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Gathering storms

Some churches continue to meet in person amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Gathering storms

(Chris O’Meara/AP)

While church leaders across the United States scrambled to organize online worship services in mid-March, pastor Rodney Howard-Browne told a large crowd gathered in his Tampa church why he would never cancel public gatherings: “This Bible school is open because we’re raising up revivalists, not pansies.”

The service on March 15 came as governors in other states were urging against large gatherings in the wake of the COVID-19 surge. Still, Howard-Browne told the congregation at the River at Tampa Bay Church: “Well, I know they don’t want us to do this, but just turn around and greet two, three people.” A video shows the smiling crowd exchanging handshakes and hugs.

A day later, President Donald Trump said the nation was in serious trouble: He urged against gatherings of 10 or more people in an effort to flatten the curve of viral spread. More churches began shifting to online worship services. 

On March 20, officials in Hillsborough County—where the Tampa church is located—issued an order that prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people. The order specified such gatherings included “faith-based events.” Howard-Browne held another church service on March 22. 

A week later, Hillsborough police arrested Howard-Browne hours after a gathering at the church on March 29. They charged the pastor with two misdemeanor counts, saying he violated the county order. (They released him on bail about 40 minutes later.)

“I believe there is nothing more important than faith in a time like this,” said Sherriff Chad Chronister. “But practicing those beliefs has to be done safely.”

Safe worship is a bitter pill for many Christians to swallow when it involves firing up computers in their living rooms instead of filling up church buildings in their communities. But many have agreed to forgo public gatherings—at least for a time—to follow local orders and protect public health.

A much smaller number have refused, with some saying government officials are violating their constitutional rights by forbidding larger church gatherings. They also chafe against local orders that deem a range of commercial businesses as “essential services” but that don’t designate churches as essential, too.

Still, most Christians have recognized the essential service of protecting lives during a deadly pandemic. And they’ve been willing to give up beloved Sunday gatherings in order to love their neighbors as themselves—whether they’re legally required to do so or not. They’re not pansies.

Legal battles will heat up: The Christian legal firm Liberty Counsel agreed to represent Howard-Browne in the Tampa case, saying the county violated the church’s First Amendment rights. (They also say the church practiced social distancing during the last two services in March.)

Claire Bangser/AFP via Getty Images

Buses bring church-goers from all over the Baton Rouge area to a Palm Sunday service at Life Tabernacle Church. (Claire Bangser/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, another pastor faces charges: Police charged Tony Spell with a misdemeanor after he held church services that officials say violated the governor’s orders prohibiting large gatherings. Hours later, Spell returned to Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., and held another service. A Baton Rouge news outlet reported the parking lot was packed. 

Spell—who told CNN the COVID-19 scare is politically motivated—vowed he would continue holding services, despite a state order that now bans gatherings of 10 or more people through at least April 30. Roy Moore—the former chief justice of Alabama—said he would advise Spell’s legal team. 

According to an NBC News report, Spell declared: “The virus is attracted to fear, and we are fearless people.”

By early April, it was clear the virus wasn’t sparing churches. Health officials in Hopkins County, Ky., linked dozens of coronavirus cases—and at least two deaths—to a local church that held revival services March 15-16 in a rural town east of Paducah. 

The federal government hasn’t issued orders related to church gatherings, but Vice President Mike Pence urged churches to comply with federal recommendations : “We really believe this is a time when people should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. And so we continue to urge churches around America to heed that.”

It’s unclear how courts will rule in legal battles pitting churches against government orders. The array of county and state orders issued in the last few weeks is dizzying, and attorneys in different states will have to argue cases based on the specifics of each order. 

After Howard-Browne’s arrest in Tampa, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state-wide stay-at-home order in Florida but exempted religious services. The order didn’t appear to set a limit on attendance or require social distancing. (The governor of Texas issued a similar order for his state.)

That led commissioners in Hillsborough County to grapple with bringing their local order in compliance with the state directive: The commissioners said they would issue guidelines to churches about safety, but no longer place requirements on their gatherings. 

After the meeting, attorneys from Liberty Counsel said they would halt plans for a lawsuit against the county, and they called on local officials to drop charges against Howard-Browne. 

Earlier in the week, Howard-Browne—who had said he would never cancel services—announced the church was canceling on-site gatherings to protect congregants from the “tyrannical government.” The church shifted to online services.

The steady stream of orders, revisions, and new orders have created legal whiplash in some communities. But while it’s unclear how legal battles will play out, it is clear that civil authorities have power to take steps to protect public safety. It’s also clear that orders aren’t singling out Christian gatherings—they apply to a broad range of religious and secular gatherings.

Beyond the question of what Christians may do during a dangerous pandemic, an even bigger question looms: What should we do? 

Andrew Walker, an ethics and apologetics professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says he doesn’t view the question of canceling church gatherings as fundamentally a religious liberty issue: “Is the church forfeiting its liberty to act with discretion and prudence and care for the society around it? I would say, no.”

