In worshiping we celebrate and experience the gift of salvation from God in Jesus Christ. Although it is tempting to think of that salvation solely in terms of forgiveness of sin and eternal life in heaven, the salvation we receive as a gift is also for the sake of our abundant life every day.
But how do we encounter that gift of abundant life in times of sickness? The Latin root of salvation is salus, which means “health” or “wholeness.” That is, the gift of salvation is a gift of healing and wholeness, comfort in times of suffering, and love embodied in the community of faith. These are gifts that we encounter in worship and in which we experience the presence of God in word and sacrament, and hear the promise of salvation.
In any time when ELCA congregations fear the possibility of a pandemic, it may seem practical to avoid the risk of contagion inherent in any gathering of people, including worship. However, the gift of salvation — of wholeness and healing — urges us to come together to experience the body of Christ wherein there is healing and wholeness.
Paradoxically, Lutherans search for wholeness and healing in a place of community where many would point to the risk of contamination and the spread of pathogens. Rather than seeing one another as carriers of sickness that may infect our individual bodies, we are boldly gathered together as the body of Christ for the sake of the salvation of the world.
Yet our lives are full of the paradox of living fully in the presence of God while also living fully in the world with its dangers and risks. In times of public health dangers, local worshiping communities need to make decisions about worship practice that reflect both the nature and meaning of the assembly at worship and make sense in their communal reality.
How should congregations make decisions about their worship life in times of public health concerns?
Here is some guidance:
Common sense should prevail as the community gathers for worship in order to avoid the unnecessary exposure of others to pathogens while maintaining the integrity of the meaning, gestures and actions of the body of Christ assembled for worship.
Most importantly, encourage those who are ill with the flu — clergy or laity — to stay home. In a leader’s absence, the community will be adaptable to changes in leadership.
The passing of the peace is an integral way that the assembly recognizes the presence of Christ in their midst. It is a powerful moment that should not be overwhelmed by fear and eliminated from the worship service.
The presider can suggest how the assembly could greet one another in ways that capture the significance of the gesture while minimizing the risk of sharing disease. The verbal greeting paired with a reverent bow or another appropriate gesture may be suggested. Alternatively, congregations may offer hand sanitizers for use by the assembly after the passing of the peace by placing sanitizer bottles at the ends of pews, in pew racks or under chairs.
Formed into a single body of Christ around the table, in Holy Communion we taste the promises of sustenance, healing and forgiveness as a community. We are joined to the body of Christ to be the body of Christ for the sake of the world — a mission that involves responding to the needs of the hurting and broken community. When we gather for the meal, we do so publicly with a confident faith, not cowering in fear.
But the actions of sharing communion in worship are at the center of our concerns about sickness. Again, common-sense precautions that honor the sacrament and minimize unnecessary risk of infection should be considered by each worshiping community.
- Servers of the meal wash their hands before distributing the elements.
- All communion vessels are washed in hot water with disinfectant soap following each use.
- The options for serving bread and wine are considered in order to balance both the significance of communion and health concerns.
- If individuals are particularly hesitant about the communion elements for health reasons, assure them that the crucified and risen Christ is fully present in the one element of the body (wafer). (See The Use of the Means of Grace, Application 44C.)
Fellowship may also be affected during times of heightened public health concern At these times, worship leaders should avoid the practice of shaking hands with every member of the assembly after the service. As in the sharing of the peace during worship, encourage gestures of greeting that avoid shaking hands. Teach about and practice hospitality.
If the congregation suspends the practice of leaders greeting worshipers at the door, be sure to create other avenues for communication that are easily accessible for members of the community. (Those who stand at the door of the church and attempt to keep track of everything shared after worship will thank you!)
When serving food, find ways to limit the number of hands that touch serving utensils. Respect those who avoid close-quarter gatherings of people in times of sickness.
The ELCA has provided a short statement for use by congregations titled “Worship Resources and Prayers: Times of Public Health Concerns.” This statement, along with another resource, “Prayers for Times of Public Health Crisis,” are available as pdf documents.