Social Distancing and Community — the Dilemma of Re-opening Churches

The problem of re-opening society, to begin recovery and mitigate the rolling economic disaster, is complex. In the United States, we presently lack sufficient testing capability, so the authorities cannot adequately know where current infections are and quickly identify new ones to prevent re-accelerating the contagion rate. And because we currently have no vaccine, the ability to broadly detect, contact trace, isolate, and quarantine is then a necessary prerequisite to restoring public confidence in returning to our former social habits.

Nonetheless, for understandable economic reasons, the Trump Administration has been pushing to re-open society. And state governments have either resonated with, or resisted, this desire, based on two basic things: 1) amount of COVID-19 happening in their state, and 2) political ideology of the mayors, governors, and state legislatures. So, there will be inconsistent timing for re-openings across the country. And there will likely be varying degrees of specificity in governmental guidance on just how the various businesses and organizations should implement effective social distancing when they re-open.

One of the most significant institutions Americans wish to see re-opened is the local church. In theory churches ought to be among the last organizations allowed, due to the amount of human interaction and thus higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. However, there is also likely to be significant groundswell to get churches re-opened soon, as church participation is a core value for many Americans. Already there has been an initiative calling on churches to re-open on May 3. And, while I write from an American perspective, re-opening religious institutions is of course a world-wide consideration. Different countries will have different timing and guidelines, but eventually local church leadership will need to consider how this can properly be done, for their specific situations.

In considering what to do, it is important to recognize that the goals of: 1) social distance, and 2) community are almost completely in opposition. Think about what the primary values of church attendance are for participants. There is, of course, religious information (sermons) and discussion (Sabbath or Sunday School). There is worship of God — a personal experience that hopefully is enhanced by the proximity of fellow believers. Local church leaders can probably mostly succeed in retaining such information/worship goals under social distance constraints, albeit with some logistical difficulty. But it will be much harder to succeed at the other, core value of church attendance — community. Ideally, this requires proximity. And, depending on one’s subculture, sometimes a lot of proximity. Hugs and handshakes. Sharing a meal. A packed lobby with kids running everywhere. Lots of talking and laughing. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to recognize this as a (perhaps the) central need and purpose of church attendance.

But now church leaders must also implement a social distancing goal if their congregations are to re-open responsibly. How can this be done without also doing serious damage to community? And, given that various church members will have (perhaps widely) varying understandings and commitments to social distancing, how does leadership manage their cooperation? There will be some — outliers, perhaps — who will not obey whatever restrictions are formulated to prevent the church experience from becoming a contagion free-for-all. But then compliance and risk mitigation is only as good as the weakest links.

To see how complex and messy this might be, consider this starter list of problems local leadership likely must plan for, prior to opening:

1. Children

You’re not going to sufficiently explain social distancing to kids, such that they will rationally cooperate. Church for them presumably involves running around, seeking out and playing with friends, and generally having a good time. It also has organized activities like Sabbath School and Children’s Story that formerly included lots of mingling. Adults will somehow have to seriously restructure all of this and tightly supervise, or expect the kids to continue behaving as they always have. But now that would make them primary transmission vehicles. Yet to rein them into the necessary restrictive paths would probably result in the kids being very unhappy at this unfamiliar, constrained experience. And I’d expect they would be quite vocal (the younger, the louder) about such a change. And an unhappy child doesn’t make for a happy parent. It might not take much for the parents to conclude that their kids’ experience, which likely was a net-positive for church attendance in the past, would now be a big net-negative. Perhaps to the point where parents would stop coming due to the aggravation.

2. Elderly and at-risk members

Under conditions of no vaccine and inadequate testing — unfortunately normative for many months to come — some members either will not attend and expose themselves to an increased danger, or should be discouraged from attending, as leadership recognizes they would be at excessive risk. Either way, the church would and/or should expect a subset of membership to not come back unless/until the community is adequately safe from infection hazard. Multiple problems arise from this. One is that this group often is in leadership roles and cannot resume them in the near term. And, in smaller congregations, including those essentially on “life support,” this subset could be so large as to make re-opening essentially impossible, or not worth it. There would be too few who are not at risk. Finally, in churches that have a broader base, local leaders probably should maintain any current technology analogs — streaming the service, Zoom-based Sabbath Schools, etc. — or else this stay-at-home membership subset would be cut off from participation. So, re-opening doesn’t allow leadership to simplify by shutting down present online options. You would need to hold church both ways.

