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COVID-19 and the Church: An Emergency Physician’s Thoughts

Author’s Note: I am an Emergency Medicine Resident and a Resident Representative for the Christian Medical and Dental Association. My Wife, Elizabeth, works as a Pediatric Oncology Nurse and we are members of our local church The Oaks. The Views expressed here to not reflect my residency or employer but are my own.

The Present Days

Recently I went to work and the change in climate was undeniable. There was an eerie feeling in the air. You could feel the apprehension and the questions that were running through people’s minds. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to call the Emergency Department(ED) my place of work.

Many consider this the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. I currently have some of my closet friends stationed in the specialized part of the ED dedicated to this outbreak. The nature of where I work means I have been hyper-aware of everything that is being said about COVID-19—from scientists, doctors, public health officials, friends, churches, pastors, leaders or anyone else who is saying anything. I have been listening. The talk has ranged from panic, dismissal, calm, rejection of fear, outright fear or trepidation.

Many of these frustrate me because it seems scripture calls us to walk through crises in a different way. Scripture models people walking with wisdom marked by a calm anchored by God and a deep concern for peoples well being (Phil 4:6-7, 2 Cor 4:16-18 ,Gal 6:9, Mat 10:16)/ We should not run headfirst into a pandemic unprotected, ignoring the information we have gathered, assuming God will impart invincibility to us. We also should not hide being crippled by anxiety. I want to touch on a few facts before we talk about ways we can respond.

The Facts

COVID-19 is a virus. Viruses are not technically living things but self-replicating proteins. A different way to think about this is as a robot whose sole job is to build more robots exactly like itself.

COVID-19 as a special affinity for attaching to people’s lungs which is why the main symptoms are cough and difficulty breathing. This virus is extremely contagious. More contagious than the normal seasonal flu. This virus is most likely spreads through “droplets” which means little drops of fluid that we spew into the air when we cough or sneeze. This is why surgical masks help prevent the spread. The masks catch droplets as they leave people’s mouths.

The N95 masks everyone talks about are for Airborne viruses. COVID-19 is not airborne unless you are involved in very specific things in health care that mechanically force particles of the virus into the air (like placing patients on breathing machines that force air into the lungs). (If you want a source that is a medical review of the topic, view this: https://emcrit.org/ibcc/covid19/)

The reason everyone is so concerned about this virus is for 3 reasons.

  1. It is extremely contagious.
  2. It is very mild for the vast majority of people (80%), but very deadly to people who are at risk (age above 60 and any certain chronic conditions).
  3. The potential to overwhelm the capabilities of our healthcare system nationwide.

Again, this virus will likely affect many people, but most people will not feel very ill. A minority of patients are at a very high risk of being very ill. The goal of the public health response right now is to slow the spread and protect at-risk people. If we can do this, it will help minimize those who get sick and avoid overwhelming our healthcare resources as well as protect those that have the highest likelihood of being critically ill or dying.

This prevention is called “flattening the curve”. The goal is to ensure that as cases come the people who become ill can all be cared for by the healthcare system (Chart via OurWorldinData.org)

 

Why this matters for the Church

The reason this is so important for the church to understand is we regularly gather with people of all ages in close proximity. We are drawn and called to close community and sharing meals. These are marks of our way of life.

We need to understand our response to this virus is not to avoid becoming sick ourselves but to protect the highest-risk people among us. The church is a force in the world as such we have the power to change the spread of this virus. This also matters for the church because it is revealing how we respond to threats that we don’t fully understand.

CDC Resource for Churches: ttps://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/guidance-community-faith-organizations.html

In Church History

This is not the first time the modern Church has faced outbreaks.

In London in 1854, there was an outbreak of Cholera, which is caused by bacteria. At the time there much confusion at the time about how it was spread and even whether bacteria existed at all.

