It’s been over a year since the pandemic began. Over that time, many churches have risen to the challenge of our time in remarkable ways. Across the globe, churches have cared for those suffering, worked to maintain connections within communities, and offer guidance on how to navigate a disorienting season of lockdowns and restrictions. All of this while making an unprecedented shift in their own gathering to online services. Although it can be lost in the headlines, many pastors have led well during extraordinary times.
So as we begin to see light at the end of the tunnel on this pandemic, one significant challenge remains: COVID-19 vaccinations.
A recent AP story identified evangelicals as a significant source of vaccine skepticism in the U.S. The author notes the skepticism many evangelicals have regarding COVID-19 vaccinations. It shared how Southern Baptist Convention President, J.D. Greear, posted a picture while getting the vaccine, garnering over 1,000 comments ranging from support to great disapproval. Some charged Greear with being complicit in government propaganda. When I posted a picture of my own vaccination, a concerning amount of uninformed foolishness littered my replies.
The challenge we face in the coming months is that vaccine hesitancy is disturbingly strong. While I addressed this challenge in USAToday by encouraging evangelicals to “get the facts on the vax,” I believe pastors and church leaders have a significant role to play.
“Vaccine hesitancy” is actually a term that refers to “delaying or refusing vaccines despite the availability because one may believe that a vaccine may be unnecessary, ineffective, or unsafe.” According to The Pharmaceutical Journal, there are a host of reasons for vaccine hesitancy :
More specifically related to the COVID-19 vaccines, here are a few more reasons for vaccine hesitancy :
I can understand some of the above concerns surrounding vaccine hesitancy. And I never would want to shame people who have legitimate concerns. However, there are some concerns, like the conspiracy theories suggesting the vaccine contains a microchip carrying the mark of the beast, that I believe expose the foolishness and gullibility of people, particularly evangelicals.
Turning then to how pastors and church leaders can effectively answer these concerns or counter these conspiracies, I want to offer three practical areas of exhortation.
Here are three ways you can lead others towards the light of ending this pandemic.
1. Lead by your actions.
The simplest yet perhaps the most profound way to lead is through example. I would encourage church leaders to lead by getting the vaccine.
According to Yale Health, there are two exceptions to people not getting vaccinated. First, “people with a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to any component of the COVID-19 vaccine should NOT receive the vaccine.” Second, “People with a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) should consult with their health provider to assess risk prior to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.”
With every day that passes we get more data on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Contrast this with a virus that has killed over half a million people in the United States and millions more around the world.
Let that sink in… half a million people.
Given the clear evidence that vaccines mitigate the number of people that die from COVID-19, good leaders will lead by example. In this respect, I would encourage you to share a picture of you getting the vaccine. I would even ask that when posting you encourage others to get it as well. According to Dr. Jay Butler, another way you can lead out is by working with local or state health departments to see if your church could be used as a vaccination site.
I know what you’re thinking. You may say, “Ed, that’s great that you got the vaccine and tweeted about it, but if I do it people will get upset at me.”
It’s true. For many, getting the vaccine will be uncontroversial to their churches where for others it could be spark conflict within the pews. Yet this is what leaders do. On issues of importance—where life and death are one the line—we need to speak with clarity and conviction as we act as models to our congregation. On this, as with so many other issues today, we cannot be fearful of those misled by social media or cable news.
I believe pastors and church leaders should lead and be more concerned about the communities than a few vocal people on social media.
2. Lead with information and others that people know and trust.
As part of a campaign to boost vaccination rates, NBC aired “Roll Up Your Sleeves” on Sunday, April 18. During the hour-long special, President Biden along with celebrities like Russell Wilson, Jennifer Hudson, and Matthew McConaughey sought to dispel concerns surrounding vaccines. I bring this up because, through this event, our leaders attempted to leverage the symbolic capital of celebrities to bring trust to the nation in getting vaccinated.
Now, I don’t expect any of the people I mentioned are likely to have significant impact on evangelicals. However, I do expect there are people in your congregation—elders, deacons, doctors, and scientists—that people in your congregation trust even more. Providing space for those with expertise in public health and in good standing in your community can be a powerful tool to overcome the abstract and confusing nature of vaccines.
Lead by encouraging people to encourage other people to get vaccinated. There are people in your church who have been misled by the online arguments and you—along with the help of trusted voices—need to lead them now.
3. Lead because you should.
Today, we have the opportunity to help lead the church to contribute to the flourishing of the world through advocating for vaccinations. Despite a long-held misconception that science and faith are diametrically opposed, this isn’t the first time the church could be used to advocate for inoculations. For instance, in the early 18th century, clergymen (such as Increase Mather and his son Cotton) advocated for immunizations for smallpox and other infectious diseases. While there have been those that attacked new science, there are those that see science as both an opportunity to better understand God as well as an opportunity to participate in the creation mandate for the flourishing of the world.
Pastors and church leaders should take up this theological heritage to leading our congregations when they are unsure, misinformed, or afraid.
Why, you ask, should you help lead the charge? Because you care about people.
You care about the protection of life. You believe in common grace and that humanity—created in the imago Dei—has been gifted with the ability to create something that can be used for good. Because the risks from being immunized immeasurably outweigh the cost of not being immunized. Because you have access to something that other people (Christians included) around the world wished they had access to.
Now, leadership is not the same thing as forcing conformity. You’re not pressuring or shaming people to take the vaccine. You’re simply leading them through modeling and informing them because you believe it is for their good as well as the good of others.
Yes, this is a hotly debated issue.
By taking a stand you will upset some people, but that’s what leaders do.
Yet, those who will be upset at you take stands—aggressively. Those spreading misinformation speak forcefully, while they often say you should stay out of the issue. They lead, and there are consequences if they are the loudest voice in your church.
May our hesitancy give way to advocacy, and in doing so may the church be seen as “for” something rather than “against” something.
 Sudaxshina Murdan, Nusayba Ali & Diane Ashiru-Oredope, “How to address vaccine hesitancy,” in The Pharmaceutical Journal. https://pharmaceutical-journal.com/article/ld/how-to-address-vaccine-hesitancy.