Online Prayers, Drive-In Services, Social Distancing in the Pews: American Pastors Debate How to Do Church Amid a Pandemic

About 100 people gather in July for Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles for its first in-person service in months.
Damian Dovarganes, AP

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 used Facebook to livestream its services for the past couple of months.

Across the USA, faith leaders debate 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.

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 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.

Alamo Heights Baptist Church in San Antonio livestreams its church service during the coronavirus outbreak.
Eric Gay, AP

Churches that insist on members worshiping shoulder to shoulder have 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 weeklong 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 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 said this month after visiting a church in Florida.

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

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

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SOURCE: USA Today, Wenei Philimon