Craig Story is professor of biology at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. In addition to his teaching, he has worked with church leaders and seminary professors on issues related to biology and Christian faith.
Even as a biologist who has studied viruses and immunology, it took a global pandemic for me to realize the true effectiveness of specific hygiene practices to lower illness spread. There is little doubt that church settings provide an almost ideal location for the spread of contagion of all kinds. Churches in ages past responded to changing public health needs, most notably during the 1918 flu pandemic; even the HIV/AIDS crisis spurred research on Communion practices. Churches can and will endure hardships of all kinds, and with COVID-19 still spreading around the world, many pastors are already figuring out ways to adapt.
Congregational singing is getting most of the attention today, but there are so many other opportunities to spread contagious illness at church. The moment you enter, a greeter offers a warm handshake; then church members enthusiastically exchange the passing of the peace with a touch, handshake, or hug. Next, an usher circulates the offering plate around, and then—everyone partakes in Communion.
Will the lessons we are learning now lead to permanent changes in church practices? It’s an interesting question, and only time will tell.
Like all of us, pastors hope to open their churches this summer, but many I’ve met in my work with the science-faith organization BioLogos are taking a cautious attitude and plan to follow official government guidelines, which continue to evolve, before deciding on a precise course of action. Andrew Smith, a pastor in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, mentioned the likelihood of not holding a separate children’s ministry and said, “we’ll probably look at two services instead of one to allow for social distancing.” Alex Burgess of Ward Hill, Massachusetts, and Steve North of Grand Rapids, Michigan, both mentioned holding outdoor services, weather permitting. During the 1918 pandemic, the benefits of being outdoors was widely discussed and debated among the medical community. Massachusetts Surgeon General William A. Brooks said the efficacy of open-air treatment was “absolutely proven,” and outdoor hospitals were implemented widely.
But would going outdoors really solve the issue? The degree to which ventilation and direction of air currents contributes to spread COVID-19 from a single infectious individual received attention, most notably in a “viral” post by fellow University of Massachusetts Dartmouth biology professor Erin Bromage, which was based on another more lengthy analysis. While it does make sense to scientists that the outdoors would be an improvement over an enclosed area, churches should follow the latest scientific information as it develops on the most effective ways to minimize airborne spread. In the meantime, efforts to avoid exposure to an infective dose is a numbers game, and each small action—such as meeting outdoors—can help minimize how much exposure, if any, a person has to viral particles.
The masked singer comes to church
Photographs from the great influenza pandemic of 1918 show widespread mask-wearing among the populace, just like today. Scientists then understood far less about the cause, and yet most churches during the flu pandemic did what churches should be doing now: They followed guidance informed by data on the best course of action. The 1918 flu went through a series of waves after the initial surge and was controlled by tried-and-true methods of social distancing and mask-wearing. Then as now, areas of the country that relax the most and the earliest will likely experience the strongest upsurges.
Consider the sicknesses that go around every year. Shouldn’t each of us have been doing more to minimize spreading them? Wearing a mask is a gesture of concern for others during a time when an illness is raging, and at this moment it seems obvious that anyone with a sick household member should wear a mask.
In Asian countries, it is common to see people wearing face masks out in public. This has especially been true since the SARS outbreak and 2006 H5N1 flu warnings. The complex reasons for mask-wearing in Asian countries reportedly started with seasonal use in Japan to avoid illness spread but grew to incorporate traditional Asian beliefs about air quality, among other things.
But when was the last time you put on a cloth mask when you had a cold? I never have. Could mask-wearing when sick become a normal part of life in more of the world? Maybe in the future new normal, we will all do more to prevent the normal spread of illness to our friends, neighbors, and grocery store workers.
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Source: Christianity Today