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Going virtual again: Churches return online as COVID-19 cases surge

Record number of coronavirus infections prompt leaders to rethink in-person assemblies.

Amid a nationwide surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, many Churches of Christ that had resumed in-person assemblies have moved worship back online, a Christian Chronicle survey found.

It’s the latest twist in congregations’ nine-month battle to curtail the spread of a virus that has infected more than 15.4 million and caused nearly 290,000 deaths in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Bill Denton

Bill Denton

“We have stopped meeting, started back, stopped again, started back and now will stop once more probably at least until the first of the year, depending on how the COVID-19 numbers look,” said Bill Denton, preaching minister for the Rodenberg Church of Christ in Biloxi, Miss. 

He cited a record number of cases in that Southern state.

Similarly, the Childress Church of Christ — a thriving congregation in a Texas cattle and cotton-farming hub, halfway between Amarillo and Wichita Falls — has gone virtual again.

“The COVID numbers in our area have spiked,” minister Trey Morgan said. “Our little rural hospital is struggling to keep up.”

According to The Associated Press, U.S. coronavirus deaths have soared to more than 2,200 per day, matching the peak reached in April. Cases per day have eclipsed more than 200,000 on average for the first time, with the crisis expected to worsen as a result of large gatherings at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, AP reports.

Rising numbers of infections and concerns that some members would travel during the holidays swayed the Northeast Side Church of Christ in Bartlett, Tenn.


Related: Read all our top stories on faith and COVID-19


“We have a health ministry team in the congregation consisting of healthcare workers,” said Matt Carter, a member of the Memphis-area church’s media team. “The leadership team made the decision to go back to online only in consultation with the health ministry team.”

Tim Tripp, senior minister for the West Side Church of Christ in Russellville, Ark., said: “We have decided to go to virtual-only services for two weeks after Thanksgiving and will likely do the same after Christmas and New Year’s.”

The Elgin Church of Christ, a Spanish-speaking congregation northwest of Chicago, worships in person back in June.

The Elgin Church of Christ, a Spanish-speaking congregation northwest of Chicago, worships in person back in June.

‘The most prudent decision’

In southern Indiana, the Newburgh Church of Christ’s in-person Sunday attendance had returned to about 80 percent of its pre-pandemic level, and leaders were contemplating whether to restart Wednesday night Bible study.

But then a member tested positive for COVID-19 on a Monday after attending worship that Sunday, elder Tracy Hayford said.

“My wife works in healthcare for a local hospital, and they are experiencing their highest rates of hospitalization since this started.”

“There was a surge in cases about that same time (early October), and our area has been ‘orange’ ever since,” Hayford said, referring to Indiana’s designation for the second-highest level of virus spread. “My wife works in healthcare for a local hospital, and they are experiencing their highest rates of hospitalization since this started.”

The church determined that stopping in-person assemblies was “the most prudent decision that will protect our members and reduce the possible spread of the virus.”

The local hospital filling up with COVID-19 patients was the trigger, too, for the Downtown Church of Christ in Midland, Texas, moving its Bible study and worship back to Zoom.

“Midland Memorial Hospital has opened up a whole previously unused floor solely for virus patients, has a tent set up, yet still may have to send patients to other places in Texas if hospitalization rates do not decline,” minister Greg Fleming said.

Supreme Court weighs in

The pandemic’s frightening turn came as religious leaders in some states — including New York and California — fought government restrictions on worship gatherings and received fresh support from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The addition of a fifth, solidly conservative member — new Justice Amy Coney Barrett — flipped the script on a previous high court ruling allowing such restrictions in Nevada.


Related: Justices flip script on COVID-19 worship bans, but health official urges closures


“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a 5-4 decision in late November that blocked New York from imposing strict attendance limits on religious services.

But despite the protests from some, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, urged churches to keep their worship spaces closed, NPR noted.

“Churches gathering in person is a source of considerable concern and has certainly been an instance where super-spreading has happened and could happen again.”

“The virus is having a wonderful time right now, taking advantage of circumstances where people have let their guard go down,” Collins said at an event last week. “Churches gathering in person is a source of considerable concern and has certainly been an instance where super-spreading has happened and could happen again.”

Caleb Borchers, a church planter in Rhode Island’s capital of Providence, said his 40-member congregation “returned to online only because the governor asked faith communities to maximize online and minimize in-person.

“As a minister, it has greatly challenged how I evaluate the fruit of my labors,” said Borchers, lead minister for The Feast: a church of Christ. “There is so little feedback. You don’t get the usual conversations after worship. You don’t have meaningful attendance numbers. You’re not even sure exactly who is watching.

“That requires a deeper belief that God calls us first and foremost to faithfulness,” he added. “Personally, it’s been good for our family. I feel like I’ve grown more than any other year of my life.”

Teens wear masks during a baccalaureate service at the Manchester Church of Christ in Connecticut. The coronavirus pandemic has brought changes to such annual rites.

Teens wear masks during a baccalaureate service at the Manchester Church of Christ in Connecticut. The coronavirus pandemic has brought changes to such annual rites.

Safety vs. fear

Christopher Gallagher serves as minister for the Gadsden Church of Christ in Alabama.

That congregation, about 60 miles northeast of Birmingham, had resumed a full schedule of in-person Sunday morning worship and Bible study, Sunday night worship and Wednesday night worship.

But in November, the church again hit the pause button on in-person gatherings.

“I have struggled with not meeting but still understanding the need for safety,” Gallagher said. “While we learn more each week regarding the virus, we also see some who have let fears conquer their faith.

“Their fear in meeting as a church is inconsistent with their trips to Walmart and other places,” he added. “While some avoid church meetings because of the virus, they are still electing to continue their normal life in other areas. I have witnessed this near and far.”


Related: More churches resume in-person worship, but COVID-19 brings changes


Still, he said, the church’s virtual presence has expanded its reach to include non-Christian viewers.

“It has strengthened my resolve to find ways to take advantage of the current situation to build community outside of the building,” Gallagher said.

Appreciating each breath

A small number of members of the Eastview Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz., were meeting at the building while others watched on Zoom, member Johanna Turner said.

But a surge in area COVID-19 cases recently prompted the church to scrap the in-person assemblies.

“I’d say it has challenged my faith,” Turner said. “I know I don’t spend time in the Word like I should.”

“We don’t plan to meet in person inside until the vaccine proves effective.”

But the pandemic has taught her, she said, “to appreciate each day and each breath we have because we are not guaranteed more days.”

While many Churches of Christ returned to meeting inside their buildings in the summer — typically with precautions such as masks, distancing and individual communion packets — some have met only online or outdoors since mid-March.

“We don’t plan to meet in person inside until the vaccine proves effective,” said Steve Puckett, senior minister for the Melbourne Church of Christ, a Florida congregation that has lost two members to COVID-19.

Others have taken a more creative approach.

Since early May, Christopher Wiles has preached each Sunday from the rooftop of the Central Church of Christ in Sparta, Tenn., about 90 miles east of Nashville. 

Members park and tune in to the sermon at 98.3 FM on their car radios.

“We’ve had wind, dazzling sun and ice,” Wiles said. “Yet it has never rained one single time during the message. Every Sunday, God has given us enough of a break in bad weather to preach a visible and accessible sermon to our parking lot and livestream.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Coronavirus Covid and church COVID-19 National religious freedom Supreme Court Top Stories U.S. Supreme Court

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