The upside of the coronavirus, says Jami Wermers, is that she’s attending so many daily Masses (at least, digitally).
“The church’s grace has really sustained us,” said Mrs. Wermers, who attends Saint Teresa of Calcutta parish in Dakota Dunes, just outside Sioux City, Iowa.
While sheltering at home, she’s found time to pray more frequently and recite the rosary, she says.
Christian denominations across the country have derived meaning and solace amid the coronavirus pandemic while creatively maintaining the unity of their congregations.
While a handful of churches have drawn attention for suing governors for exemptions to stay-at-home orders, most congregants are at home and attending services online, participating in mobile Bible studies, and reciting prayers, anticipating the day normalcy returns.
“There’s something in our DNA as Methodists that is oriented around health care and direct contact with people,” said Ted A. Campbell, professor of church history at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.
The spirit of Methodism founder John Wesley, who wrote a public health document in 1747, today prompts church staff opening the phone book and calling up members weekly, he said.
“Some little churches are saying, ‘Go through the whole list. Call every person. Ask them how they’re doing,’” Mr. Campbell said.
Meanwhile, a discussion about plagues has evoked a sense that the troubles of biblical times can be present today.
“No doubt we believe that God has made promises to his people to see us through,” said Keith Whitfield, a theology professor and dean at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
Last month, the Southern Baptist Convention canceled its annual meeting for the first time in 75 years. But it’s the absence of the “normal rhythms” of sharing faith stories in restaurants, on the street or with coworkers that has been felt most bitterly for Baptists, Mr. Whitfield said.
“We’re an active people,” he said. “We’re active in our faith. We’re engaged in mission and evangelism.”
“Corporate worship” is missing, too, for Myke Crowder, senior pastor at the Christian Life Center, an Assembly of God church in Layton, Utah.
The church has a menu of Zoom meetings, including an online youth service, a men’s Bible Study and weekly Sunday services. But he doesn’t see the digital domain ruling past June 1.
“There are things that can be done without coming together for sure,” Mr. Crowder said, “but there’s nothing like personal contact.”
Some churches have taken legal action to stay open. Last Friday, Maryville Baptist Church in Louisville and its pastor, Jack Roberts, filed a lawsuit against Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, accusing him of singling out churchgoers with enforcement of a stay-at-home order on Easter Sunday.
On Monday, the Christian nonprofit law firm Liberty Counsel representing Maryville announced a plan called “ReOpen Church Sunday,” set for May 3, calling on churches and believers to start meeting again.
But the virus has not spared the faithful. The nation’s largest black Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God in Christ, reportedly has seen at least a dozen of its bishops and prominent clergy die of COVID-19.
Two people died and nearly a dozen became ill at a Church of the Nazarene congregation in Oregon. A church choir rehearsal in Washington State left nearly 50 people sick and two dead.
Most mainline Protestant churches are waiting to reintegrate slowly into regular church attendance. A historical society of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is gathering audio and video recordings of worship services and sermons during the pandemic to fill archives showing how churches were “beacons of hope” in this time.
“Just as people today can read our Civil War Thanksgiving sermons to learn what preachers were saying and congregants hearing about that war, we want to make sure people in the future can access the 2020 Easter services as one window into the proofed impact the epidemic is having on our own time,” said Nancy Taylor, executive director of the Presbyterian Historical Society.
Michael Chan, assistant professor of the Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, notes that while Lutherans are reaching forward in innovative ways, they’re also “reaching back” to texts and Lutheran values rooted in their faith. One document, Mr. Chan said, is bluntly titled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.”
“It asks questions like, does Christian faith allow me to save myself and run?” Mr. Chan said. “It’s a good thing to survive, this is a God-given impulse. But what are the limiting factors? Are their needs of the neighbor [or] vocational responsibilities that would constrain my flight?”
Ultimately, the urge to fill gaps — whether through increased gifting or even a simple phone call to fellow parishioners — has kept the walls of the church together, even when parishioners are apart, he said.