Worship in Virus/Flu Season


UPDATED - 3/16/20

On March 15, the Center for Disease Control recommended that for the next 8 weeks, throughout the U.S., organizers cancel or postpone in-person events that involve 50 people or more. Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi will issue a statement on hope-filled ways United Methodists can offer ministry during this season. Updated CDC info on Mass Gatherings is at https://www.cdc.gov/…/mass-gatherings-ready-for-covid-19.ht…

With the number of Coronavirus 2019 (COVID19) cases increasing in the U.S., churches in Western PA and across the nation are modifying worship practices and scheduleds to guard against spreading disease. In the Pittsburgh area, some churches have cancelled regular worship and are opting instead for some form of online service. 

Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi emailed pastors and key local church leaders on March 11 with a list of recommended practices and resources compiled by Dr. Jessica Price, chair of the Conference Abundant Health Team. The Bishop said: "Because our annual conference covers many different communities with different levels of potential risk, it would not be prudent for us to make a unilateral decision about church activities.  Please pay attention to the recommendations of your local government and health department officials and use common sense and a spirit of consultation in making those decisions."

Not only is the flu season in full swing with viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs, but  a respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus COVID19, first detected in China in late 2019, has spread worldwide and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. Cases across the U.S. including Pennsylvania continued to rise. For info specific to Pennsylvania, visit health.pa.gov/topics/disease/Pages/Coronavirus.aspx

Most experts say that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. The droplets can land on people nearby.  Covid 19 also appears to be spread person-to-person within 6 feet of each other, from sneeze or cough droplets, or by touching a surface that has the virus on it.  

Leading public health and infectious disease experts have called for "social distancing", avoiding close contact with others. A article published by the Boston-based health partnership Ariadne Labs explains the reasons and some practical examples of what to do for families.

The following suggestions from a variety of sources, including UMC Discipleship Ministries, may help to limit the chances of spreading the virus in churches:

What to Do:

  1. Ask the congregation to pass the peace and greet others without skin to skin contact. 
    The major ways people catch this flu are through skin to skin contact and through airborne particles (coughs and sneezes).
  2. Remind ushers and greeters to hold doors open for people to limit spread of virus on public surfaces.
  3. Wash your hands before you touch food you will share with others. 
    This simple directive has long been practiced in most cultures and has an honored place in historical Christian worship as well in the use of the lavabo, a basin for Communion presiders and servers to wash hands. If having water present is problematic or awkward, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer containing alcohol. 
  4. Receive the bread from servers who have washed or used sanitizer on their hands.
    This has actually been the instruction in every official ritual the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations have published. We all receive from others, rather than taking the bread for ourselves. 
  5. If you use intinction, have those serving the cup tilt it slightly toward those receiving so no one needs to dip their fingers into the juice/wine to receive.
    This takes a bit of skill. Practice with your servers beforehand if they have not done this before, using water in the cup. Then wash the cups and get ready to celebrate!
  6. Be sure alcohol-based hand sanitizer is readily available throughout your facilities, for example, alongside boxes of tissue in sanctuary pews, and in every room.  Then make sure it is replenished. Invite a church member to volunteer to monitor this as a gift to the health of the church. 
  7. If flu or Coronavirus is spreading rapidly in your area, consider alternate means of receiving the offering without passing the plate from person to person. (baskets near the entrances to the sanctuary, for example.)
  8. Keep up with information and advice from the World Health Organization  and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Share their printable flyers and resources.

What Not to Do:

  1. Do NOT come to worship if you are sick with something you can easily spread to others.
    That applies to pastors, worship leaders, and the congregation. There are no special "Brownie Points" awarded for showing up at worship, work, or anywhere else when you can spread what you have. Stay home. Take care of yourself. And get well. Then come to worship and thank God for helping you recover.
  2. If you are well and able to come to worship, do not fear germs more than you love Jesus!
    Unless your own immune system is seriously compromised, don't bother with face masks, latex gloves, or other medical paraphernalia that give the impression that worship may be an unsafe place to be or that the elements of blessed bread and wine we share may be more physically dangerous than holy. If your immune system IS seriously compromised, consider staying home and letting others extend the Lord's Table to you. 
  3. Do not cough or sneeze on others. 
    If you have a cough or are likely to sneeze, practice making it a habit to grab a tissue and cover your mouth each time. Then, if you're in an area where an infectious disease is spreading rapidly, excuse yourself to wash your hands at the earliest convenient time. Remember, it is airborne particles (from coughing and sneezing) and skin to skin contact (if you have these particles on your hand) that are by far the most likely means to transmit flu and other infectious agents.
  4. Do not use little disposable cups or disposable "all-in-one" packages of elements for Communion (pop-top Jesus?), thinking these might be safer.
    They aren't safer. It's not just what's inside that's the problem. It's what's outside -- the cups or sets themselves and all the people who will inevitably have touched these things without washing their hands before you do. Neither the containers themselves nor the outside of these containers can be kept sterile. 
  5. Be not afraid!
    This bears repeating. When we gather for worship, we are there to offer ourselves in praise, thanksgiving, and joy to our God, in songs, prayers, dance, art, music, drama, and with water, Scripture, bread and wine. The perfect love of God who meets us here casts out all fear.

As of March 10, 2020, the CDC reported:  While information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild, a report out of China suggests serious illness occurs in 16% of cases. Older people and people of all ages with severe underlying health conditions — like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness.

In many U.S. cities and communities, local authorities imposed restrictions to contain a flare-up of COVID19,  saying congregations (or other groups) with more than 50 attendees, should not gather. Some have moved to online worship. Rev. Jeremy Smith, a UMC elder serving in Seattle, posted some suggestions for how to pull together an online service in his Hacking Christianity blog.