3. Greeters

Handshakes probably should be forbidden. Should face-masks be required of everyone? And provided if people came without them? How about temperatures taken at the door? If so, the church must procure supplies that have sometimes been hard to obtain. Greeters would necessarily be tasked with explaining and policing such culturally abhorrent rules, and they never signed up for that. Many would be reluctant to have such a shift in job requirement. Also, greeters are often extroverts and could have a hard time even being compliant themselves. Thus, convincing and training this first line of “defense” would itself be a major undertaking. Should you then consider just eliminating greeters altogether and substitute some sort of instructional signage? That’s great for community, right?

4. The Church Lobby

This traffic is inherently chaotic in normal times. And that was formerly fine as it provided opportunity for random interaction, sometimes leading to new friendships. Just what the church wants. But now a six-foot-distance rule seriously constrains all this, if people even can or will obey. The best one could hope for, from the perspective of social distancing, would be for people to minimize lobby interaction and just head directly to their seats, first Sabbath School, then church. But this works in opposition to community, and worse, starts to reprogram people’s operational mindset to stop interacting with others. There’s going to be a lot of confusion here. People trying to maintain their human ties and simultaneously keep distance. Even the most conscientious will do this imperfectly. Worse, a (hopefully small) minority won’t even try very hard, and will move around freely, to the abhorrence of others. Then the “leper” reaction could occur as people distance themselves from such “loose actors” — physically and even judgmentally — which is itself a community-killer.

5. The Sanctuary

Issues here would be largely logistical, and somewhat analogous to those faced by theatres. Some seats would be occupiable, and others probably would need to be roped off (or equivalent), to tacitly both create and enforce distancing. Perhaps people could be seated and dismissed by ushers/deacons, like old-style church services and weddings. But all this process comes at great cost, both in terms of effort but also community. Further, it greatly reduces sanctuary capacity. If pre-COVID attendance levels were still retained after re-opening it might be necessary to offer an additional service. But perhaps the suboptimality of a social distance church experience would discourage attendance, so the reduced capacity might be adequate. Leaders can’t really know what will happen in advance. Must there then be extra, perhaps unnecessary planning, in case reduced physical capacity is problematic?

6. Bathrooms and drinking fountains

Probably most churches have constrained passage from the bathroom door to the facilities. This would violate the 6-foot rule. Urinals are side-by-side which might mean one-at-a-time, or covering every other one in larger restrooms. But it is unworkable to expect only one person at a time in the bathroom — except in the smallest churches. Physical urgency obviously happens, so there is the necessity for people to police their own distancing. Drinking fountains are both a source of proximity and contagion. Should they be shut down? If so an alternative, like bottled water, would have to be available. More effort and expense.

7. Potluck

In many smaller churches this is a major part of the social “glue” facilitating community. The simple move here would be to cancel it, and the cost then is in harm to the church’s member cohesion. What good is holding church if too many “limbs” of the community “tree” have to be lopped off to minimize contagion? If potlucks were held you would have to establish protocols for how people interacted in the kitchen, and implement seating separation. But, as conversation is a major benefit to people attending, and seating in normal times is usually side-by-side and directly across, such distancing necessities would seriously undermine the value of potluck to those who would normally choose to participate.

Now, I’m not really trying here to present an exhaustive list of difficulties and corresponding approaches for handling re-opening under social distancing. What I hope to do is raise awareness for those local church leaders who will, at some point soon, need to work through the myriad details of policies and policing.

Given human nature, we could easily have a lose-lose situation. That is, enough distancing to deeply compromise the value of church to the participants, and enough contact through compliance breakdown to significantly transmit the virus, if present. Now, for-profit businesses — such as theatres — will more likely have the incentive and expertise to devise and implement plans for re-opening. It is surely possible, with much effort, for people to come into proximity for some event, and have a positive experience while being minimally at-risk of infection. But community in those contexts is not a goal. Conversely, churches are staffed with volunteers and will likely lack resources to adequately follow through on the sort of onerous, complicated rules and enforcement I’ve alluded to here. Plus some leaders and church members may well be skeptical of the need to social-distance, being fed by politicians and media that downplay health risk and emphasize individuality. Churches driven by these values might just wish to re-open with inadequate effort toward distancing. All this suggests to me that re-openings, unless very carefully planned, are likely to be a mess.

Here is where the Seventh-day Adventist conferences, at minimum, have an important role to play. They, in concert with any detailed instructions from government, need to mandate a degree of uniformity and seriousness that the local churches would have to follow if they want to re-open. There surely ought to be some measure of partnership between local church leadership and denomination administration. Each church will have unique problems and re-opening with the new and conflicting goals of community and distancing will take more work than I think is presently understood. And sadly, in the near-term at least, if one of these goals has to be sacrificed somewhat — it must be community. The church cannot be the vehicle to re-accelerate the pandemic. But will community be so compromised as to make re-opening a net-negative experience? That is a big and very real risk.