Walker says Christians should be alert about religious liberty, and if government officials try to use any of the current emergency orders to later “create bad case law and bad precedent for hampering the church, then absolutely we’ll fight. I’m simply saying this is not the fight to have a fight over.”

In the 1600s, the English Puritan Richard Baxter wrote that Christians should obey civil authorities if they forbid church assemblies during pestilence: “It is lawful to do that secretly for the present necessity, which we cannot do publicly … and yea, to omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have the opportunity for more.”

As churchgoers in the United States and around the world rightly longed for the opportunity to gather again in person, Christian author and pastor Zack Eswine wrote about the Christian virtue of protecting our own health—so that we might be fit to sacrificially meet the needs of others as the pandemic rolls on. 

“We don’t prove our faith by defying orders in order to shake the hand of another Christian,” Eswine wrote. “We prove our faith by denying ourselves so that we can clear the throat of a neighbor who can’t breathe.”


Church in hotspots

Church leaders are doing the best they can while cut off from church members

MILAN, ITALY

For missionary Michael Brown, the most difficult moment of quarantine at his home in Milan came when a 50-year-old member of his church entered the hospital with COVID-19. Doctors placed the man, Sabino, on a ventilator.

“This is the hardest part for me,” says Brown. “I couldn’t go see him.” As in most hospitals battling coronavirus around the world, visitors aren’t allowed. Sabino couldn’t speak while on a ventilator, but Brown could still send texts to his phone. The pastor sent Bible verses and short notes of encouragement: “We love you.” “We’re praying for you.”

“I figured his body was being pumped full of vitamins and antibiotics,” says Brown. “I was just going to pump his soul full of the promises of God.”

As Sabino struggled, so did the rest of the country: At least 13,000 people had died of the coronavirus in Italy by the beginning of April. The country’s medical system groaned under an overwhelming load—particularly in the northern region of Lombardy.

That’s where Brown serves as the pastor of Chiesa Riformata Filadelfia in northwest Milan. (The Protestant congregation is part of a mission work called Reformation Italy.) Brown and his family left a home and church in California 18 months ago to serve as missionaries in the city.

He thinks back to normal church life just a couple of months ago: Sunday worship, fellowship, catechism classes, a new members class, and an English class outreach that was drawing 25 students. The pastor used the book of Mark to teach students: “The first sentence they learned in English was ‘The gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Mark.’”

These days—like pastors around the world—Brown and the elders in his church keep in touch with congregants by phone. They stream their worship service. Each evening at 8:00, they also stream a few minutes of Scripture and prayer, so the members can try to be together for at least a little while, even if it’s only virtually.

Brown says most people in the congregation know people who have died from the coronavirus: a brother, a cousin, an uncle, neighbors, close friends. Like other pastors, Brown bears the weight of not being able to comfort the grieving in person.

But he works the phone, and by the end of March, Sabino was texting back. At first it was two or three words. Then he could have short conversations. Doctors released him to recover at home. “We were elated,” says Brown.

Even in the burdens of the moment, and the stresses of a strict quarantine, Brown finds sources of encouragement. He says the number of people watching online services in the city has grown: First a few dozen, then 200, 300, and at one point, 1,000. He hopes to meet some of those people when the quarantine lifts.

“This is such a grave time, you just feel a burden to preach the gospel,” he says. “Right now, the gospel is the most applicable thing in the world.”

 

NEW ORLEANS

Back in the United States, New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, as other cities struggled too: New Orleans quickly emerged as a hotspot for COVID-19. Some speculated the large gatherings during Mardi Gras could have fueled the outbreak before government officials sounded serious alarms.

The city is alarmed now, but that’s not new for New Or-leans: This summer marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—the powerful storm that emptied the city for weeks and devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Ben McLeish remembers those days well. He’s lived in the city with his family for 20 years and led church teams gutting and mucking out houses in poor neighborhoods after water filled them and rotted most everything inside.

The deacon at St. Roch Community Church says the city is accustomed to trauma, but it can’t respond in its usual way. “When Katrina hit, you’d have a team come and gut your house in the morning and that night you’d have a crawfish boil for them,” says McLeish. “Eating and gathering in large groups is so how our culture has dealt with the intensity that exists here.”

That intensity spans decades, but it has a different feel now. “We mourn deeply and we celebrate big,” says McLeish. “Those are the pieces that have made us resilient over the years. It’s what makes New Orleans so beautiful. But we can’t do those things now.”

He says memories of Katrina’s trauma run deep in the city: “The difference now is that there’s no one to come to our aid. We’re all in the same boat.”

For a city dependent on tourism, the COVID-19 crisis hits particularly hard. It’s difficult to foresee when jazz clubs will hum again or when crowds will flock to the Café du Monde for its famous beignets.

Other parts of the city have known years of hardship and poverty, and job losses will only deepen previously existing problems. But McLeish says church members are keeping in touch, streaming worship online, and trying to serve the most vulnerable in the congregation.

