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January 13, 2021Interviews

When Will Churches Be Back? Vital Information for Churches and Christian Leaders

A brief overview of Ed Stetzer's interview with Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health
When Will Churches Be Back? Vital Information for Churches and Christian Leaders
Image: Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, National Institutes of Health

Ed Stetzer: [Church leaders] are asking questions about when we might be back together. Help us understand the timeline a bit more, knowing thing might not go the way that we expect.

Dr. Francis Collins: I’ve been working from home for almost a year and I expect I’m going to be in my home office for a few more months. Here we are at the beginning of 2021, and this pandemic across our country is the worst it’s been, with 3,000 people or more losing their lives every day.

The bright spot, of course, is the development of vaccines. We do now have two such vaccines that are carefully reviewed, shown to be safe and effective by rigorous means, and authorized by the FDA for emergency use. We’re doing everything we can to get those dosages into people’s arms because that is how we are going to get past this.

I know people may have mixed feelings about the vaccine. For me, as a scientist, it feels to me that God gave us the skills to be able to understand how these things work, to identify this pathogen, and to (in record time) be able to come up with the vaccine, which has 95% efficacy. They’re actually a lot better than most of us dreamed we would have at the present time. So this is a gift from God, and a gift we all need to embrace to get past this.

To be able to immunize 300 million people is not something that can be done in less than a few months. I do think, by June or thereabouts, we might be getting close to that point where 80-85% of the country is immune. At that point, the virus has to start fading away, because there aren’t enough new people to infect.

I don’t think that we’ll be able to bring churches together for an Easter celebration this year, though I would love if that were the case. It is going to take all of us to get there.

I am concerned that people of faith, in some instances, seem reluctant to embrace this as a gift. If only half of Americans take this vaccine, we will not be past this any time soon. We have to get to the point where most of the population is immune, or we haven’t really ended things.

Stetzer: What would you say to those who think this vaccine was rushed?

Collins: We did move this more quickly than has ever happened. Partly this is because of new technologies that were developed in the last 25 years. Let me assure you, as a physician and scientist who has been in the middle of these vaccine developments for the past year, the only corners that have been cut were the bureaucratic ones.

The science is as rigorous as anything we have ever done, in terms of vaccine development. The ultimate conclusion about safety and efficacy, which is in the public domain, is incredibly compelling. 30,000 people enrolled in these trials, and 95% efficacy showed up with no real evidence of any safety concerns. The data is there! So, ignore the conspiracy theories and look at the evidence. That is what we are all called to do.

[Dr. Collins also addressed question about stem cell lines, the process, and conspiracy theories. Listen to the full interview here]

Stetzer: You’ve said elsewhere that taking the vaccine is not something you do for your just yourself, but as a way to love other people. Can you tell us more about that?

Collins: There are two primary ways.

First, this virus is so hard to manage because you can carry it and spread it without even knowing. Vaccination is a way to reduce that risk.

Second, on a larger scale, if we are all part of a community, we really need all of us engaged in the effort to generate herd immunity.

We need everyone to succeed. This isn’t so different from putting on a seatbelt or not drinking and driving. We don’t want to make the vaccine a law, but it is a moral responsibility.

Stetzer: What do you think the level of mitigation will be at by summer?

Collins: I wish I could be more precise. Some of this depends on whether other vaccines get approved. There are six more being studied. The more that get approved, the quicker we can vaccinate.

We also have to study whether or not the vaccine is safe and effective for children. There is still a lot of uncertainty.

Don’t have your heart set on June, but by the fall we ought to be in a pretty good place. I don’t think it would be totally unrealistic to think that by June or July that we might be in a place to have a lot more public gatherings, including churches, but I can’t promise that.

If 30% or 40% of Americans don’t take it, we don’t get out of this.

Stetzer: When you say it’s going to be different in the fall, what will it look like?

Collins: There is a big unanswered question.

We are intensely investigating whether or not those who have received the vaccine can still spread the virus even if they don’t get sick. If the vaccine means they don’t get sick and they can’t convey the virus, mask wearing won’t be expected. If you can still spread the virus even after the vaccination, you’ll still have to wear a mask.

I don’t think so, but we have to keep the option open.

Stetzer: To close, give us a short vision on why Christians should be engaged with the vaccine, and should advocate for it.

Collins: This is not the first plague that we’ve had to deal with. Christians have always had the courage to figure out how to help. We should do that now.

We won’t help the situation if we don’t get the vaccine and continue to spread the virus or ignore protective measures.

One of the ways we evangelize is through our actions. Are we creating a positive public witness? Are we a group people want to be a part of? Are we helping our neighbors? Are we reaching out to the lonely? Are we being a listening ear, virtually?

Let’s focus on being a part of worldview that others want to be a part of. We can get through this, but we have to get through this together.

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