Churches Dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic
In the Bible
And [Aaron] stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. Now those who died in the plague were 14,700, besides those who died in the affair of Korah. And Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting, when the plague was stopped (Numbers 16:48-50).
- The High Priest (Aaron) played a role in stopping a plague in Israel’s camp.
... the priest shall shut up the diseased person for seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day, and if in his eyes the disease is checked and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up for another seven days. And the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day ... (Leviticus 13:4b-6a).
- Priests administered the Mosaic Law quarantines for certain infectious diseases.
“Flesh that touches any unclean thing shall not be eaten. It shall be burned up with fire" (Leviticus 7:19).
- Food safety was (and is) important in preventing disease.
In the News
Atlanta, Georgia, May 23, 2020 - The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) issued a bulletin, "Considerations for Communities of Faith." In the introduction, the CDC notes, "This guidance is not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or any other federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)." They go on to remind "State and local authorities" to take the First Amendment right to freedom of religion into consideration.
Hopkins County, Kentucky, March 12-16, 2020 - Several people became ill with COVID-19 after attending revival meetings involving two Hopkins County churches. The revival began a day after the governor requested churches to not hold services or special events following infections in another county. Before the weekend, the Hopkins County Judge Executive had determined that there was no immediate risk since there had not been any reported cases in the county.
Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area, 2020 - Food pantries operated by Nazarene churches in these areas have switched to drive-through distribution.
Williamston, Michigan, May 2020 - The priest of a Catholic Church in Willamston has set up a drive-through confessional to meet the needs of parishioners during the pandemic. The booth is outdoors and the priest wears a mask.
Royal Oak, Michigan, June 28, 2020 - A church's Sunday morning service on Zoom was interrupted by a non-member who yelled racial slurs.
Fort Meyers, Florida, September 6, 2020 - A livestreamed Sunday morning service by a Fort Myers church was hacked by a racist heckler.
Wake County, North Carolina, April 19, 2020 - A church near Raleigh began holding drive-in services. Congregants in their cars filled the parking lot. The platform was a farm flatbed trailer. Singing was accompanied by a guitar.
Springfield, Illinois, August 2020 - A Springfield church installed Plexiglas® barriers between the pews to stop the coronavirus' spread. Many members cannot benefit from live streamed services because they do not have the internet at home, so these barriers let them attend in-person.
Keeping the Flock Safe from the Virus
As a sheepdog protects sheep, a Church Safety Ministry protects the congregation. Added to other threats to their safety and well-being is a contagious virus. Unlike ordinary flu viruses that come around every winter, this one began to increase again in the summer. Meanwhile, reported numbers are inconsistent, leading to speculation as to its extent and level of threat. A credible expert concluded that this is an engineered virus, but others hold that it came from animals. However, since it is a threat, it is prudent to protect people in the church from the virus.
A Church Safety Committee can work with church leadership in planning a church's COVID response. This will vary by location, depending on state requirements and local levels of cases.
California has banned all indoor meetings and services in high-risk counties. The governor has also banned singing and chanting at worship services. However, in most of the rest of the country, churches can meet indoors if they follow certain precautions. The most common measures are facial coverings (namely masks and face shields), social distancing, and sanitizing.
By now, masks are worn in public almost everywhere. In most states, employees, vendors, and customers are required to wear face coverings in retail stores. This is supposed to provide two-way protection. If the user sneezes or coughs, the mask should keep droplets (which could contain viruses) from spreading to other persons. On the other hand, if a COVID-infected person sneezes or coughs unmasked, a mask should stop the droplets from reaching the wearer.
Some individuals cannot wear masks because of breathing problems or other medical conditions. Face shields are recommended for them. One advantage a face shield has over a mask is that it also protects the eyes, while the mask covers only the mouth and nose. With or without a face shield, eyes are better protected by goggles.
