This past Monday, Cincinnati pastor Brian Tome was feeling upbeat about the coronavirus.* To reassure the some 35,000 people who attend his church’s 12 locations each weekend, he recorded a brief video in which he strolled down a local sidewalk, talking to the camera about how fear is not the Christian response to the evolving pandemic. “I’m not saying people aren’t dying, but they tend to be very old people and people who have significant medical problems,” he said. “I just want to say: you’re going to be ok.” At the end of the video, for a bit of comic relief, a person in a hazmat suit handed him a Corona beer. He cracked it open, smiled at the camera, and took a swig.
By Thursday afternoon, Tome had changed his approach. Crossroads Church, where he’s the pastor, will move all of its weekend services online starting this weekend, and close all its buildings, in Ohio and Kentucky. “There are things I believed 24 hours ago that I don’t believe now,” Tome told me on Friday. “It was a stupid thing to say.” (The video has now been taken down.) Tome said he’d initially felt that the best way to serve his community was by pushing back against unfounded fear; he described himself as an “anti-fear guy” who rides his motorcycle at 80 miles per hour without a helmet. But by Thursday, he realized that the virus represented “a very clear physical danger we can’t ignore.” Like a late-night talk-show host performing to an empty studio, Tome will preach his sermon this weekend to an empty sanctuary, with his congregation tuning in from home.
Across the country, other pastors of the country’s largest churches are making their own decisions about what to do this Sunday morning (or Saturday night, as the case may be). Because religious services bring large groups of people together in close contact, houses of worship can be hubs of disease transmission. In New Rochelle, New York, a synagogue was the center of an outbreak that eventually summoned the National Guard. Many international religious groups have now made drastic decisions to restrict public gatherings. On Thursday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints canceled services indefinitely. The Catholic archdiocese in Seattle and the Episcopal Church in D.C. and Virginia are among the regional bodies that have canceled services.
Christian megachurches, defined as congregations with regular weekly gatherings of more than 2,000 people, face unique challenges. Their gatherings, by definition, are enormous. They are headed by figures who are both local spiritual leaders and national celebrities with their own brands to protect. And many are nondenominational, meaning they do not answer to a larger ecclesiastical body.
Now, many have independently made the decision to close. In Houston, pastor Joel Osteen canceled live services at his Lakewood Church, which attracts up to 50,000 people over the course of a weekend. Bethel Church, a prominent charismatic megachurch in northern California, is also canceling all services this weekend, despite some of its leaders posting dismissively about the virus online. Hillsong, a celebrity-friendly church with campuses on six continents, has canceled public services in New York and Los Angeles, and “other campuses may also elect to do so in the coming days,” according to a statement from founder and global senior pastor Brian Houston.
Megachurches’ regular weekly gatherings would violate new bans on large gatherings of people in a fast-growing list of states and municipalities. In Illinois on Thursday, Gov. J.B.
Pritzker banned all gatherings of more than 1,000 people until May 1, and recommended that gatherings of 250 people also be postponed. Willow Creek, a nondenominational megachurch with eight locations in the Chicago area, canceled services at all locations the same day. (Willow Creek was the host of a leadership conference in Germany last month where four people later tested positive for the coronavirus. Life.Church pastor Craig Groeschel self-quarantined for two weeks after his return, and as of Thursday, the church was scheduled to meet as usual this weekend.)
Some large churches have pushed back on public health recommendations from local officials. In Kentucky, governor Andy Beshear urged church leaders on Wednesday morning to consider canceling services. The state’s largest congregation, Southeast Christian Church, initially said that services would continue as usual at eight of its nine campuses. On Thursday afternoon, the church reversed course, canceling all in-person gatherings and moving all services online indefinitely. In Dallas, where mayor Eric Johnson announced a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people, First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress said his church will still meet, but will break into smaller gatherings to comply with the new rules. “Right now there’s just about five cases in the Dallas area, so we don’t think it’s worth cancelling,” Jeffress told me Thursday, before the city announced its new policy. The church has approximately 13,000 members, and up to 6,000 attendees at Sunday services.
Some pastors have framed their closure announcements in spiritual terms, or used them as an opportunity to shape members’ responses to the virus. In Georgia, pastor Andy Stanley emailed members on Thursday evening to announce that North Point Community Church would cancel live services for at least the next three Sundays. “We are loving our neighbors by protecting our neighbors,” Stanley wrote. “This is what love requires of us in this season.” Willow Creek’s initial coronavirus update condemned discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans as “wrong and deeply contrary to the heart of the gospel.”
In many ways, large churches are uniquely positioned to pivot away from in-person gatherings. They have communications staffs, sophisticated member databases, and often their own apps to keep members informed. Meanwhile, almost every megachurch in American already broadcasts services online and is well equipped to transition to an online model. Lakewood Church, for example, will broadcast services this weekend via outlets including SiriusXM, Facebook Live, YouTube, AppleTV, and its own website.
But larger churches will also face challenges that smaller congregations don’t. A weekly gathering of thousands of people often feels more like a concert or a conference than a tight-knit community. It is easy to slip out early, or to skip for a few weeks or even months in a row, without anyone else noticing—or wondering whether an absence is cause for concern. Most large churches encourage small-group participation to build those intimate connections. And so in contrast to a smaller church where “everyone knows everybody,” church leaders will likely not be aware of the needs of an average megachurch attendee who is, say, food insecure or in fragile health. “One of the struggles that many megachurches face is individuals falling through the cracks,” said Jamie Aten, the coauthor of a Coronavirus planning manual for churches published this week by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at evangelical Wheaton College. “Megachurches may have to work even harder at finding ways to leverage technology and other resources to be intentional about maintaining community.”
By now, as the virus spreads quickly across the country, canceling church seems like an obvious precaution to protect the health of worshippers and their communities. That’s especially true when “church” is a gathering of thousands of people. But churches are also the places where many people feel called to gather in times of crisis, and where they make meaning out of chaos and fear. For a while, at least, they will have to do so alone. “People are looking to faith communities for hope and for social support,” Aten said. “But paradoxically it’s that coming together, normally our strength, that could actually put us at risk.”
Correction, March 14, 2020: This post originally misstated when pastor Brian Tome posted his video urging viewers not to fear the coronavirus.