About half of US Protestant adults don’t plan to receive the new COVID-19 vaccine, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
While confidence in the vaccine has actually risen since September—three companies announced viable vaccines last month—50 percent of white evangelicals and 59 percent of black Protestants say they won’t get the vaccine, while the majority of the US population overall (60%) says they will.
For centuries, religion and medicine have collaborated for the prevention of disease, though the relationship at times has been complex. In more recent years, public health professionals have relied on church leaders’ support—particularly in communities of color—to gain trust in promoting health initiatives. The coronavirus pandemic has become another example of the complex relationship between faith and science.
Given the split among Christians, how should pastors engage with their congregants about the COVID-19 vaccine? Should they encourage church attenders to receive the vaccine?
CT heard from five pastors about how factors like race, theology, and congregational makeup affect their approach to the issue.
Jeff Schultz, pastor of preaching and community at Faith Church in Indianapolis
Our church been praying for vaccine research and development, but taking a vaccine is not something we would direct people on.
Our congregation has a number of doctors, nurses, medical researchers, and people in pharmaceutical development. We believe that God works through miraculous intervention, but more commonly through our work, gifts, and wisdom applied in service to others. We’ve encouraged people to wear masks and practice social distancing. We have members who won’t return to in-person worship until a vaccine is available. But I don’t think we would say anything formally about taking a vaccine (except to give thanks for their existence).
At an individual level, I will encourage people to consult with their physician on making that decision. I see masks and social distancing as extremely low-risk interventions that help us love our neighbors. A COVID-19 vaccine is another important way to stop the spread of a deadly disease, but I don’t believe that as a pastor I have the medical qualifications to direct people on medical treatments that may have side effects or long-term health impact. I want to help people see the good of a vaccine while asking us all to respect others’ decisions.
Luke B. Bobo, director of strategic partnerships at Made to Flourish, a pastor’s network based in Kansas, and visiting professor at Covenant Theological Seminary
Abortion, film, music, guns, cartoons, medical science—pastors, as cultural exegetes, must discuss these topics because such things are not benign. These cultural artifacts mediate messages that are often contrary to the Christian life and worldview, so engaging their congregants about the COVID-19 vaccine is no exception. I believe pastors must engage in vaccine discourse biblically, wisely, and Christianly.
Of course, for African American pastors, engaging their congregants about this vaccine will be more complicated, as many abuses have been inflicted on black persons for the sake of medical progress. Who can forget the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the infamous “HeLa” cells, cancerous cells stolen from Henrietta Lacks without her family’s consent? So pastors must engage this topic historically as well.
Pastors must teach their people how to think critically about this COVID-19 vaccine. If they are asked whether they plan to take the vaccine, they should state their answer and follow with a statement like, “That is my decision; you must do the hard work and make your own decision.” In other words, pastors must not think for their congregants; rather, they must equip their people with the necessary tools so that they can think and decide for themselves.
Mandy Smith, pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati
I have no problem with vaccines on a philosophical or theological level and will defer to the medical professionals in my congregation who know more about such things than I know. The church I lead is on what’s sometimes called “Pill Hill”—we have four hospitals in our immediate neighborhood, and so we have quite a few medical professionals. At the same time, since we’re in a diverse community, we also have quite a few folks interested in alternative lifestyles, which leads them to be wary of vaccines.
As Christians, we need to have space for difference of opinions—unity in essentials, liberty in nonessentials, and in all things, love. On a philosophical level, our opinion about vaccines is nonessential—we won’t lose our salvation and shouldn’t split with other Christians over it.
At the same time, on a practical level, with a vaccine the decisions we make affect one another. While we might have differences of opinion where we can agree to disagree, if our children are playing together, and we’re sharing potluck meals and Communion, the choices we make about vaccines are not for our own personal sake but for the sake of our entire community. If there’s one thing that the pandemic has shown us, it’s that our lives, bodies, and health are interwoven.
Stephen Cook, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Memphis
COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 283,000 of our neighbors in the United States, more than 1.5 million of our neighbors around the world. With the hope of a vaccine on the near horizon, pastors have the opportunity to call Christ’s people in our congregations to neighbor-love in a way that embodies Christ’s command to love one another.
When Jesus is questioned by a lawyer who wants to know who counts as his neighbor (Luke 10), he responds with the story of the Samaritan who stopped to provide for the needs of the one beaten and left for dead. Notably, the Samaritan whom Jesus points to as an exemplar of merciful service lives out the call to neighbor-love through an act of healing.
Encouraging people of faith to be vaccinated against this disease that has devastated so many is a pastoral responsibility. It is an occasion to summon Christ’s followers to consider the role we have to play in promoting the healing of the world. It is an opportunity for us to recall that, at the end of the story, Jesus lifts up the one who acts like a neighbor in response to a desperate need.
Stephanie Lobdell, campus pastor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio
The directive of Christ to love our neighbor has informed the life of the university campus I pastor in distinctive ways, from masks to plexiglass dividing diners in the cafeteria. Moving forward, it ought to inform our posture toward the vaccine as well. To receive the vaccine if one is physically able is yet another way to practice love for neighbor.
As a Christian liberal arts university in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, we bring an additional impetus to the vaccine conversation. As Wesleyans, we hold steadfastly to the centrality of cooperative grace in Christian practice. God takes the initiative toward us, inviting us into a relationship of love as well as into meaningful partnership in the work of embodying new creation. We seek to inspire our students to view the vocation for which they are studying as an expression of that partnership.
When scientists unravel the DNA of a dangerous virus, when doctors work tirelessly to find more effective treatments, when researchers formulate a shot that protects people against infection, we do not raise a self-righteous fist in the face of science claiming, “Faith over fear!” Rather, we rejoice. We rejoice at the life-giving manifestation of divinely ordained vocation. We proclaim thanks be to God, both for God’s provision and for the holy gift of human capacity.