Online prayers. Social distancing in the pews. Christian leaders debate how to do church amid pandemic.

Elva Mankin

On a recent Sunday, Rod Loy, senior pastor at the First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, Arkansas, delivered the message of the Gospel through his computer screen.

“It’s easy to live out your faith when everything is going good,” he preached to his congregation. “But the real test is difficult. How does your faith hold up when the doctor gives you a bad report, the kids get bad grades, and you can’t pay your bills? How does your faith hold up when you lose your job in the middle of a pandemic? The true test of faith is a difficulty, hardship and persecution.” 

As he spoke, members of the church typed “amen” in the comment section. The church has been using Facebook to livestream its services for the past couple of months.  

Across the U.S., faith leaders are debating how they can continue to pray in fellowship with others while keeping staff and members safe in the age of coronavirus. Some churches have moved completely online, others have embraced drive-in service, and some are adamant about holding in-person gatherings. 

Alamo Height Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas live-streams its church service due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Alamo Height Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas live-streams its church service due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Proponents of church services argue that places of worship are a crucial source of strength, community and solace for many Americans, who should be allowed to safely congregate. Critics said soaring cases of COVID-19 in communities across the U.S. have made it impossible for large groups to interact and follow public health guidelines. In July, the Supreme Court ruled for the second time during the pandemic that churches can be restricted from worshiping to protect public health.

Churches that insist on worshiping shoulder to shoulder with members have already been linked to outbreaks. At the Warrior Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Alabama, more than 40 people were infected by the coronavirus after attending a week-long revival event. In San Francisco, at least 10 people tested positive for coronavirus after attending a wedding with roughly 100 people at Saints Peter and Paul’s Church. In Copperas Cove, Texas, five members of Victory Baptist Church tested positive for coronavirus and 20 members had symptoms. 

The Trump administration has called on local governments to allow places of worship to safely reopen. 

“We really do believe that, as we open up America again, we need to open up America’s churches and houses of worship because faith is the wellspring from which the American people have always drawn strength in challenging times,” Vice President Mike Pence told a local reporter last week after visiting a church in Florida.

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The push to reopen churches has intensified as the pandemic has stretched on. 

During the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, many churches either stopped meeting or moved their services online. As some COVID-19 restrictions lifted, some faith leaders began having in-person services or filed lawsuits against state officials in California, Mississippi, Kansas and New Mexico, arguing their First Amendment rights had been violated by the limitations on church gatherings. 

In Nevada, the leadership at Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley filed a lawsuit in May against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s attendance limit of 50 people at religious gatherings. The lawsuit pointed out that Sisolak’s rule allowed casinos, restaurants, bars, theme parks, and gyms to operate at 50% capacity. 

Ryan Tucker, senior counsel and director of Center for Christian Ministries with Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization that advocates for religious freedom, said Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley members were experiencing loneliness, depression, and marital problems with churches not meeting in-person.

“There is not a First Amendment right to gamble at the casino,” said Tucker in an interview. “You got First Amendment protection and issues in play against this church and any other across the United States.”

100 people gather for Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for its first in-person service in months.
100 people gather for Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for its first in-person service in months.

In its 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Calvary’s request without explanation. Conservative members of the church said the decision violated the First Amendment. 

“A public health emergency does not give governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee announced this week relaxed restrictions for in-person worship. 

Amid the legal maneuvering, many churches have continued to hold digital gatherings. 

In Philadelphia, officials at St. Peter’s Church chose to remain remote despite the state lifting its stay-at-home orders on June 4. The Rev. Sarah Hedgis said she won’t risk other people’s health by having in-person services.  

“I feel like the guiding principle for us is to love your neighbor as yourselves,” said Hedgis.

Neal Curtiss, an associate pastor at Living Hope Church in Vancouver, Washington, is doing online and drive-in services. He is waiting to see what happens in the next few months with schools reopening to determine whether it will be safe to resume service in the building. 

“There’s a reality that people may not come back inside the building,” said Curtiss.

The Rev. Reginald Woullard of Shady Grove Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, said it would be nice for churches to gather in person, but church members can still worship as a community online.

“Churches should be built on the word,” said Woullard.

Joseph W. Walker III, the bishop of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, said his congregation is considering not having in-person services or having fewer in-person services even once the pandemic ends. The church has seen a 30% increase in engagement since services went online.

Those who insist on worshiping together said they are looking out for their members’ needs. 

“People are dealing with the mental health struggles of quarantine and the church can be a lifeline for them,” said Angie Hall, executive pastor at the Church for All Nations in Tacoma, Washington, which has both online and in-person services. 

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson, at Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said his decision to do in-person services included a handful of members struggling with technology, as well as many feeling lonely and isolated. 

“People recognize that there’s something critical in gathering together in church communities and have a new appreciation for the time together that we have,” said Williams.

Anthony Weber, an elder at the Church of the Living God in Traverse City, Michigan, said some church members have left the church to attend other churches because they’re not happy about how the church is dealing with the pandemic. 

“Most churches are trying to balance the tension of trying to let people get back together while trying also to honor what the governor is asking of them,” said Weber. 

Church of the Living God is holding in-person services with members social distancing in the pews, but worship is done outside because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said singing may contribute to the spread of the virus. When people sing, there is a large production of aerosols that can spread the virus. In one study, it was discovered that 53 out of 61 people contracted the virus after attending a choir rehearsal. 

Weber said he is thinking about how to change the structure of the service once the weather changes. Once it gets too cold, he is not sure if church members will want to sing outside. 

Benjamin Karner, a senior pastor at First Baptist Church Laredo in Laredo, Texas, said services were held only online at the beginning of the coronavirus restrictions, then moved to a drive-in service. The church is now holding in-person services at 25% of the building’s capacity, as well as online services. Karner said the changes have been hard on the congregation but the church has to make sure that it continues to share in its love of Christ. 

“I’m urging people to take a step back and realize that sometimes life does change,” said Karner. “God works through that change — If you can change and adapt, you’ll find new opportunities that God is putting before us. If we can take advantage of those opportunities, we’ll see the love of God shine through.”  

Contributing: Elinor Aspegren

Scott Sheppard, pastor of Cornerstone Church preaches at an outdoor service n Athens, GA., on April 26, 2020.
Scott Sheppard, pastor of Cornerstone Church preaches at an outdoor service n Athens, GA., on April 26, 2020.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID church restrictions: How Christian leaders are having services

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