He’s learning from his neighbors: “I’ve lived alongside and in community with people who are poor for the last 20 years of my life, and they know how to navigate this better than people who haven’t.”

“Their resourcefulness and ability to be patient and trust that God’s working—they have stronger muscles than I do,” he says. “I feel like I’m in an advantageous place to learn from them.”

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

Comments

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  • not silent
    Posted: Tue, 04/07/2020 09:00 am

    I noticed that the reason given for why churches are not following orders to forgo large gatherings was to protect Constitutional rights.  In response, I have to ask which is more important: our Constitutional rights or God's Kingdom? I do value my Constitutional rights; but, to me, the gospel always comes first.  There is a time to fight for our "rights," but not if that fight may hinder the advance of God's Kingdom.

    From my perspective, it is not essential to the gospel for churches to meet in person.  I also don't see how this violates our Constitutional rights, since churces are not singled out for this.  Furthermore, while there have been many things about this that were used for political posturing, I can't see how putting guidelines in place to protect the public is "politically motivated."  

    I debate atheists online; and they love stories like this because it gives them another reason to claim Christians are foolish, anti-science, and only interested in money and numbers. To be fair, they will attack prettty much anything to get a rise out of Christians and make us look foolish; but I don't see how churches meeting together in person, in defiance of local ordinances, helps share the gospel with those who are lost.  In my opinion, doing something that may actually cause harm to members, visitors, and seekers is much more likely to hurt our witness than help it.

  • ADONIAO
    Posted: Tue, 04/07/2020 01:29 pm

    " In my opinion, doing something that may actually cause harm to members, visitors, and seekers is much more likely to hurt our witness than help it."  I agree with you wholeheartedly!

  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 04/07/2020 04:53 pm

    To not silent - My reply to atheist is that a handful of religious nut cases do not change the reality of God, any more than atheist denial of God makes Him not exist.  

  • not silent
    Posted: Tue, 04/07/2020 04:13 pm

    Thanks for your input, and I agree.  I've found that many of the atheists I debate online are not really interested in debating with logic or reason; they are trying to provoke Christians with offensive comments and misinformation.  They love to try to force us to "prove" the existence of God (or the historicity of Jesus, or of the Bible); but, for them, NO proof will ever be enough because logic and a lack of proof are not the main reasons they are denying God. A former atheist described the belief like this: "There is no God, and I hate him."

      My goal is not necessarily to win a debate (how do you measure that anyway?)  I'm trying to shed light; tell the truth about the Bible, Christianity, and the gospel; and show love.  Your comment is great because it shows how many comments by atheists are not based on logic but on emotion.

  • ADONIAO
    Posted: Tue, 04/07/2020 01:36 pm

    I may be wrong, but i believe that churches, should meet online and not gather together right now for the safety of the community.  We can still share the gospel, (online), help our neighbors (especially the elderly) at a safe distance.

    Maybe the reason a lot of mega church pastors are protesting the lockdown, could be that they anticipate losing funds for their church.  That is understandable.  But it shouldn't be at the expense of harming their congregants.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Tue, 04/07/2020 03:01 pm

    I was in the middle of a study of 1 Corinthians before this all started.  We were about to get into chapter 9, in which Paul discusses his use of liberty.  One commentary I read noted that our liberty in Christ is not so much the freedom to do something, but the freedom not to.  He was, of course, referring to legalism, but I think it's somewhat applicable here.  I also have concerns about how this will impact constitutional freedoms in the future, but foregoing corporate worship right now, for the sake of our neighbors' wellbeing seems like the right thing to do.  Our communion with God is not dependent on our fellowship with other believers as long as we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  

  • RC
    Posted: Tue, 04/07/2020 04:52 pm

    These pastors who claim they are worried about their first amendment rights just don’t get it. The only reason the government has placed these TEMPORARY laws in place is to protect lives.  If the nut cases, like these pastors, voluntarily helped by practicing reasonable protective action the Government would have not needed to make laws to force them to do it.  

    Look, the goal here is to protect people, slow the spread of the virus, so more people will survive. I don’t like the restrictions either, but God calls us to practice a little self-sacrifice now and then and to practice these reasonable protective measures for a month or so is not too much to ask.

    Wait till people get sick and die who attended their churches, or who got near their members. The lawsuits for these pastor’s irresponsible behavior will bury them in debt right into bankruptcy.  These proud foolish pastors are not exhibiting faith, but a self-centered greed to do what they what no matter who gets hurt. Remember the center of SIN is the big I.   

    I wonder if they thought how they will sleep at night with blood on their hands.         

  • ROBIN W LUNDY
    Posted: Wed, 04/15/2020 10:31 am

    I assume the Richard Baxter quote is from "A Christian Directory," but I can't find that needle in that haystack. Can you provide the exact reference, please? Thank you.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Wed, 04/15/2020 02:28 pm

    It is from The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Volume 5, Question 109 in the "Christians Ecclesiastics" section. Joel Beeke’s blog has a post with the complete quote.