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The National Council of Churches USA is urging churches to exercise extreme caution when deciding whether or not to open its doors for services Memorial Day weekend and in the near future. Churches have been reported to be a source of outbreaks of the coronavirus and opening prematurely could have deadly consequences.

Close contact of congregants and even congregational singing are ways the virus has been known to spread in churches. Asymptomatic carriers of the virus could also unknowingly spread it, particularly to the elderly and other vulnerable populations. Without enough testing or proven treatment for those who contract the disease, it does not seem wise or sensible for churches to re-open as if it is business as usual.  

“We have found new and creative ways to worship online and to meet virtually, said Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, NCC Chair and President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ. “It makes sense for churches to continue in this vein until we are confident it is safe for us to gather again in-person.”

NCC is particularly concerned about churches re-opening as a virtual memorial service is planned for Sunday, May 24 at 6 p.m. to remember those who have died from COVID-19. The service, “A Time to Mourn: An Ecumenical Memorial Service for the Lives Lost to COVID-19,” includes a broad spectrum of Christian denominational leaders and will broadcast on YouTube, Facebook Live and the NCC website on Sunday. Nearly 2,000 people have already registered to be a part of the service as the death toll nears the tragic milestone of 100,000 lives lost to this horrible disease.

“As we set aside time on Sunday to remember the many lives lost to this virus, it is almost cruel to imagine churches would rush to re-open and put so many more at risk of dying,” said Jim Winkler, NCC President and General Secretary. “From the reports we’ve received, our churches have been among the most responsible in the nation in handling this global pandemic and we do expect that to continue.”

Rather than hastily go back to having church in-person, NCC urges congregations to make sure they have a solid strategy for opening safely. Taking every precaution is essential, including wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands frequently, avoiding congregational singing and leaving doors open during worship services. Still, these measures are no guarantee that no one will become sick or contract the virus. This means the most loving, noble and sacrificial thing to do is to worship from home until gathering in-person is safe.

Too much is still unknown about how the coronavirus spreads and how it can be treated. While some locations are just beginning to experience a downturn in cases and deaths, it is too early to rush back to church. As Christians, we have a responsibility to care for one another and look out for those most at risk of getting sick or losing their lives from this virus. In most cases, that will mean churches should continue online services for the time being.