How the Incarnation Informs Germophobia in Worship

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought6 Comments

(An exercise in random applied theology…)

Over the course of my leadership at several churches, I have had to dig deep to help pastor people through both legitimate and illegitimate concerns surrounding their germophobia.  There are two places in the worship service where these concerns most consistently arise–greeting and Communion.  When many churches practice their “greeting time,” usually it involves shaking hands, sometimes holding hands, sometimes hugging.  In all these gestures, physical contact is made, and germs, bacteria, and viruses are more likely to spread.  The same is often true for many forms of Communion.  Unless the elements have been completely individualized (pre-cut, even pre-packaged) or prepared by latex-gloved hands (notwithstanding latex allergies!), they often come to the table already “tainted.”  And then, when people receive the elements–picking up a cup, pulling off a piece of bread, or (buhm…Buhm…BUHHHHHM!) drinking from a common cup (!)–no doubt further germs are exchanged, increasing the likelihood of the spread of germs.  

(This is a total sidenote…but my friend, guitarist, and mandolinist, Erick Young, while studying biology in college, noted an interesting article that determined that, of all the forms of Communion, intinction [which we practice] was the one which introduced the greatest amount of germs into the elements.)

So, the question is not whether or not certain practices of worship indeed facilitate the spread of germs and sickness.  They do.  We must move on to ask, “Should we adjust or eliminate those practices for the sake of public health?”  For instance, should we encourage people to not touch each other during the greeting and just “air hug”?  Should we assign an extra elder at each communion station with hand sanitizer and ask the rest to wear gloves and surgical masks?  In all seriousness, here are the things that I consider:

1) We live in a society with a generally high value of public health.

We enjoy great medicine and world-class doctors.  We have quick access to all kinds of drugs and vitamins, and many of our cities are saturated with places to sanitize.  What a blessing!  The majority world does not know this kind of health.  So, when making a judgment call about all of this, our context is key.  I tend to think that we are generally much more healthy than most and can therefore stand to share a few germs, if greater priorities behoove us.  Of course, there are individuals with auto-immune diseases who might have to think more seriously than the rest of us average folk…but I’m speaking about us generally.

2) So much of our culture has been “de-sarxed.”

Sarx is the Greek word for “flesh.”  Many cultural commentators have noted that modern society is experiencing greater connectivity through technology while at the same time experiencing less and less physical, human interaction.  We’re calling, texting, emailing, Facebooking, tweeting.  But human-to-human contact may be at an all-time low in Western society.  In such a climate, it may be easier for us to miss or discount the value of human-to-human physical contact, such that germ-containment might move up higher on the totem pole of values than perhaps it ought.

3) Our physical bodies matter to God.

It is a heavy-handed Greek dualism, not a biblical anthropology, that tells us that only the spirit matters.  God created the physical world and our bodies.  He will re-create both.  Though we may wrestle through philosophical questions of our core identity being physical or spiritual, our bodies are highly valued by God as being part of our identity as persons–who we are.  

Both Matt Anderson’s Earthen Vessels and Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold’s The Life of the Body speak amply to this issue of the value of the physical body, and they both point not only to God’s creation, but Christ’s incarnation, as a valuable, informative doctrine on the matter.  

4) Christ’s incarnation encourages us to keep touching each other. 🙂

When God the Son took on flesh, the Triune Community made a profound statement about how far They would go for physical connectivity.  Christ would connect and interact with us physically, even to the point of death.  When He took on flesh, a value-judgment by God was laid bare–God cares about the physical realm.  It makes sense then that psychologists point to physical touch as a necessary part of human development and flourishing.  Physical contact is part of God’s design of the way things ought to be, and the incarnation is Exhibit A.

My opinion, therefore, is that, while we can use wisdom and the best ideas that modern hygiene has to offer, there’s something powerful that we would lose if we hyper-sanitized our worship practices.  It may just be me, but I actually like knowing that there are germs in the elements of Communion.  That picture serves to remind me that the Lord’s Supper juxtaposes a tension of “mundane glory.”  It is a mystery and life-changing encounter.  And yet it is made manifest in earthy wheat, yeast, and fruit, which are broken and crushed, as Christ was.  In a small way, too, when I share in the germs of my brothers and sisters (perhaps this sounds twisted), I symbolize (and maybe actualize) my willingness to bear their burdens (Gal 6:2), as Christ did mine (Isa 53:4).  All the more, then, not only do I need to shake hands, hug, and share in the bread and wine for my well-being in the spiritual body of Christ, I want to do so, even at a little risk to my physical health.  I want to be wise in keeping clean.  But I also want to trust God for the details as He calls me into deep, rich, life-giving, albeit dirty, community.  

So, in a society where human touch is at a painful, spiritually emaciating low, for Christ’s sake (literally), don’t give up the few chances we have in worship to model what the kingdom of God will look like when our Lord brings it to the fullness of consummation.

6 Comments on “How the Incarnation Informs Germophobia in Worship”

  1. Full disclosure: It wasn't original research performed by me, just a research article I read and reported on. Zac may have misunderstood me, but a very interesting article none-the-less. : )

  2. Zac, as always, you are articulate and persuasive and present some very interesting information and opinions here to consider. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say, and as a singer in the church during flu, cold and germ seasons this will give me something to ponder. Thanks! Katie

  3. Hey Zac,

    Thought-provoking and theological as always.

    This subject comes up every few years at my church–including this one in which we're experiencing another wave of the flu. I wrote about it for my church context here:

    The thing I've been thinking about recently is what we do as a community and how that relates to the individual. For example, I think it's legitimate for the church to encourage people to shake hands during flu season, stand while singing, or share a common cup. But there will always be individuals who can't, or have an extremely difficult time, taking part.

    In my congregation there are a number of folks in wheel chairs. Some of them read "please stand" and know that they would if they could, but they're fine with being the exception; others of them feel like those kinds of instructions exclude them or normalize standing in a way that lessens their dignity as sitters. Ditto for celiacs and recovering alcoholics. Some are fine with passing an element on by and others feel like gluten free bread and grape juice would be a simple way to include everyone.

    For the sake of the individual, it would be very easy to create a communion buffet ("Would you like gluten or non with your single varietal grape juice?") and a host of qualifiers to every instruction ("Please stand, in body or spirit.") On the other hand, for the sake of the Body, would could be inflexible ("The Bible says 'wine'; it's not our fault she's an alcoholic!"), thereby hurting or ostracizing individuals.

    Personally, I want to resist the individualism and consumerism of the culture that seeps into worship. But I also am aware that there are real pastoral issues at stake. For example, there are a number of people that would attend my church if it weren't for the weekly intinction. It creeps them out. Yes, they could find another church. But does MY church have a responsibility to make itself accessible to them?

    So that's what I want your next post to be about: balancing the needs/desires of the individual with the demands/unity of being one body.

    Keep rockin' it for Jesus.



  4. Greg: Well put. That's a great point. "The one and the many in worship." Things are so very contextual when you're taking "absolutes" and applying them to the pastoral community.

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