during this season of COVID-19 concerns.
Clean your phone after church at the same time you wash your hands. We touch our phones a lot.
For coffee hour food service or potlucks, tongs or spoons should be made available so that the actual food is not contaminated by fingers in the food, with resting areas outside of the food for those tongs or utensils. But before you sit down and consume, you should wash or disinfect your hands. Treat tongs like doorknobs: use them, but wash your hands afterward. Read up on food service best practices and consider posting volunteers to assist guests with best practices too.
Do thorough cleaning between uses of a multi-use space. If this is impossible, consider removing as many durable objects as possible in multi-use spaces so there are fewer surface areas to clean.
Staff policies and telecommuting possibilities
Church staff should preemptively figure out how to accomplish as much of their jobs as possible remotely. Install remote desktop software with secure practices, put documents (securely) in the cloud via Dropbox or OneDrive or Google Drive. Human Resource committees should set expectations of what they want staff to do in case of feeling sick, fear of getting sick, or a potential shutdown so that as much ministry coordination as possible can happen remotely.
How churches should care for vulnerable people during a coronavirus outbreak
It’s tempting, in the face of an epidemic, to self-protect, withdraw, and stock up on nonperishables. But that is not the gospel. All of the above recommendations should be followed not in a spirit of fear and self-protection but in a spirit of care and protection for the most vulnerable people in our midst.
What biblical parallel is there for this coronavirus concern?
In Mark 6:30-44, Jesus and the disciples find themselves in an unexpected situation. The crowds they tried to get away from to go find solitude and a place to eat have followed them. Jesus teaches them, and then tasks the disciples with feeding them. The disciples feel bewildered by the unexpected command, and feel uneasy under the immense responsibility to care for these people. But Jesus tells them to bring what little food they have, and says it will be enough. The disciples organize the people into smaller groups of 50-100, distributed the food, and ended up feeding 5000 people with only a few loaves and fishes.
The COVID-19 outbreak shows we are in the gap between the unexpected responsibility and the organizing to share with each other. It is a place of uncertainty, but knowing we are called to do something to share what we have can be a time of transformation and care for one another. Living in this gap between responsibility and an effective plan is a difficult place to be, but with Christ alongside us and science informing us, it is possible.
Why should churches change their practices?
Churches can be hesitant to change centuries-old practices, especially around rituals like communion. But the mission should inform our expressions. Churches, even in dechurched areas, are places where communities gather. If viruses can be stopped from transmitting in houses of worship and faith communities, then the church is doing its part to protect its membership. Community norming of sanitary procedures would benefit all of us. If we put into practice these things now, we can reduce its spread now and later.
If we ask people to stay home if sick or vulnerable, it minimizes risk. If we ask people to wash their hands, it minimizes risk.
The church’s call to mission
Though your church might find it necessary to suspend worship services, figure out how it can still serve the community. Don’t disappear or go silent. Churches are places of hope and of connection. In many cases, they offer important social services. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the capacity to tell the truth and offer peace in the midst of rumors and anxiety.
There’s no formula for serving your community during an outbreak. Local mission looks different in every context, and that’s all the more true when you throw an unfamiliar virus into the mix.
So what should your church do? Get creative about how to love people in your congregation and neighborhood who are most susceptible to COVID-19. Though it’s not wise to visit them, especially if you have potentially been exposed to the coronavirus, find ways to help them feel connected. Here are a few ideas:
- If COVID-19 has not yet hit your community, introduce yourself to any elderly neighbors and give them your phone number. Invite them to ask for help if they need it.
- Consider dropping off groceries and other essential supplies on the doorstep of folks who might have difficulty getting to the store.
- Rally your elders or a team of volunteers to make regular phone calls to people who are most likely to stay home, who live in nursing homes or other residential facilities, or who are hospitalized. COVID-19 is most fatal among these folks, and the isolation necessary to keep them healthy can make them feel alone and discouraged.
- Hold Bible studies or other church events by video. Use a service like Google Hangouts, FaceTime, or Zoom to host virtual small groups.
- Make sure that your church’s sermons are available online, either by audio or video. If your church doesn’t have this capability, ask your pastor to consider providing the Scripture passage, questions for reflection, and prayer prompts by email each week.
- Instead of hoarding food and supplies, make sure everyone in your neighborhood has enough. Use online neighborhood groups to distribute toilet paper to people who didn’t snatch it up right away.
- In the event that a school is closed, find ways to support working parents. Perhaps stay-at-home parents can take a few neighborhood kids. (This role shouldn’t fall to older people or grandparents, who could easily catch coronavirus from kids who aren’t showing symptoms.)
- Stand against the fear-driven marginalization of people who are Asian by sharing accurate information about how COVID-19 spreads. Ethnicity is not a risk factor for COVID-19, and people should not be marginalized because of their ethnicity.
- Pray. Pray for protection over your neighbors and people in your congregation who are susceptible to contracting COVID-19. Pray for wisdom and creativity for your church as you find new ways to care for your community. Pray for insight for medical professionals as they seek to understand the novel coronavirus and find ways to fight it.
As the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). May our churches be beacons of Christ’s light, piercing the darkness of rumor and fear. May we act in ways that protect others as well as ourselves. May COVID-19 be an opportunity for the gospel to be made known.
Note: We’re offering these recommendations in a spirit of humility, recognizing that new information is regularly being released and that the specifics of this article may become outdated quickly. We will do our best to update this article as information becomes available. However, the contributors to this article are not medical professionals or public health officials. Our hope is that this article inspires your church to think carefully about its practices and imagine fresh ways of caring for its community. In the event of any kind of outbreak in your region, follow the advice of your local and national public health authorities.