Social Distancing -
Social distancing is keeping a six-foot distance from persons not in your own household. How is this done in a church service? First of all, churches are designed to have people sitting close together, but when attendance in a service is less than half the seating capacity, there are notable empty spaces. A church can limit attendance to 50% by roping off every other pew. Although padded pews take longer to sanitize than hard surfaces, a church can make a quick turnaround by roping off the pews used in the first service, opening up the unused ones. At least one church has attached Plexiglas® barriers to the backs of its pews so they can seat more people.
Churches that use chairs can place the chairs six feet apart. A family can move their chairs in a row closer together. Chairs with vinyl or Naugahyde coverings can be quickly sanitized between services.
Drive-in Services -
An early form of social distancing is drive-in services. The church sets up a platform high enough to be seen from cars in the parking lot. Parking attendants guide vehicles to their parking spaces with high-profile ones in the back and lower ones in the front. Music and speaking is broadcast either on a low-power AM information frequency or to receivers passed out to each car. Some localities initially banned drive-in services, but courts disagreed.
Even without a pandemic, cleanliness is important to the health of members and guests in the church. More than seating is to be sanitized. A church should have people assigned to sanitize anything commonly touched, such as door handles and push plates, light switches, railings, door frames, counters and table tops, restrooms, desks, etc., when a service has ended. There should be enough time between services to do this.
An easily overlooked key item in sanitizing is the HVAC system. Air filters need to be changed often enough that air can still go through. HEPA filters are best for reducing viruses.
Serving at a Distance
On the Air and on the Web
Before the pandemic, many churches were live streaming their services, while many others recorded the services (or just the sermons) for later posting as a podcasts or videocasts on their websites or Facebook pages. This was in addition to churches that broadcast services on television and radio.
After states posted restrictions on meetings, more churches began live-streaming, and most services are available for replay. Without an in-person service, only the pastor and a worship team appeared on camera. One well-known congregation in the Dallas, Texas, area - which already live streamed - replayed services from the year before.
Common platforms for live services are YouTube and Facebook, which are free. There are other live streaming services, most requiring paid subscriptions. Some platforms are specifically tailored for religious services.
Zooming in -
A number of churches are now holding online virtual services using virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom (the most used and best-known). Originally created for holding business meetings at a distance, these platforms let participants see and hear each other. They have been used effectively for online choirs, bands, and symphony orchestras, as well as online university classes. Thanks to coronavirus restrictions, these platforms are now used churches.
How do virtual meeting platforms operate? Invited participants sign in before the opening of the class or meeting. The screen is a mosaic of camera views. The users can see and hear each other, which is great for congregational singing, prayer requests, and testimonies. During messages and announcements, the moderator has the option of making only that speaker heard.
Horning in -
There are security issues with broadcasting over the Internet. Both live streaming and virtual meetings have been interrupted by hackers (taking over a Zoom meeting is called "Zoombombing"). A problem with business meetings and distance learning classes, it now is a problem with virtual religious services. Religion News Service (RNS) detailed a few examples and listed several others:
"A Shabbat service held via Zoom by a Bay Area synagogue was crashed by Nazis. A Unitarian Universalist church in Massachusetts saw a livestreamed service on YouTube deluged with dislikes. A livestreamed church service in Los Angeles was hacked and replaced with porn. A Zoom webinar last week with the People's Forum, an activist-oriented cultural space directed by theologian Claudia de la Cruz, was disrupted by a troll posting the n-word in the chat window repeatedly until administrators blocked him."
Obviously, it's safer to break into a virtual or live-streamed service than to physically enter the building as a mass protest - expulsion and arrest are more remote. However, there are measures which can be taken to make it less likely. Although Zoom has been faulted for insufficient security measures, there are steps a church can take to make their virtual meeting more secure, just as the church can improve its overall cyber security.
Locking the Zoom Gate -
First of all, since a virtual meeting goes through the church's Internet connection, ordinary cyber security should be followed, including having up-to-date anti-virus programs, and not opening phishing emails nor clicking on unverified links.
