Church in the Age of Coronavirus: March-April

Closed churches. Empty collection plates. Defiant (and arrested) church leaders. Death threats. Dead pastors and congregants. Who could have imagined any of it? And yet, that’s the news that has filled our inbox in the past six weeks. Here is a roundup of stories about the way the pandemic caused by the coronavirus has affected churches in the United States.

For the latest — and links to continuing coverage — please check the timeline on Friends of Ministry’s Facebook Page and follow us there.

Use the links in the previews below to access the original sources of all stories.

Landlord changes church locks to stop pastor from defying coronavirus lockdown —

April 8 — New York Post— “A California church’s landlord changed the locks to prevent its controversial pastor from defying a coronavirus shutdown, according to reports. Pastor Jon Duncan had vowed to continue preaching at Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, telling Fox 40 the services were ‘protected by the First Amendment and should be considered essential.’  But he was met by several police officers when he arrived on Palm Sunday — and was unable to enter the completely shuttered church, the Los Angeles Times said.” Read the Post‘s story.

How a new law helps churches amid COVID-19 —

April 7 — UM News — “Under the new U.S. CARES Act, churches are eligible to apply for small business loans to keep staff on the payroll and to pay utilities….it’s hard to focus on the good news of the empty tomb when you’re worried about an empty bank account.” Heather Hahn reports on how the program works.” 

Redding church addresses connection to coronavirus cases in Shasta County —

April 7 — REDDING, CA — “Public health officials say members of a Redding church may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).,” KRCR News reported. “Several people are being treated, and their close contacts are in quarantine.”

Church gatherings amid coronavirus shelter-in-place order spark death threats —

April 7 — ROSEVILLE, CA — “Church gatherings during the coronavirus shelter-in-place order have sparked threats of violence that warrant a police response,” CBS Sacramento reported. “On Tuesday afternoon, a suspicious package was sent to the Abundant Life Fellowship in Roseville. The pastor, Doug Bird, thinks it was directly connected to social media threats he received after he held a service last weekend. Bird said he’s now canceled in-person services, but only because he was forced to.”

Kansas clusters tied to church gatherings —

April 6 — FAIRWAY, KS — “Monday, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly announced that several confirmed cases of the coronavirus came from clusters, several people who were in one place, and three of those clusters were related to church gatherings,” KCTV News reported.

Despite coronavirus concerns, worshippers gather at Orlando church under statewide exemption

April 6 — ORLANDO, FL — “Standing on stage in front of a green ‘welcome,’ screen, Pastor Rich Vera preached to a crowd gathered on Palm Sunday at The Center Arena in Orlando,” the Orlando Sentinel reported. “Many worship centers in Central Florida have been live-streaming or pre-recording religious services during the last few weeks in response to social distancing guidelines meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But Vera has kept the church on south Hiawassee Road open since before Gov. Ron DeSantis and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings each issued a stay at home order that exempted religious services.” Read the story from MSN News.

At least 70 people infected with coronavirus linked to a single Northern California church, health officials say —

April 5 — “A large and influential Russian language church near Sacramento, California, is denying it is at the center of a novel coronavirus outbreak. In an interview with a Sacramento television station on Thursday, Sacramento County Department of Health Services director Dr. Peter Beilenson confirmed at least 70 people at the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church were infected with Covid-19.” Read the report from the CNN.com Wire Service.

Churches reeling as coronavirus hits collection plates —

April 5 — LEHIGH VALLEY, PA — “Religious congregations large and small are being pummeled by a series of sudden financial hits not seen in living memory,” a report in The Morning Call noted. “Measures taken to contain COVID-19 have shut down in-person worship services where the plate is passed. Also shut down are fundraisers such as Lenten fish fries. Many parishes hope to make those up at later dates. Harder to make up will be the lost tuition and rental payments from the preschools and other revenue-producing programs that are housed by many churches and synagogues, and which also are shut down. Any congregations fortunate enough to have endowment income now have less of that due to the stock market crash.”

‘Everything happened fast’: Why is this Alabama county the hardest hit by coronavirus? — 

April 3 — The Montgomery Advertiser reported: “A rural, east Alabama county is far outpacing the state’s 66 other counties in both coronavirus infections and deaths, and local medical and civic leaders have said they believe it may be connected to church services, one of which a church leader says left at least 10 people sick.”

Churches allowed to stay open in states where millions are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus

April 2 — CNBC reported: “Churches and other religious facilities will be allowed to remain open in more than half of the states that are the most vulnerable to coronavirus, often with special exemptions to mandated closures of nonessential businesses. At least 11 of the 15 states containing the highest percentage of especially at-risk individuals are not currently barring religious gatherings, a CNBC review of nationwide emergency orders found.”

