Ahead of Easter Sunday, pastors are struggling to balance the spiritual needs of the faithful with the social-distancing requirements that have been imposed to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
In the absence of a federally mandated national shutdown, churches are subject to different regulations as to how they can celebrate the holiday. While governors all over the country have mandated that certain “essential” businesses — such as grocery stores and pharmacies — are allowed to stay open, restrictions on religious gatherings tend to be more of a toss-up.
Thirty-nine states have instituted stay-at-home orders as of Thursday afternoon. Of these states, 12 have made exceptions for religious gatherings, despite the CDC guidance against gatherings of more than 10 people. The CDC also recommends that “if a community is experiencing substantial community spread of COVID-19, then the houses of worship in that community should cancel all in-person gatherings of any size.”
Many churches around the country are abiding by these guidelines and have transitioned to online worship services, live-streaming sermons and homilies to parishioners via social media and church websites. Other places of worship have chosen to continue meeting in person. And with Easter fast approaching, the debate around church gatherings continues to heat up.
The Ohio megachurch Solid Rock, for example, has continued to hold services amid the pandemic despite pleas from the local mayor and health officials to cancel them. Solid Rock officials declined to be interviewed by Yahoo News, but pointed to a statement on its website.
“We are taking all necessary precautions to ensure the health and safety of anyone who comes to Solid Rock Church,” the statement reads. “We have scaled back our normal services; and there are not large numbers of worshipers in the facility, but we are open and continuing to practice and sustain our faith.”
Critics say those measures don’t go far enough. On the church’s official Facebook page thousands of people expressed their disappointment that the church remains open. One user wrote, “You are so wrapped up in your beliefs that you can’t take a step back and see the bigger picture. You’re putting so many people at risk unnecessarily.”
Another user wrote, “God heals and protects us from so much, however we were also blessed with a God given gift called common sense and I believe we are expected to use it whenever necessary.”
But not all the comments were in disagreement with the nondenominational church’s decision to stay open. One user wrote, “So thankful for a church like this! I definitely wouldn’t want to be a part of any church that this world agrees with!”
Another wrote, “Thank you for your goal of reaching the lost.”
Solid Rock church member Jeff Battles says everyone should be able to decide for themselves whether to attend church services “without ridicule.” He chooses to attend.
“The depression and addictions and broken heart, and suicidal thoughts have not paused during this time,” Battles told Yahoo News. “These spiritual attacks are hindering millions more lives than COVID-19 is. The greatest pandemic we are and have been dealing with is the brokenness that comes from sin. A hospital is for the sick, not the well. Same goes for the church.”
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has exempted religious services from his statewide stay-at-home order. “There was nothing specific in the executive order about churches because there is freedom of religion here in the United States of America,” he said at a virtual town hall last month. “Remember this, we really have one simple goal, and that’s to make sure you are not going to communicate a disease to somebody else.”
One church that’s chosen to stay open is Book of Acts Now Global Church in Brownwood, Texas. The lead pastor of the church, Jerry Bowers, says he believes people need church now more than ever.
“This is one of the worst crises that we’ve had in America in many years,” Bowers said in an interview with Yahoo News. “For most people who connect with a church, their church life is a real part of their support system. So during the worst crisis that many people have been through, we want to take away their support system? I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Bowers’s church has seen a 50 percent decrease in attendance since the pandemic began, but he remains steadfast that its doors will remain open. Bowers says he has enacted social-distancing measures and suggested that older parishioners stay home, but he still believes attending services at the church is safer than going to the grocery store.
“About two blocks from where I live is a Walmart,” Bowers said. “They can have, like, 200 cars in the parking lot, people going into that store that are complete strangers and they don’t know what they’re being exposed to. In my church, most of the people who come here know each other. We’re practicing safeguards.”
“I’m not afraid of being exposed to this virus,” Bowers added. “I’m not going to live in fear, and I encourage those who come to my church, don’t live in fear.”
In New York, the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would ban all nonessential gatherings in an executive order back on March 20. Religious gatherings, however, were left off his ban list even though his office “urges [churches] to follow the CDC’s social-distancing guidance.”
“Now is not the time for large religious gatherings,” Cuomo said on April 7 during his daily coronavirus press conference. “We’ve paid this price already. We’ve learned this lesson. … Now is not the time.”
One New York church choosing to follow Cuomo’s guidelines is Epiphany Church in Brooklyn, where lead pastor Brandon Watts has transitioned his church’s entire worship experience online.
“One of my roles and responsibilities is to make sure that I’m protecting our members, protecting those who attend our church,” Watts told Yahoo News. “And the only way we could really do that in a safe environment was to make sure that everybody stayed home.”
Watts says that while his church does not hold what he considers “large” gatherings, he understands that that guideline is open somewhat to interpretation. Even still, he added that pastors need to be mindful of the current situation.
“I think there is a danger in ignoring the state and local officials when they have stay-at-home orders,” Watts said. “I don’t look at it as an indictment against religious liberty. I think it’s a wisdom issue.”
Contrary to Pastor Bowers’s experience in Texas, the adjustments Watts has made have not taken a toll on the engagement at Epiphany Church. In fact, Watts has seen a 60 percent uptick in Sunday participation since it moved online. He’s encouraged by the numbers because he says church is still taking place.
“The church is not a building,” Watts said. “The church is not plaster and paint. The church is a body which is made up of people and that body is the church wherever you’re at.”
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