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at:

Image Credit: United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This is the major issue with church. Singing causes aerosolization, that means regular masks and 6 feet of distance are not enough of a barrier to prevent spread. You cannot prevent people, especially kids in Sabbath School from singing and yet, you can’t allow it.


If a cabal of atheists or communists or radical Islamists had conspired to close down our Christian churches, they could not have achieved a more successful result than the Wuhan virus —- maybe we should label it the “communist virus “since it originated in Communist China ?

It certainly has been viciously, vehemently, venomously effective in its anti Christian vendetta against worship!

Most Sabbath / Sunday worship hours I attend ( I am very itinerant in my retirement ) have pews largely occupied by aged persons!

Our congregations grow increasingly geriatric.

These are the very parishioners who have EIGHT TIMES the mortality of those in the 50-64 demographic and SIXTY TIMES the mortality of young people from this virus.

So it would behoove them to stay cloistered in their homes and participate in worship via zoom.

Since WHO ( can we trust them with their past wrong advice ? ) is now
sadly predicting that the Wuhan. virus will be with is permanently— will we ever engage in a communal worshipping experience again?

And what about camp meetings, conference constituency meetings, Autumn Council etc etc ?? General Conference ?

The devil has really conspired to “do us dirty “ .

Church could and should be on the agenda but with the outbreak managed so badly, I wouldn’t trust fellow parishioners to social distance so I wouldn’t attend.

Despite what Trump says, the US isn’t even done with the first wave, let alone talking of a second.

All of the measures that could have made this more manageable such as testing, tracing etc are now too late and some things that are necessary and have helped enormously elsewhere like internal state border closures and mandatory supervised quarantines are no doubt threats to liberty.

There is nothing more anti freedom and liberty than an unnecessary death.


i agree…we can’t be seen as contributing to illness and death in the community…

one solution could be what the province of alberta has started to do, which our chief medical officer is calling “cohort families”…this is where two families choose each other, and only each other, for dinners, get togethers and recreation at each other’s homes, or in public parks or other outdoor areas…people would need to be symptom free, and closely monitor their situation…if illness does develop, the advantage with cohort families is that everyone is accounted for, and can be effectively quarantined…

the down side is that this would mean small, perhaps tiny, family church services for the foreseeable future…the plus side is that many of the problems mentioned in this article aren’t a factor…


The total disregard for human life that has been demonstrated by Trump is a true disgrace not only to the US but to the whole world as well.

Now he is disputing the number of deaths d/t Covid-19, ca 85,000 at this very moment.
I dispute it too…, since the real number may be even much higher than it’s been recorded.


dr. fauci, and many others, are saying u.s. deaths are much higher than what’s been reported…


I am even center right politically and have backed his calls on the odd issue if I agreed but never a blank check support.

Even I can see what is a clear as his hair is yellow, he will do and say anything, or drag anyone down into the mud, politicise issues that never were before if he thinks it helps him “win”.

An utter disgrace.


I know you hate Trump, but I think he may be right about overstatement of covid 19 deaths. We’ve been locked down long enough. One size doesn’t fit all. The Dakota’s total population of both states is less than Idaho. Her in Idaho it’s gradually reopening after 7 weeks. Our total caseload of covid exceeds by a few hundred the combined total of North and South Dakota neither of which implemented stay by at homes orders. The hospitals are empty and going broke in the Boise area. I think it’s a cheap shot to accuse Trump of having no regard for life. I have seen just how rotten the white press Corp is after watching the briefings.


It’s hard to impute empathy when you just don’t feel it. I’ve never been reflexively opposed to him but it’s pretty hard to defend him on this front as we watch his large beige behind heading up the plane steps as he heads for the golfing green while nurses are putting their lives on the line. May be just optics but he doesn’t even care about that.

Oh that he had the leadership skills of even Roosevelt or Churchill’s big toe.

It certainly doesn’t need to be a one size fits all re opening/closing but what he is pushing for from all states ignores his own criteria of only a couple of weeks ago. If the CDC hadn’t fumbled the testing right from the start then maybe the country would have infections under control but they are not and many will be unnecessarily sacrificed.


