Church is Different Than Shopping

Around the country, pastors and people want to go back to church. Some are suing to overcome prohibitions and some are trying to convince elected leaders to loosen restrictions. Just today, Ed Stetzer posted an article on RNS titled: If Costco can reopen safely, why not Illinois churches, Gov. Pritzker?

In his article, Stetzer proclaims: “If Costco can make it work, so can the churches.”

Maybe they can. However, I want to point out that church is different than shopping at Costco.

Stetzer calls on us to use science in our decision making which is what I want to do. My thoughts are based partly on an excellent blog post by UMass Dartmouth Biology professor Erin Bromage. Bromage teaches courses on immunology and infectious diseases and has a research program in the evolution of the immune system.

My ideas here are also based on my experience as a church attender and a shopper. Having done both for much of my life, I can safely say that full participation in church and going shopping are different activities.

Church activities spread the virus

First, let me pick some relevant material from Bromage’s article. An important principle developed by Bromage is this:

Remember the formula: Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time

To get to this principle, Bromage discusses the ways humans spread a virus. We spread it most efficiently by sneezing and coughing, but we also spread it by speaking and breathing. Sneezing and coughing expels hundreds of millions of viral particles, so it is easy enough to understand why sick people should stay home. They shouldn’t go to church or shop.

But let’s take speaking since that is done in church a lot but not as much in the grocery store, especially these days. Bromage estimates it takes about 5 minutes of face-to-face speaking to transmit enough virus to make an infection possible. Church meeting supporters might complain that we all will be wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. Well, if you really will, then that will help. However, there is the variable of time in Bromage’s formula.

When people are shopping in Costco and many grocery stores, they are moving around in large open spaces. They go in, do their shopping, and leave. That is not how people do church. They go in, sing (more about that in a minute), talk, and sit and listen to a 30-50 minute sermon, stand around and talk some more and then leave, often in a smaller room. Sitting around for a couple of hours with a super spreader in the room isn’t like shopping in Costco.

Bromage describes several instances of how infections spread in restaurants, work places, sports venues, parties, and choir practice.

For instance, Bromage summarizes a case where a single carrier infected most of a choir in a Washington city even though the community choir members took certain precautions during their practice. The thing many Christians love to do in church that they don’t do in Costco is sing. Bromage describes how singing spreads the virus:

Singing, to a greater degree than talking, aerosolizes respiratory droplets extraordinarily well. Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place. Over a period of 4 days, 45 of the 60 choir members developed symptoms, 2 died. The youngest infected was 31, but they averaged 67 years old.

Recall Bromage’s formula: infection equals exposure x time.

Bromage describes a restaurant scenario where an infected person at one table led to infections in people sitting at adjacent tables. The airflow in the room apparently carried low levels of virus to the people sitting at the adjacent table. Churches could work around this as we move into summer, but not if they don’t know how church is different than shopping.

Public Health v. Civil Rights

In a crisis, it is easy to get polarized and I have been pleasantly surprised at how well evangelicals have followed good practices in moving to online services. Of late, however, more voices have arisen suggesting that churches have a right to meet and that if people can gather in shops, they should be able to gather in church. As I point out, these are not similar activities.

If one looks at church activities and commercial activities through a civil rights lens only, then one could make a case that there shouldn’t be any discrimination. However, looking at these activities through a public health lens, there are important differences which place a burden on churches (or any group) to demonstrate how they will address the problems inherent in their activities.

If churches are going to meet, then they need to take this information into account. They need to spread people out, consider not singing for long sets (if at all), and having shorter sermons (finally!). Outdoor services might be an option in some locations. Online messages throughout the week should be available. Who said everything must be done on Sunday?

In any case, I hope it is clear that a public health lens isn’t designed to discriminate against religion. Church is different than shopping. Isn’t that a good thing?


22 thoughts on “Church is Different Than Shopping”

  1. “…having shorter sermons (finally)”. Ouch, Throckmorton, that really stings. If your ivories were nearby, you can bet what I would do to them.

    Your points are well-taken, though my suspicion is that many/most churches and churchgoers will take a lot of these factors into account. I don’t expect many churches to go quickly back to “business as usual”. The singing thing is what I expect to be most problematic, potentially.

  2. I am glad you highlighted this. Church, the way we have been traditionally doing it, is not and it has not been epidemiologically safe. To me it has become very clear over the last decade that church, as we call it, has been about having a good social club with a great deal of passivity, too much expected of the head pastor, and just generally about pleasing someone else who is definitely not God. This group singing thing generally has nothing to do at all with actual worship. You do not need a band, a choir, or a “worship leader” to do that. You do not even need music. You can worship God with thankfulness and gratefulness any time rather you are alone or with people. If it requires a group before you even want to do it, then something is certainly wrong there.

    What I try to keep pointing out to Christians is to stop looking at this from the point of view of your own belly button (how is this affecting me and mine) and start looking at it from a God point of view. Why is this happening now? Why has God shut down almost all physical services all over the world at once? This is an exceptional event. Are we just going to ignore that? If God loves choirs and our current form of worship, then why did he allow this choir to get sick and two people to die? If we refuse to ask bigger questions just because we do not like where the answers might be headed, are we not like an ostrich with its head in the sand during a time of true trouble and danger?

  3. Gene Veith and the other hyper-conservative Lutherans at are trying to convince folks that it’s OK to sing in church.

    That, despite the evidence:

    From the end of March:
    “A choir decided to go ahead with rehearsal. Now dozens of members have COVID-19 and two are dead.”

