Resources, ideas to protect worshipers from coronavirus

By John W. Coleman

Churches are planning and taking steps to protect themselves from the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus by revamping their worship and fellowship practices.

All persons, especially those who are elderly or have vulnerable medical conditions, should heed public advice to avoid attending worship and all other events. Persons of all ages who interact with others should conscientiously avoid hugs, handshakes and kisses in greeting one another, choosing instead to touch elbows or not touch at all. No one should feel offended if someone doesn’t want to join them in a hug or handshake, but they should instead show similar restraint.

Churches should consider not celebrating Holy Communion for awhile; but if they do, they should use individual, wrapped wafers and single-serve cups. Foregoing face-to-face worship, meetings and fellowship gatherings to limit social contact is all part of what’s called “social distancing,” a term that might otherwise seem unfriendly. But in fact, it’s a potentially lifesaving decision that heeds Jesus’ command to love one another as we love ourselves.

Bishop Elaine Stanovsky offers more good advice in her recent blog article, Stop the spread of Covid-19 in church. She leads the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area (encompassing the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho, and Pacific Northwest annual conferences).

I encourage all United Methodists, wherever you gather, to take these reasonable precautions, consistent with the advice of the World Health Organization:

  • Stay home when you don’t feel well. Model this behavior and encourage others to do the same.
  • Download and post Advice for Public from the World Health Organization in all restrooms and kitchens.
  • 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. Encourage people to take the hand sanitizer with them when they leave. Then make sure it is replenished. Invite a church member to volunteer to monitor this as a gift to the health of the church. 
  • Encourage everyone to observe a 4-foot distance from others. Maybe suggest a new gesture of greeting, like folding your hands over your heart and then opening them palms out and down toward another person — in a sign of connection, rather than palms out and up, which might indicate separation.
  • Check the World Health Organization website and local health sites for new public notices, publicize them.

Video alternatives to onsite worship

One of Stanovsky’s pastors,the Rev. Jeremy Smith, serves First UMC in Seattle, Wash., the first area in the U.S. to be hard-hit by the virulent COVID-19. He blogs as UMJEREMY about faith, technology, internet theory, and “geeky topics.” (Click here to learn more.) Smith recently published two helpful articles found on the Hacking Christianity blog site popular among United Methodists and others.

One offers general ideas for protecting congregants from the spreading coronavirus. The other recommends steps to begin livestreaming worship services, which more churches may do if church attendance declines or they are forced to cancel onsite worship services and other events altogether. These are good, worthwhile reads.

Moreover, UM Communications has at least two articles about video livestreaming that might be helpful to some. Simply streaming with Facebook Live on one’s smartphone may seem to be the easiest, more affordable solution for some. But Eric Seiberling’s article recommends ways to ensure an enhanced livestreaming production, albeit with more costs, expertise and labor involved. And don’t forget to consider music and liturgy copyright restrictions and permissions when livestreaming full worship services.

In addition, more churches should consider using conference calls or, preferably, videoconferencing for Bible studies and meetings. They may work temporarily for small-congregation worship also, but not as well as livestreaming.

Zoom may be the most popular videoconferencing solution partly because it does not require downloading software onto one’s computer to participate in a Zoom session. The free version is limited to 40-minute sessions; so, a paid-subscription may be a better option for many.

Skype is one of several other popular choices that do require downloading software. You can read about some of these and find comparisons easily online.

Also, be sure to read and share “The Ten Commandments for Coronavirus Prevention in Faith Communities” by the Rev. Kevin Murriel, pastor of Cascade UMC in Atlanta, Ga.