THESE SAME STRESSES PLAGUE BOWER DAY AND night. March 15—the Sunday most churches across the United States began canceling in-person services—Bower and his elders did the same and decided to stream his sermon online. Several members emailed Bower, alarmed: Don’t let Rome dictate the church, one member warned. Bower sent a letter to church members assuring them that the church was not facing persecution from the government—he and the elders wanted to keep people safe. In early June, abiding by North Carolina’s public health guidelines, Bower’s church held in-person, socially distanced outdoor services on a field at the church campus. Some congregants grumbled about having to meet outdoors—they said the church was caving to government control.
Discontented rumblings grew louder in mid-September when the church finally moved services back into the building but required social distancing and masks. The day Bower made those announcements, several people told him they wouldn’t comply. Some left and joined another church that had fewer restrictions. One man complained passionately yet begrudgingly came to church flashing a “Trump 2020” mask—but at least he showed up.
These are people Bower has shepherded for years, committed members who served the church, families he’s baptized and prayed for, loved ones he visited in hospitals. To see such a family leave because of a mask requirement or lack of kids’ ministry hurt. Meanwhile, Bower was disheartened to see political bickering and conspiracy theories popping up on social media, so he quit Facebook. In October, Bower led a three-part sermon series on unity within the Church. Most congregants’ comments were positive, but the handful of negative ones clung like barnacles to his memory, including one insisting that all Christians must vote for Donald Trump. Those comments discouraged Bower: “What weighs on me most is, I just wonder … did they miss what we’ve tried to teach over the years about being a disciple of Jesus? How do people get so sucked [into politics] so easily?”
CONGREGANTS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE VARIOUS spectrums are struggling too.
Some churchgoers say they left because church leaders were getting too partisan. Montrell and Kelsey Thigpen had been attending a Calvary Chapel in Sun Valley, Calif., for many years—Kelsey since she was a child, Montrell since he began dating Kelsey, now his wife—and thought their pastor was getting increasingly political. The church featured on its homepage a link to a local voting guide with endorsements for all Republican candidates and conservative ballot measures.
The church held in-person services for a time, then moved services outdoors. But according to the Thigpens, few people wore masks or social distanced. Kelsey, a nurse on a COVID-19 floor, told her pastor she didn’t feel comfortable attending in person because she’s exposed to COVID-19 patients all day and most of the church’s members are elderly. The pastor later mentioned the Thigpens by name in a sermon and said: “They say they don’t want to give anyone the virus.” A few minutes later in the sermon he asked: “Does anyone know anyone in our church who contracted the virus?” No one indicated they had. “Out of 700 people. Not one. … I think this whole thing is an issue of control—it’s to control people, control society; it’s to implement a new Marxist, socialistic government.”
The Thigpens were watching the service online and felt publicly shamed. Montrell visited his pastor to discuss his concerns but felt dismissed. That was the last time the Thigpens spoke to him, though Montrell said they love him: “[He] is 100 percent one of the best men I know. An awesome mentor” who was his wife’s pastor “for all 27 years of her life” before Montrell and Kelsey got married. But they still decided to livestream services from another local church.
I emailed the pastor twice and called three times to ask questions but received no response.
Others have left their churches for the opposite reason. In the spring, many people assumed online services would provide a short-term season of digital worship. But weeks stretched to months, and people now suffer from Zoom fatigue: Some Christians can’t gather, sing, hug, or break bread with the church body. The loss is not just physical, but spiritual, mental, and emotional.
As a homeschooling father and data artist who already works remotely, Robert Rouse decided worshipping through a screen wasn’t an option for his family: “To me, online churches are no different than a low-budget TV show.” Before the pandemic, he once taught a Sunday school class on the limits of digital interaction. So when most churches near his Dallas home shut down in-person services, Rouse and his family quietly looked for another church. He didn’t want to voice opinions against his church leadership’s decision to livestream services, but he also felt too strongly about the necessity of gathering.
Currently, the Rouses attend a church called Free Grace Bible Church that’s still gathering in small groups indoors. It doesn’t have its own building, so different families host the service at different times. Each Sunday, Rouse and his family drive 40 minutes each way to a farmhouse, where about 15 people sit scattered throughout the living room, sing hymns with a piano, and freely hug each other. “It’s just not as much of an issue,” Rouse said. “Everybody’s like-minded … it feels like an escape, at least for once a week,” from what he describes as “a world gone mad.”