As to the virtual meeting itself, KTVQ, a Montana TV news station, has good advice:
"Do not make meetings or classrooms public. In Zoom, there are two options to make a meeting private: require a meeting password or use the waiting room feature and control the admittance of guests.
Do not share a link to a teleconference or classroom on an unrestricted publicly available social media post. Provide the link directly to specific people.
Manage screensharing options. In Zoom, change screensharing to "Host Only."/br> Ensure users are using the updated version of remote access/meeting applications. In January 2020, Zoom updated its software. In the security update, the teleconference software provider added passwords by default for meetings and disabled the ability to randomly scan for meetings to join. Lastly, ensure that your organization's telework policy or guide addresses requirements for physical and information security."
During every crisis, there are folks who try to take advantage of people and organizations (including churches) through fraud. Carefully screen all communications as to who they are really from. Become expert at spotting and rejecting scams.
Securing Remote Services -
No matter what means you use to make worship services available to those who cannot attend, you must do what you can to make it secure. At the minimum, an intrusion into a remote church service is embarrassing - the discomfort and inconvenience go up from there. What the Church Safety Ministry can do is stress the importance of cyber security and inform church administrators on how to do it.
Keeping the church and its members safe during the pandemic is more than just stopping infections. It also includes stopping those who would take advantage of the pandemic to victimize the church. Draw a line in the sand barring not only the virus, but criminals as well.
- Staff, "Considerations for Communities of Faith," Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Updated May 23, 2020 [https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/faith-based.html].
- Bailey Loosemore, "Kentucky church responds to 'unjust criticism' about revival at center of COVID-19 outbreak," Louisville Courier Journal, April 4, 2020; updated April 5, 2020 [https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2020/04/04/coronavirus-kentucky-hopkins-county-church-responds-criticism/2947251001/].
- Callie Stevens, "The Church Responds to COVID-19," Nazarene Compassion Ministries, April 23, 2020 [https://www.ncm.org/news/covid19].
- Sarah Lehr, "Williamston church offers drive-through confession during coronavirus pandemic," Lansing State Journal, May 11, 2020 [https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/2020/05/11/williamston-church-responds-pandemic-drive-up-confession/3108340001/].
- Dane Kelly, "Royal Oak church service hacked by person yelling racial slurs," WDIV 4 Click on Detroit, June 28, 2020 [https://www.clickondetroit.com/news/local/2020/06/29/royal-oak-church-service-hacked-by-people-yelling-racial-slurs/].
- Christina Evans, "Fort Myers church service hacked during live sermon," Fox4Now, September 7, 2020 [https://www.fox4now.com/news/america-in-crisis/fort-myers-church-service-hacked-during-live-sermon].
- Robert Willett, "Church holds drive-in service after Wake County eases restrictions," Raleigh News & Observer, April 19, 2020 [https://www.newsobserver.com/news/coronavirus/article242126026.html].
- WICS/WRSP Staff, "Local church installs Plexiglas between its pews," WICS/WRSP News Channel 20 (ABC), August 13, 2020 [https://newschannel20.com/news/local/local-church-installs-plexiglas-between-its-pews].
- Aysha Khan, "‘Zoombombing' comes for houses of worship," Religion News Service, March 30, 2020 [https://religionnews.com/2020/03/30/zoombombing-epidemic-comes-for-houses-of-worship/].
- Madeline Peltzer, "BLM Mob Repeatedly Attacks a Church in New York," Townhall, July 07, 2020 [https://townhall.com/tipsheet/madelinepeltzer/2020/07/07/blm-mob-repeatedly-attacks-a-church-in-new-york-n2572038].
- Russ Riesinger, "Billings church hacked with graphic images during Zoom worship service," MTN KTVQ Q2, May 4, 2020 [https://www.ktvq.com/news/coronavirus/billings-church-hacked-with-graphic-images-during-zoom-worship-service].