A message featuring a Red Cross nurse and prevention instructions appeared in the U.S. publication Illustrated Current News in 1918[i]:
- Do not take anyone’s breath
- Keep mouth and teeth clean
- Avoid those who cough and sneeze
- Don’t visit poorly ventilated places
- Keep warm, get fresh air and sunshine
- Don’t use common drinking cups, towels, etc.
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- Avoid worry, fear, and fatigue
- Stay at home if you have a cold
- Walk to your work or office
Today we are using some of the above guidelines such as practice social distancing, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wear a mask, and stay at home if you have symptoms of sickness.
In the fall of 2021, churches and their Bible study groups are facing some hard choices. The fall was supposed to be a time of regathering, but the rise of the COVID variants plus the number of new cases involving the unvaccinated and children have caused groups to be cautious once again. How can groups practice safety in the classroom and in the home? If 2020 and 2021 have revealed anything to us, it is the fact that we are not going to agree on how to go about living in a world with the COVID virus. Depending on their stance related to the pandemic, pastors have felt the disdain of pro-mask and anti-mask people, as well as pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine people. Groups have become a microcosm of the church, and even among friends, divisions over philosophy, practice, and politics have strained or broken relationships. The Apostle Paul’s appeal for unity in the church seems incredibly timely these days, doesn’t it?
Safety in the classroom and the home for Groups
Fall is upon us, the COVID variants are raging, hospitals are full, and more children than ever are contracting the virus. The unvaccinated are filling hospital beds as the virus makes its way through that part of our population. What options do Bible study groups have in a world like this?
The Venn diagram below might be helpful in quickly assessing your options. We must all decide what level of guidance we will give groups regarding the safety of members. There are 5 approaches we can take to help groups make decisions about the safety of the people in their groups.
The Heavy-Handed Approach – Heavy-handed doesn’t mean it’s a bad approach. It is one in which church leaders mandate or strongly recommend that group members wear masks, practice social distancing, and observe other safety precautions. This approach requires a level of intestinal fortitude on the part of the leader.
The Helping Hands Approach – In this approach to guiding groups, the leader helps groups by being proactive. Chairs in classrooms are spaced out, optional masks are given to the group leader to distribute if wanted by the group members, and classrooms are cleaned in between usage by different groups. Most churches have grown lax in their cleaning precautions since mid-2020 when we had less information about the virus. Familiarity with the virus has caused us to be less cautious than we were in the early days of the pandemic. As we face down the COVID variants, it’s probably time to return to more disciplined cleaning for the time being.
The Hands-off Approach – This is an intentional decision by a leader who is uncomfortable with controversy. I get it. No one likes being griped at. We want people to like us. This is why some leaders do not address the “COVID elephant in the room” – they don’t want to lose their jobs or their friends. A hands-off approach in a pandemic is not advisable, in my opinion. Leaders are supposed to lead, not acquiesce to those who threaten you. If you think this is the best approach, consider the actions of the Tekoite leaders at Nehemiah 3:5. “Beside them the Tekoites made repairs, but their nobles did not lift a finger to help…” Their hands-off approach got them a place in history – they are forever remembered as hands-off leaders who refused to lead during a desperate time in Israel’s history.
The On-the-Other-Hand Approach – As we head into fall 2021, we should help groups consider other ways to meet together, much like we did in 2020 when the pandemic was in full swing. We can tell group leaders, “On the other hand, you might consider meeting online again for a time, meeting outside, or meeting on a different day and time so you can spread out in a larger unused room.” To an on-campus group, we might suggest, “On the other hand, why don’t you place group members in smaller pods and have them meet in homes for a time?” We might even suggest that now is the time for the group to plant another one, send out some of the group members to start it, and reduce the size of the group so that social distancing is easier for both groups.
