The Eerie Spectacle of Pastors Preaching to Empty Pews

Troy Dobbs speaks at a podium before an empty auditorium.
Pastor Troy Dobbs at Grace Church Eden Prairie in Minnesota on Sunday. Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Many people turn to religion in times of crisis, if only temporarily. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for example, church attendance across the country briefly spiked, as people sought community and meaning in the face of fear. It is a particular challenge to churches, then, that our current crisis requires that we stay home. Most of the country’s largest churches opted to cancel live services starting this weekend, sometimes under pressure from local bans on large gatherings or following instructions from denominational leaders. Many smaller churches, too, canceled live services and attempted to find ways to gather online or otherwise meet their congregation’s spiritual needs in a time of high anxiety. The result was a sprawling and varied patchwork of local church services being streamed online to viewers in desperate need of comfort.

Most large churches already livestream their services online or at the very least have sophisticated recording equipment and technical and creative staff to produce professional broadcasts. Many of those large churches put on their normal “show” on Sunday, with worship bands performing and pastors preaching to empty auditoriums or a small group of staff members. At Grace Church Eden Prairie in Minnesota, senior pastor Troy Dobbs presented his sermon in an empty auditorium that seats 4,200 people. At Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, a few dozen staffers filled a few rows of chairs near the front of the former Compaq Center in Houston, an arena that can seat 16,000. Smaller churches scrambled to make services and other resources available online. Many turned to Facebook Live, often for the first time. At Presbyterian Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts, pastor Desiree Lawson led a service from her home using the videoconferencing service Zoom, and invited church members to type their prayer requests into the chat function.

Leaders addressed the virus directly, acknowledging their parishioners’ fears and attempting to offer spiritual consolation. At Washington National Cathedral, presiding Bishop Michael Curry—who preached memorably at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry—closed his sermon with a moving a cappella rendition of the children’s song “Jesus Loves Me.” At Crossroads Church, a megachurch with locations in Cincinnati and Kentucky, pastor Brian Tome invited community members—including a Cincinnati City Council member, a schoolteacher, and a stay-at-home mother—to the stage to share both reassurances and anxieties, which he responded to with prayer. (Tome recorded a video last Monday, since deleted, in which he made light of the virus, before pivoting to cancel live services on Thursday.) He appeared to struggle to find the right tone for the service, at one point joking “Shame on you” to staff members who were not standing the recommended 6 feet apart. But his sermon was titled “How to Deal With Crisis.”

Some leaders shared their own experiences with the virus during services. At Washington National Cathedral, Bishop Mariann* Edgar Budde delivered a brief introductory message from her home, where she is self-quarantining after learning that someone she has been in contact with recently tested positive. (She is awaiting her own test results.) At Life.Church, a multisite megachurch with locations in 11 states, pastor Craig Groeschel opened his sermon by talking about his own two-week quarantine experience, just concluded. Groeschel and another Life.Church leader, Bobby Gruenewald, had attended a large church leadership conference in Germany, where a person they attended a small dinner with had been diagnosed with the virus. Groeschel and Gruenewald found out about the person’s illness when they turned on their Wi-Fi on the flight home. They alerted the flight attendants immediately, who cleared space around them on the plane. “Now I know what it’s like to be a leper,” he said with a smile. He acknowledged that his self-quarantine period was nothing like the hardships others will face in the coming months, but he said it was one of the most difficult periods of his life nonetheless: “We’re not created to be alone.”

Preaching is generally a solo effort, but church music—communal singing and worship—is much harder to replicate without a congregation. At Washington National Cathedral, four choir members spaced several feet apart sang choral music and hymns to empty pews, accompanied by an organist. In many contemporary churches, bands performed their usual worship songs on large stages, recorded with sophisticated camerawork that obscured the fact of the empty seats in front of them. In smaller churches, music sometimes consisted of a pianist and a single singer filmed with a stationary camera and amateur recording equipment that picked up every echo in near-empty rooms.

Many Sunday services this weekend had moments of unmistakable awkwardness: empty rooms, janky technology, and, in a few cases, pastors who seemed outmatched by the current moment. But for people who attend church every week, including myself, watching these ad hoc services was a comfort nonetheless. At the Upper East Side location of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, the service ended with a string quartet and a pianist accompanying a singer onstage, who performed the 19th century hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,” a song of reassurance in times of both peace and sorrow.

After the service ended, the livestream of the church’s sanctuary continued for a few minutes as the band collected their sheet music and packed up their instruments. Staff members, several wearing rubber gloves, tidied up the stage and chatted. Watching from home, it was a poignant glimpse of the kind of casual, live human interaction that many of us may not witness again for many weeks, let alone participate in—a kind of unexpected spiritual succor, however brief and accidental. Then, taking care to stay several feet apart from one another, the last few people in the church sanctuary put on their coats and walked out of the frame, and the screen went dark.

Correction, March 16, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Mariann Edgar Budde’s first name.