The church after coronavirus: How our communities are changing —

April 1 — “Catholic parishes across the world are closed,” noted the National Catholic Reporter. “Millions of Catholics have been unable to physically take part in the celebration of the Mass for weeks, and they may not be able to again for months. Simply put, the coronavirus pandemic is fundamentally changing how we do and be church. What could these changes mean for us in the long-term? How will they affect us in the years to come, well after the initial threat of the pandemic has passed?”

Clergy member of Second Presbyterian Church dies from coronavirus — 

March 31 — MEMPHIS, TN — WMC Action News reported: “Members of one of the largest churches in the Bluff City (area) are mourning the loss of one of their own who died after a battle with COVID-19. Second Presbyterian Church announced that associate pastor Tim Russell died Monday at Baptist.”

Naperville Church Pastor Dies a Week After Testing Positive for Coronavirus —

March 30 — A pastor at Calvary Church of Naperville has died a week after testing positive for COVID-19 and being hospitalized with pneumonia, the church announced Monday., NBC Chicago reported.

Coronavirus begins to usher in new era of drive-in churches in Southern California —

March 30 —  “On Sunday, March 29, about 30 cars filled with families — several with children and pets — gathered in a parking lot in Santa Ana to listen to the Rev. Robert A. Schuller preach from the balcony of a brown office building, as they tuned in to an FM radio station to hear his voice,” the San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported.

“His father is the late Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral megachurch, which was born as a drive-in ministry at the Orange drive-in theater in 1955, where the older Schuller planted the seeds of what would become a worldwide church through the power of televangelism.”

Louisiana pastor says he has 1,000 people at services, defying state coronavirus orders —

March 26 — “A Louisiana pastor continues to defy the state’s orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people by holding church services, the latest of which he claimed had over 1,000 attendees,” according to USA Today.

A megachurch has nearly 1,000 people tested for coronavirus in two days —

March 19 — “On Sunday, Alabama’s largest church stopped its in-person worship services. By Tuesday, it started hosting drive-through coronavirus tests in one of its parking lots,” The Washington Post reported.

“In the span of just two days, doctors in Birmingham tested 977 people from across the state by using the parking lot and volunteers from Church of the Highlands, according to Dr. Robert Record, who is helping to lead the effort. The drive-through effort at one of America’s largest churches is part of a larger nationwide push for more information about coronavirus as more testing locations began to pop up this week.”

Pastors refuse to stop assembling for worship —

March 19 — ChurchLeaders.com reported: “Though most American churches have temporarily closed and moved services online during this pandemic, some pastors refuse to obey orders or even follow safety recommendations. In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Rev. Tony Spell of Life Tabernacle Church insists the current outbreak is ‘not a concern’ and ‘politically motivated.’”

Church online services reach record-breaking numbers as coronavirus shuts down large gatherings —

March 18 —  “With swiftly changing circumstances and new guidelines regarding COVID-19 in relation to large gatherings, churches have turned to livestreaming, garnering millions of views,” according to The Christian Post.

Impact of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic on religion —

March 18 —  “The 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic has impacted religion in various ways, including the cancelation of the worship services of various faiths, the closure of Sunday Schools, as well as the cancelation of pilgrimages surrounding observances and festivals. Many churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have offered worship through livestream amidst the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic,” according to a report in Wikipedia.

Church of England suspends all services over coronavirus —

March 17 —  “The Church of England has suspended all services until further notice, saying it must become ‘a different sort of church in these coming months,'” The Guardian reported.

“The Methodist church and the chief rabbi also suspended services from Tuesday.”

At Fort Worth church where the pastor has coronavirus, ‘thanks be to God’ for Facebook Live —

March 15 —  “The building is closed, and some 40 members of the parish are in quarantine. They refuse to let that keep them apart,” The Texas Tribune reported.

At D.C. churches that remained open Sunday, a mixture of defiance, encouragement and faith —

March 15 —  “While public communal life was shutting down around the world, some Americans came together in person to worship. Some felt the urgent calls for social distancing were an overreaction. Some said the ritual just means too much to them to miss. But they all agreed that as the world seemed to be spinning into confusion and fear — with more people growing ill and isolated by the hour — many believers needed prayer more than ever,” The Washington Post reported.

The Christian response to the coronavirus: Stay home  —

March 14 — “The pandemic forces the church as an institution to consider its role during a time of crisis,” noted The New York Times in an opinion. “Many religious communities are suspending their typical operations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has stopped services worldwide. The Catholic Church in Rome shuttered its doors temporarily. Much of Washington State has done the same. What should we think about this? Are Christians abandoning their responsibility to the sick and suffering?”

Coronavirus’s cruelest closure so far —

March 14 — “In a time of crisis, when it feels like everything is coming apart, we lean on our community and religious rituals to give us frame of meaning and a promise to hold fast to beyond the current crisis,” said the Rev. Anjel Scarborough, interim rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Owings Mills, outside Baltimore, quoted in The Washington Post.