    And just reported a couple of days ago:
    “On March 8, five days before lockdown, the Amsterdam Gemengd Koor (mixed choir) gave a performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the great hall of the Concertgebouw. That concert will be remembered for many tragic reasons.”
    “It was announced on Dutch news last night that four people associated with the chorus – one singer and three partners of chorus members – died of Coronavirus after the concert, and 102 more fell sick, some seriously.”
    “The chorus has 130 singers in all.”

  4. One of the most appalling aspects of church “civil disobedience” has been the busing in of large numbers of the congregation, especially given the fact that those who without their own transportation are typically among the most vulnerable to the virus. Church leaders have a duty of pastoral care to their members, and those who are intent on holding their services in person are simply more interested in the photo op than in the health and well being of their members, however much they deny it.

    As a Methodist growing up in the UK at a time where church rolls were falling, I attended plenty of services where there were fewer than twenty people in the congregation. If churches really want to conduct in-person services, they can mitigate the majority of the risk by placing strict limits on attendance, allowing for people (or family groups) to be 20 feet apart, or more. Simply stage more services throughout the day (and Saturday as well, if necessary) and provide an online booking system to ensure everyone gets a spot. There’s also no need for an entire band or choir to be present, just a pianist and a soloist, if desired.

    Sure, a congregation of 20 in a medium sized church or 50 in an auditorium won’t be the same experiential moment a full church can give you, but it’s been the weekly reality for millions of Christians around the world for years already, so if the big American churches cannot countenance holding services without their mass choirs and full-on concert-level productions, then one has to question what motivates people to go there in the first place.

    1. My educated guess is that a lot of that is what will be happening. Our church is going from one service to two, with chairs (thankfully we don’t have pews) spaced a good bit apart; I imagine we will be taking some other steps beyond just re-doing the seating arrangements. And we aren’t going back soon; haven’t set a date yet. Yes, you will have some irresponsible people who care more about their rights than their responsibilities, the antithesis of a Christlike sentiment. But I do think a significant percentage, likely a strong majority, will take steps that they think necessary to ensure safety.

  5. Some the German lands have allowed churches to reopen, but with strict social distancing measures in place. In the picture, Federal President Steinmeier is seen attending Mass in Berlin.

    One measure that has been included (in all lands where churches have reopened, I believe) is a prohibition on congregational singing; it would appear that they are taking on board some of what Bromage is saying about just how easily SARS-CoV-2 can be passed from person to person.

    I am very pleased for my brothers and sisters in Germany (and hope and pray that there will be no serious upsurge in infection rates in those German lands) but do not think we are yet ready in either the UK or (many parts of) the USA physically to ‘go back to church’; after all, Germany has dealt so much better with the pandemic than have both the USA and the UK, whose ‘effects’ have, compared with Germany’s, been capricious and chaotic.

    1. The average age of my parents’ church in the UK is approaching 70. It would be absolute carnage if the virus got loose in there during a service. At the age of 90, my parents likely won’t be back there until the threat is gone, which at this stage, looks like it’s going to need a vaccine to accomplish.

      1. When they reopen, churches will need to think very carefully about how they should serve the older and more vulnerable members of their congregations. Before the UK lockdown began, I informally floated with others at the church I attend the idea that we should develop what I termed a ‘rota-representative’ system, whereby some of us attended church in turn ‘on behalf of the whole community’. Maybe this is what will happen in many places once churches begin to reopen in England in July. And there would need to be a consistent commitment by ‘attenders’ to communicating with people who were effectively unable to attend, with each ‘attender’ committing to maintaining a regular line of communication with a number of other members of the church family.

        As you suggest, a safe and efficacious vaccine is some way off; my own view is that the first ‘breakthrough’ will be some kind of pre-exposure prophylaxis …

        1. It shouldn’t be that hard for the ‘attenders’ to set up a video link (i.e. phone apps of some sort) for all of the others they represent to remotely “attend” the service. Churches could even encourage this by setting up cell phone holders on the backs of pews.

          1. That would be one way of making sure as many people as possible were included. I do know of some at our church who lack the technology or the confidence to use it, so there would need to be other ways as well.

          2. I suspect a better (for the viewers) and more practical solution is for the denominations to teach their ministers how to set up the Zoom app on a single phone with a good quality video camera (e.g. a recent flagship) and have everyone connect in that way. It’s very easy to setup — my parents’ minister has already held a coffee morning via Zoom.

            That way you can ensure a decent camera position for watching the sermon, etc.

            Ideally, a proper video camera could be used and the service posted on YouTube, better quality, but that would involve more technical knowhow — though I suspect all but the smallest churches would have someone in the congregation who can do it.

          3. One thing our church is planning is to go to a Zoom (or other similar setup) permanently. My guess is that a lot of churches will be doing this, so that those who don’t feel comfortable getting out can at least have that experience. That’s a good thing!

  6. Despite the title and pull quote, Stetzer’s article seems quite reasonable and irenic, and not incompatible with what Throckmorton says here. “Let’s work with the government to figure out how to make church meetings work safely, rather than wait for a long-off Phase Five.”

    1. That’s true. In fact, Ed retweeted this post with a recommendation to read it. He is definitely in the let’s work together camp. I think the Bromage article was new info to him though.

  7. I certainly sympathize with worshipers who want churches to return to the status quo ante. I am not a person of faith, but I was raised Catholic, meaning mandatory attendance or damnation. Other faiths are more communal than Catholic churches, and certainly more celebratory. In many communities church is the primary unifying institution, as well as the center of community life. So having to forego services has to be devastating.

    If churches are to hold services with their congregations, though, it has to be safe for all, and by all I mean everyone, not just the faithful. As I said, I’m not a person of faith, and I’m going stark raving mad “sheltering in place”. I expect it is much harder for those for whom church is the center of their lives. But dyin’ ain’t no kind of livin’, as someone said in some movie, so hard as it is, safety must be paramount.

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