I am fascinated by this discussion! I am a retired pastor, librarian and academic. I live in a retirement resort on the Gold Coast of Queensland Australia - Australia’s most popular playground. My comments are made from this perspective! I’m thankful that my retirement resort has imposed strict controls, especially in its nursing home, where the lockdown was all but absolute. I believe in strict controls for the elderly and the vulnerable such as those like my wife and daughter, a family physician and an emergency room doctor. They both have MS and are on or contemplating heavy duty immuno-therapy to suppress their immune systems. My daughter was diagnosed in recent weeks in the midst of the pandemic and a punishing work-study schedule as she faces her final board exams for an ER doctor.

The Australian government and its National Cabinet (Prime Minister, State Premiers and Chief Ministers) locked our society and economic down about March 20, much like the USA,the UK and many other countries. They quickly put an economic stimulus package and economic rescue measures in place to the tune of Australian $330 billion. The Australian economy is losing an estimated Australian $4 billion a week. Our unemployment rate is projected to rise to around 10% in coming months.

To put you in the picture let us do some comparisons with other OECD countries. America with its population of 330 million has suffered more than 80,000 deaths from the virus. The UK with a population of 67 million has suffered more 33,000 deaths. Australia, on the other hand, with a population of 25 million has suffered 98 deaths. That’s right, 98 deaths! 19 of those deaths are associated with one nursing home in western Sydney. Most states of Australia presently have active cases of less than 20 people. The neighbouring state of New South Wales has just revealed that it has the highest rate of testing for the virus in the world. My state of Queensland has reported around 1,300 cases since the start of the pandemic with deaths that can be counted on the fingers of both hands.

Yet despite the real differences in the size of the problems in America, the UK and Australia all 3 countries have adopted very similar lockdown measures. There is absolutely no sense of proportion here! So why engage in strict lockdown measures in Australia? The social and economic losses incurred through lockdown will undoubtedly produce a greater lethality rate than that of the pandemic itself. The cure will prove to be worse than the disease here in Australia. Prof Michael Levitt, a Nobel laureate from Stanford has suggested that in his opinion Australia is a standout loser because they had a strict lockdown but not very many cases!

And so, for all this I fear Australians are attacking a peanut with a sledge hammer. Yes, I am a lockdown skeptic, at least as far as a general policy for the Australian community is concerned after the data and evidence for an opening up of societies has come on stream. But I am in good company.

People such as John Anderson, a much respected former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia support this kind of skeptism. Plus various British and European luminaries such as Dr Sucharit Bhadkdi, Prof Emeritus of Medical Microbiology, University of Mainz; Prof Johan Giesecke of Sweden and one of the world’s most senior epidemiologists; and Prof John Lee, consultant histopathologist and formerly clinical professor of pathology at Hull York medical school, UK. Lastly, American medical specialists such as Professor John Ioannidis, Prof Jay Bhattacharya and Prof Michael Levitt (Nobel laureate), all of Stanford, Dr David Katz of Yale; and Prof Kurt Wittkowski, formerly of Rockefeller University. Then there are social commentators from England such as Peter Hitchens and Douglas Murray; and social commentators from America such as Charles Eisenstein and Lionel Shriver. And this list is not at all complete.

Thankfully, the Australian Prime Minister in conjunction with his National Cabinet and the Australian Chief Medical Officer [think Anthony Fauci] issued a 3 step opening up of the economy and society for the sovereign states in Australia to implement. The timelines are flexible but expected to be complete by July 2020. Step 3 contemplates all Australian returning to work with physical distancing & hygiene. Interstate travel will return much as normal. Gatherings of up to 100 will be allowed including churches. 20 people will be allowed to gather inside, including in churches in Step 2 which will likely come into effect before mid June in most of Australia. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a charismatic Christian.


I have come to at least 4 conclusions about coronavirus! I believe that these conclusions, if accurate, will encourage us to favour the early opening up of our churches!!

  1. Pandemic not unprecedented
    Though many talk of this pandemic as unprecedented, there is really very little that is unprecedented about it. It is certainly less deadly than many other pandemics and widespread disease outbreaks in history. What is unprecedented about this pandemic is our reaction to it. Our societies in the developed world have embraced a “culture of fear” wholeheartedly, in the last 20 or 30 years especially. The development and dynamics of this “culture of fear” has been described in detail.

  2. Epidemic of Control
    Much of our global societies have been put into economic and social lockdown. We have given the governments of the free world unprecedented power over us and surrendered freedoms never surendered before. We are presently suffering from an “epidemic of control” as Charles Eisenstein has recently stated. Those who question this control are often regarded as trouble makers. Will we shut our society and economy down for each subsequent contagion, which will most certainly come.