Diagnoses cause Luthern church to cancel services —

March 13 — WMTV in Madison, Wisconsin reported that three members of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Sun Prairie had tested positive for the coronavirus. As a result, services are canceled at the church this weekend and will be re-evaluated on a weekly basis. 

The Methodist Church urges people in high-risk categories not to attend church —

March 13 — Updated today, The Methodist Church Coronavirus Guidance and Resources urged older and otherwise vulnerable people not to attend church services.

Mormon church suspends all public services worldwide due to coronavirus —

March 13 — The Mormon Church announced Friday that it is suspending all public services and events worldwide to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, according to a report by The Hill.

How churches are trying to keep parishioners safe as the coronavirus spreads —

March 12 — “From Communion to passing the peace to Easter season rituals, Christian churches are balancing tradition with precaution.,” vox.com reported.

From Seattle to Kentucky, churches cancel religious services —

March 11 — The New York Times reported that “the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle had suspended all public celebrations of Mass, effective immediately, becoming the first Catholic archdiocese in the country to do so.” Episcoal churches in Virginia and Washington, D.C., closed for two weeks. As the Times reported: “Houses of worship have come under increased scrutiny, as the very things that make them centers for community life and connection — places where large numbers of people gather to pray, take communion together, shake hands and socialize — have become a potential source of fear and infection.”

Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church suspends in-person services —

March 11 — KHOU reported: “Lakewood Church will not hold public services this weekend. Its services will be broadcast exclusively online.

“‘While there will be no services held at the church building located at 3700 Southwest Freeway this weekend, we will continue to monitor the situation week by week and hope to resume the assembly in the very near future,” Lakewood said in a statement..” All of Lakewood’s usual weekend services will be broadcast on YouTube, Facebook, Roku, SiriusXM Channel 128, and on JoelOsteen.com and LakewoodChurch.com.

God vs. Coronavirus —

March 11 — In an opinion piece, The New York Times examines the impact of the virus on communities of faith. “Holy water is not a hand sanitizer and prayer is not a vaccine. Political decisions aimed to guarantee public safety should be based solely on scientific evidence.”

LDS closes general conference to the public —

March 11 — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints closed its upcoming General Conference, scheduled for April 4-5, to the public. Because of concerns about coronavirusl, the conference will be on TV and online only, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Governor asks churches to cancel services — 

March 11 — The same day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear asked  churches across his state to cancel worship services to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. “I don’t believe that whether you go to church during this period of time is a test of faith,” he said, quoted in US News. “I believe God gives us wisdom to protect each other and we should do that.”

The Church of England issues guidelines for services —

March 10 — The Church of England suggests that its congregations suspend the use of the chalice during communion and avoid handshakes, hugs, or other physical contact.

Churches are live streaming services for congregants avoiding coronavirus — 

March 10 — Churches small and large are relying on video streaming services such as Facebook Live to deliver their Sunday messages and ask for online donations, USA Today reported.

New York State closes churches, temples and schools in NYC suburb — 

March 10 — New York State ordered churches, schools, temples and other places with large gatherings in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb, to close for two weeks, USA Today reported. Calling the coronavirus outbreak in Westchester County “literally a matter of life and death,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo planned to enlist the National Guard to help contain the virus.

Hundreds of Episcopalians in D.C. told to self-quarantine  — 

March 9 — After the Rev. Timothy Cole, rector of Christ Church, Georgetown, became the first Washington, D.C. resident diagnosed with coronavirus, health officials asked hundreds of people who had been to his church since February 24 to self-quarantine, according to The Washington Post. The church has 800 families as members. In a March 10 update, the Post reported that three cases of coronavirus had been linked to the church.

Experts urge people age 60+ to avoid church, movies, malls and air travel — 

March 6 — Two infection disease experts who have worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that older Americans, at highest risk of severe sickness or death from coronavirus, avoid even family gatherings while the disease is still spreading, CNN reported. The same day, “the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted new guidance on its website, encouraging older people and people with severe chronic medical conditions to ‘stay at home as much as possible.'”

In this 2008 photo, basic trainees receive communion from Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Michael Butler during mass.

As coronavirus spreads, Catholics cope with changes at mass — 

March 6 — Handshakes, hugs and sipping from the communal chalice during communion were all verboten at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washinton, D.C., starting the first week of March, according to a story in USA Today. Catholic churches in Illinois, Tennesee, Michigan and elsewhere also were making changes, some replacing holy water with hand sanitizer. Catholic parishes serve 20 percent of the U.S. population.

Church in the age of coronavirus — 

March 3 — The New York Times reported on changes churches are making to combat the coronavirus. Check out our blog post, our first report on how churches are coping with coronavirus and the fear that has come with it.

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