During this outbreak, the theory of Germs even existing was finally accepted. Charles Spurgeon was a pastor in London during this outbreak. During this time, he altered how he conducted business, but he continued to minister. Importantly, he continued to care for those around him and preach the Gospel. He said this below during a cholera outbreak:

And now, again, is the minister’s time; and now is the time for all of you who love souls. You may see men more alarmed than they are already; and if they should be, mind that you avail yourselves of the opportunity of doing them good. You have the Balm of Gilead; when their wounds smart, pour it in. You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him. Lift high the cross before their eyes. Tell them that God became man that man might be lifted to God. Tell them of Calvary, and its groans, and cries, and sweat of blood. Tell them of Jesus hanging on the cross to save sinners. Tell them that.

See Also

Spurgeon saw the fear and around him and knew they only source that would speak to the soul of people. He did draw people to being fearless in the midst of an outbreak but drew them to a greater hope.

How we respond

We are called to have eyes wide open, to see the facts, meet them with wisdom, seek God’s guidance and follow his word. The Bible is not a medical textbook, but I would say it speaks more on the state of our souls than anything ever could. There is a significant difference between panic and appropriate response.

Panic likes to avoid reason and instead succumbs to truths that our security is our ultimate goal. Appropriate responses have us know that as Christians we should be wise stewards of what is around us. Canceling gatherings, for example, is not panic but a serious decision to be weighed carefully and found to be necessary when the facts tell us gathering could put more people at risk.

As a Christian who is a doctor, with his Bible open and prayer ongoing, this is what I am doing. I am absorbing all that I can to care for the people I will be charged to care for in the coming weeks. I am not panicking, but I am seeking to understand the weight of the burden this disease is causing. I am not gathering with large groups of people because I want to protect them from any potential exposures I may have. I am continuing to talk with my church community to give and receive encouragement and truth. I want to continue to interact with my church while not being able to gather at our church. So how should we all respond?

I don’t have all of the answers to this and there are many wiser people who have already spoken but here are 4 suggestions:

Have a deep concern for the well-being of all people trying to ensure not one more person dies of this virus (Col 3:12-17).

    1. The idea that we should not have a spirit of fear does not mean we should not have an appropriate spirit of wise response. Fear does not drive our decisions but available information and a concern for the sanctity of all life should.
    2. We are being ask to follow social distancing directives to slow the spread of the virus but if we are ever called to serve the sick in person let us be the first to volunteer. Understand that right now social distancing is as much an act of service to those at risk than being at their side.

Care for those in your church and neighborhood who are at high risk (1 John 4: 17-21).

    1. Make sure they have the food, groceries and medicine they need as they may be scared to go get these things on their own and see if you can drop off groceries or needed supplies at their door for them
    2. Understand that loving people right now might involve more inaction than action. We often think serving the sick means being at the bedside, but this time is different. We are trying to prevent people from ever being sick by not being at their side. Distance during viral pandemics can be a gift. Pray for people, talk with them and be with them from distance. Let us be flexible and creative enough to still love people in ways that do not cause the spread of disease.

Follow the guidance of the Health Care Response to not gather remembering the church is not a building but God’s people. t. 

    1. Connect in different ways, online sermons, devotionals, prayer calls, text groups. In times such as these, we can be the church without being in a church.

Let our voice be one of calm preparedness that rests on Christ.

    1. Christianity never promises we will not get sick, but it does promise we will have a security greater than our health (Romans 5:3-5, 2 Corinthians 1:8–9).

As we walk through these days let us always know that Christ is not a savior who is unaware of our suffering. With Christ joining us together, we have the opportunity to shine as the Church, united as one people, in these days, to honor our leaders, and experience more deeply that the Church is more than a building. Amid the pandemic let us be marked with wisdom, calm and peace. Please pray those serving on the front lines of health care for wisdom, rest, and strength. Right now, we can help people through adhering to social distancing so we can slow the spread of if this pandemic but let us have hearts that are ready to serve in person if this pandemic worsens. 

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