The Skillful Hands Approach – Psalm 78:72 says of King David, “He shepherded them with a pure heart and guided them with his skillful hands” (CSB). It takes discernment, wisdom, and application of biblical principles to skillfully guide God’s people. As we move into the fall and winter months of 2021, we all need a fresh word from God about how we can lead our groups most effectively. We are in unprecedented times, and people who have skillful hands are needed now more than ever. Having skillful hands means not only knowing the right course of action, but moving people toward that preferred future. We skillfully lead, guide, coax, and persuade people to act in their own best interests, the interests of others, and in ways that honor God at all times.
And now for the potentially controversial part of this blog post…
We live in an incendiary time when words create worlds, and battles take place not with weapons, but with words that cut to the quick and do significant harm. You may not agree with what I am about to suggest, and I respect your right to your opinion. We may have to agree to disagree, but here are my thoughts about safety in classrooms and home groups:
- I am in favor of the COVID vaccine. The one caveat I have is that if your doctor suggests differently, then don’t get it! You and your physician will know what is best for you and your body. I have friends whose loved ones have died unvaccinated. I have other friends who now have untold debt because of a preventable 4-to-6 week hospital stay (one friend is planning on refinancing their home to pay a mountain of medical debt – hospital bills have proved devastating). I recently talked to a grieved pastor from east Texas who buried 5 church members in one week (all COVID related deaths). I got the vaccine, as did my wife. I am thankful for the way God has gifted men and women in the medical field with great knowledge and wisdom. Many worked tirelessly to get the vaccines to us. I grieve when I see videos of people who were unvaccinated making deathbed pleas for friends and family members to consider being vaccinated, struggling to breathe as they make their pleas.
- I am in favor of masks – kind of. Do I like wearing them? No. Do they help? Yes. They are not perfect, but they do provide a level of protection, albeit imperfect protection. I am not in favor of wearing masks forever! Let’s get to a higher level of herd immunity, and then we can eliminate the need to wear masks. I don’t balk if a local business asks me to put one on to do business with them. It’s just not a big deal to me. Nor do I balk if a church asks me to wear one while I’m in a group or on their campus. It’s not a hill I want to die on. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.
- I am in favor of groups meeting together. The social isolation we’ve experienced over the last 18 months has proved one thing for sure: we need each other. We are designed by our Creator for relationships. Genesis 2:18 says that “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper corresponding to him” (CSB). Adam needed Eve, and they both needed and walked with God in the Garden of Eden. If meeting together means sitting further apart and wearing a mask for an hour, then I’ll gladly make that exchange because I need my fellow group members, and they need me.
- I am in favor of protecting others. I don’t know who is unvaccinated. According to the statistics, it looks like a good number of people are not vaccinated! So if I can help them avoid the virus, a financially debilitating hospital stay, or death, I’ll gladly do my part. I’ve heard others say, “If the unvaccinated die, then they die…it’s their own fault.” I would rather take the approach that Peter did in 2 Peter 3 when he encouraged the church with these words: “Also, regard the patience of our Lord as salvation…” (2 Peter 3:15). People who die without Christ will be eternally separated from God. Peter encouraged his readers to use their time wisely, and every day the Lord “delays” His return is another day to be His evangelist. If my actions can prolong the life of someone else, giving them more time to hear and respond to the gospel, how could I choose otherwise?
- I choose faith, not fear. As believers, we have nothing to fear. I do not fear death. I do not fear a virus. I fear the One who stands as the Righteous Judge, the One who sacrificed His Son in order for me to have eternal life. I reverentially fear Him. I do not fear COVID. But if I can immunize myself through the work of God-gifted scientists, I will. If I can protect myself, my family, my friends, and my community, then I will. I want to have as long a life as possible in which to serve God and others.
In the end, each church, each group, and each individual will have to make their own decisions about the kind of safety they will want in groups that meet on campus or in homes. Whatever the decisions may be, I know that the world will see Jesus when they see our love for one another. Stories of churches, groups, and individuals fighting over masks, distancing, and vaccinations will not advance the Kingdom of God. If we can accomplish safety while maintaining our unity, we will keep our Christian witness intact. There’s a lost world watching us. Let’s give them something to watch that points them to Christ.