- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Megachurches are increasingly divided on whether to return to in-person worship, now months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

In North Carolina, the Rev. J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church, a multi-site house of worship headquartered in Durham, announced this week that congregants will meet in small groups in house churches instead of large gathering for the rest of 2020.

His decision drew considerable attention, given that Mr. Greear is also the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with more than 14.5 million members.

“We have decided — barring some miraculous reversal — we’ve decided to not meet all together each weekend as one body until the end of the year,” Mr. Grear told congregants in a video posted Sunday. “But we believe we can and should still gather.”

The Summit Church has about 10,000 members among 11 church sites in the north-central part of North Carolina, known as The Triangle.

Earlier this summer, the Rev. Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, suspended in-person services until next year, citing congregation surveys, discussions with medical experts, and concerns of the practicality of conducting contact tracing in the event of an outbreak at the church.

Mr. Stanley, whose church draws more than 40,000 participants weekly, said church officials had hoped to reopen on Aug. 9, but the “COVID numbers” are no longer headed in the “right direction.”

“Consequently, we cannot guarantee your safety,” he said in a video message to the suburban Atlanta church. “Even if we did reopen, we certainly would not be able to create a quality adult or children worship experience with social distancing protocols in place.”

Other megachurches are defying state shutdown orders intended to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

On Sunday, the Rev. John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, welcomed his congregation to a “peaceful protest,” meeting in violation of Los Angeles County’s restriction against in-person services.

“It isn’t the first time that we’ve sort of found ourselves in a trial, in an opportunity that could end up in a court setting or court situation,” Mr. MacArthur said in a video message to the congregation, referring to previous legal challenges the church has faced down. “We will obey God rather than men.”

According to a new Pew Research Center survey, about 8 out of 10 Americans say houses of worship should follow the same rules on social distancing and gatherings of large groups as other secular entities. Even amongst evangelicals, 62% call for churches to play by the same rules as businesses or organizations.

Last month, a survey of pastors from The Barna Group found that 52% of churches are open for normal use, with precautions in place.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not urge or discourage religious groups to meet, but encourage sanitation stations, mask use and possibly opening windows to improve ventilation.

In Austin, Texas, the leaders of the Austin Stone Community Church and its near 8,000 members have opted to continue with online Sunday worship rather than large, in-person services for the rest of the year — even though Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has deemed religious activity “essential” and exempt from shutdown orders.

“If you find yourself alone today watching this live stream, know that you are not alone but you are joined by thousands and thousands of believers,” the Rev. Aaron Ivey, Austin Stone’s pastor of worship, said Sunday in a live broadcast. He also invited worshippers to post prayers in the Facebook comment section.

However, in Arizona, where daily new COVID-19 cases have dipped below 1,000 over the last two days after nearly two months above that mark, churches have tentatively begun opening their doors.

On Sunday, Dream City Church in Phoenix — which typically draws more than 20,000 attendees weekly — opened for in-person worship after having offered online-only services since late June.

“I feel that this is right,” co-pastor Angel Barnett told congregants, who practiced social distancing during the service. “We should be grateful to live Arizona and not in California, where they’re trying to strip away our constitutional rights.”

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