  3. Other people are not Our Enemies
    We must not think of other people as the enemy. We need each other. Such attitudes which are being cultivated by the lockdown may spring from a culture of risk aversion or from a juvenille notion that life should be one long, happy and interrupted experience where no one ever offends or hurts you.

  4. Naivette about Life and Death
    Are we naive about death, unwilling to accept that people die as a central part of death? The Bible teaches that it is appointed to humanity once to die and after that the resurrection.


Another reason why Dr. Fauci will soon be fired from the task team. Stay tuned… How does he dare to tell truth when, for some satanic reason, the order of the day has been telling people only “alternative truth?” This appears to be, for many, the “new, alternative moral conduct”… The strangest thing for me is that some Christians have fallen for that. :open_mouth:


Nothing new on the fact that we certainly have opposite opinions on this issue, both already very well and fully spelled out.


What we need as a church during this Coronavirus pandemic is a fundamental alternative to the status quo of “Church Business As Usual”. With the increasing spread of COVID-19, we are called upon as a congregation of compassion, peace and justice to attend to the health, safety and well-being of those made vulnerable to illness due to compromised immune systems, age and underlying health concerns The very necessary precautions that people take in relation to this virus often take the form of social distancing and refraining from touch. These precautions will exacerbate the experience of those among us who already struggle with a pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation. Our congregations will need to commit even more fully to the cultivation of community while attending to the health precautions necessitated by COVID-19.

As much effort as we put into creating health precautions to keep our community gatherings from being sites of germ spread, we should devote equal effort to conversations about how we will meet the relational needs of people in our communities – especially those already besieged by loneliness.

Take every precaution that you need to take in order to care for the vulnerable of body in your congregation and community. Know that these precautions – even canceling in-person gatherings for work and worship, as we are now doing in coordination with several neighboring congregations – are acts of social responsibility undertaken from an ethic of love for your community. Making these difficult decisions early rather than waiting to see what comes next will help slowing the spread of Covid 19 infection and benefiting the health of our communities.

From the beginning of our church, the church has practiced faith in community during times that seem apocalyptic. From persecution to plague and dealing with slavery our churches have faced across the globe from age to age, we’ve been called upon to practice community with creativity and compassion when faced with the unpredictable and unprecedented. We should try treating precaution-taking as a creative experiment in cultivating community differently , not just more cautiously … Commit thy way unto the Lord and He will Help You," Psalm 37:5


My guess (hope?) is that when the dust settles, this “lockdown” will be seen to have been a gross overreaction and terrible error, so that when the next contagion strikes, the response will be more measured.


A quick rebuttal:

  1. Pandemics are not unprecedented . . . as in the Black Plague. But at that time, humanity was too ignorant to understand how to control the spread. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. If our increased understanding of Nature is in any way directed by God, then it would be a denial of His grace and an abrogation of our duty to act as if we are living in the dark ages in relation to this virus. Pandemics are not unprecedented, but, sadly, neither is our ignorance.

  2. Control is concerning, but this seems more like an effort at cooperation. Governments are not controlling our conscience, but putting rules in place to control disease/sanitation . . . Much like the sanitation rules for the Israelites in the wilderness. But, I understand that control can get out of hand. Let’s keep using our brains on this one.

  3. The enemy is, I reckon, ignorance and a juvenile attitude we often display towards risks we cannot see, feel, or comprehend. This virus is similar to radiation in that it is invisible. Yet we put strict rules in place and take measures to protect ourselves when we get something as small as a dental x-ray. My great grandfather died from melanoma because he did not understand that farming in his overalls with no shirt may have been cooler, but the radiation from the sun was altering his DNA.

  4. Life and death. A friend works in a prison, got what he thought was a cold, came home, visited his mother, and then was diagnosed with Covid-19. His mother got it from that brief visit. She died. She died because the son did not understand how deadly the virus is. If he did know, but chose to visit his mother, should we then call that man a murderer? If you brought the virus to church, and the mother of a friend died, how would you feel? And would it be unreasonable to file criminal charges against you? If abortion is abhorrent, then so is the unnecessary spread of this virus.

Only a cold heart would accept death where it can be avoided. If someone dies because you gave them the virus, because you felt the rules were unfair, naive, or too controlling, then may it be on your conscience.


Interesting view on this topic . . .

1 Like

Another interesting account of the role church plays in the spread of this virus.

A quick note: I do not particularly love the language sometimes employed on this particular article’s main or sister sites, but this story is apt.

I’m not sure that your rational approach will adequately resonate, since a lot of people think that governments could just conjure up necessities into existence by sending you a check… when they arguably don’t produce anything of value and just inflating the supply making goods and services more expensive and thus really hurting the poor population.