Congregational Health and Physical Contact

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
March 5, 2020

We are in a series looking at markers of congregational health, something we ordinarily term “congregational vitality.” Many measures of health can be adduced – missional, financial, relational, emotional, and spiritual health all come to mind. But what about physical health?

It seems virtually certain that the COVID-19 outbreak will become a worldwide pandemic. As I write, nearly 100,000 cases have been diagnosed, and the death toll has surpassed 3,000. And those numbers seem to be growing exponentially. By the time you read this, three days after I write it, they will be significantly higher. We know that the primary way this virus spreads is through human contact, and that has direct bearing on being church. The church is a gathering of people, and thus is directly affected by events such as this.

Last Sunday I preached at one of our congregations, and as I greeted people after worship, it became clear that each of us has our own take on appropriate physical contact in our current environment. Nearly half of those I greeted did not want to shake hands. A few wanted a hug. There were lots of fist-bumps and elbow-taps. How do we navigate the way we greet one another face to face in a community that in its formative days did so with a “holy kiss”? (See, for example, 1 Peter 5:14. Paul offers the same instruction multiple times.)

This question has become more urgent elsewhere than it is here, at least so far. Rev. Steve Yamaguchi, a Presbyterian pastor of a congregation in Tokyo, wrote his congregation a letter outlining steps they are taking in a place where the virus is significantly widespread. They will continue to meet for Sunday worship, but are suspending many other gatherings. On Sundays, they will greet each other with an elbow-tap, or (wonderfully appropriate in Japan) by bowing to each other.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has provided a thorough guide for congregations in response to severe infectious outbreaks. The Synod of the Trinity has assembled a wonderful set of local, denominational, national, and global resources that offer critical assistance to the church as it faces this particular virus threat.

Congregations may well establish rules of contact during this season – and probably should do so. This week the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh responded to the current virus threat by suspending its practice of sharing the common cup in Eucharist, and by advising a suspension of hand-shaking and embracing during the passing of the peace. Beneath these rules lies a deeper question: How do we connect physically with members of the community of faith to which we belong?

Thanks to the “MeToo” movement and the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has been so prominent in the news, we are freshly reminded that unwanted physical contact is off limits in the church. But what is appropriate physical contact, and why does it matter?

Physical touch is critical to Jesus’ ministry, and by extension to any ministry in his name. Jesus healed most often by touch, though he sometimes did so by word alone. As I noted above, the “holy kiss” was part of ancient Christian fellowship. Sacraments remind us of the inherent relationship between physical things (water, wine, bread) and spiritual things. We are physical beings, and our relationships to each other are just as much physical as they are spiritual.

As important as physical touch is to our sense of belonging, the most important thing is that we gather with each other, not how we greet each other as we do so. Being together with each other is essential to Christian identity. “Personal Christianity” apart from the fellowship of other Christ-followers is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as a “virtual church,” a church connected only electronically. Tangible in-person fellowship is essential to true Christianity. For a season, physical contact may be best reserved to an elbow bump or something similar. But let us never forsake gathering together, for in our gathering lies our encouragement and discipline to stay the course as Jesus’ followers. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

It may seem so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said, but it bears saying: No congregation can be vital if its constituents do not show up for worship. Being physically present to each other is the baseline condition for any and all congregational vitality. What does your congregation do to note and reach out to those who aren’t present on Sunday mornings? If the answer is “nothing,” this is a first-order commitment that it needs to make if it wishes to be truly vital.

Yours companion in following Jesus,

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