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As COVID-19 surges, some churches return to online-only worship


PHOENIX (BP) — As COVID-19 surges are causing several mayors and governors to pause or backtrack reopening schedules, several churches in hard-hit states are returning to online-only worship.

In Arizona, churches are not included in Gov. Douglas Ducey’s executive order limiting gatherings to 50 people or fewer, but many churches there are returning to or extending online-only worship during the COVID-19 surge, said David Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.

Among those are North Swan Baptist Church in Tucson, whose senior pastor Gary Marquez died late Sunday (July 5) after a weeklong battle with COVID-19, the church announced early Monday.

“I’d say this second surge has really hit churches harder than the first one,” Johnson said Monday (July 6). “Even the pastors I spoke with this morning … they were both saying ‘Wow, back to online, empty auditorium.’ It’s very difficult to go back, once you felt like maybe we were back on a path to being a little bit more normal.

“I know of five churches that have decided to do that. That’s not, certainly, all of them, but that’s a pretty good representation of churches that have gone back to online only.”

In the Texas hotspot of Houston, where Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked churches to voluntarily return to online-only worship, at least three Southern Baptist congregations are doing so, including First Baptist Church and Sagemont Church. Woodlands Church, a multisite church with a primary campus just north of Houston in The Woodlands, is also returning to online-only. Likewise in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Hunters Glen in Plano is reverting to online-only.

Arizona and Texas are among the states experiencing the highest surges in positive cases, although such surges have been seen in about half of the nation since late June, according to news reports.

Arizona

Johnson knows of at least five churches that are returning to online-only worship, and some others are delaying a return to in-person gatherings. The setback is particularly disappointing to pastors who were beginning to feel that normalcy was returning, he said.

In addition to North Swan, other Arizona churches temporarily ceasing onsite worship include Cross Church in Surprise and 22nd Street Baptist Church in Tucson, Johnson said.

North Swan announced the death of their pastor, Gary Marquez, early Monday.

“Dear church family, our Blessed Savior took Pastor Gary home early this morning,” the church said on its Facebook page. “We thank you for all your prayers. He has been healed in heaven.”

Gary Marquez’s son, North Swan Executive Pastor Andrew Marquez, had announced only Sunday a return to online-only worship until the end of July, citing the surge in COVID-19 cases in Arizona, his father’s health and Ducey’s executive order.

“That order does not necessarily apply to churches, but because of the spikes in Arizona and the desire to keep congregating in groups of larger than 10 down, we’re going to go ahead and go back to online worship for the rest of the month,” Andrew Marquez said, “unless some good news changes and the order is lifted and we move to the next level.” He recounted his father’s COVID-19 illness, which doctors fought with remdesivir, a blood transfusion with COVID-19 antibodies, a ventilator and kidney dialysis.

A notice on North Swan’s church website said members of the church leadership had been exposed to COVID-19.

In Phoenix, North Phoenix Baptist Church had planned to resume onsite worship on Father’s Day, June 21, but delayed plans until July or August, said Senior Pastor Noe Garcia, who is also second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“There has a been a huge spike,” Garcia said in a video at nphx.org/updates. Several church staff members tested positive for COVID-19, and other church members have lost family to the virus, Garcia said.

“As your pastor, absolutely there are times that I grow frustrated,” Garcia said, “but ultimately I’m responsible for the sheep in the church, responsible for my staff, responsible for my family, most importantly, responsible for following God while I’m leading this church. I firmly believe that’s what I’m doing with this decision.”

Cynthia Arneson, North Phoenix Baptist communications coordinator, said one church member lost a family member to the virus.

“We do know that we have had multiple staff members, church members and attendees who have had the virus and have recovered from it on different levels,” Arneson said.

Texas

First Baptist Church of Houston planned a “rest area” from onsite worship for two weeks beginning June 26, but has extended the timeframe through July 19, said Steven Murray, director of communications.

“The decision was made to extend that ‘Rest Area’ through July 19 based on additional requests due to the continuing increase in cases in the greater Houston area,” Murray said. “Among the many requests made by the Mayor of Houston, churches were asked to only meet online for the next 3 weeks (thru July 19).

“During the 4 weeks when we had in-person services (May 31-June 21) at each of our four campuses, we had a very positive response with many tears of joy and gratitude as people returned to their campuses for the first time in months.”

Murray said the church followed all recommended safety measures, including designated ingress and egress pathways, mask distribution, hand sanitizer, limited seating, an RSVP attendance reservation system, cleaning between services and other measures. About 2,200 people attended each of the four weeks at the church’s four campuses combined, he said.

Sagemont Church in Houston has returned to online-only worship after briefly holding onsite services from May 24 through late June.

“We experienced about one-third of our normal attendance during those in-person weeks,” Lead Pastor Matt Carter said. “But after COVID-19 began to spike in Houston, we once again decided to resume online only meetings.

“Our primary decision was not based out of fear but for two reasons. One, the Scripture tells us to love our neighbor. As shepherds of God’s people, we want to protect them as best as we can, so it seemed wise and prudent to delay in-person meetings until this thing blows over,” Carter said. “Secondly, we want to be a church that loves our city. People that are far from God are concerned and scared. While we have the right to meet and assemble, we have chosen not to meet in order to show the city we care about its health and welfare.”

Hunters Glen Baptist Church (HGBC) returned to online-only worship July 5, Senior Pastor Mark Howell announced. The church had resumed onsite worship in early May after originally moving online at the start of the pandemic.

“In Texas, many churches that recently opened for on-campus worship have made the difficult decision to move back to online worship only, and many churches that were planning to open in July have put those plans on hold,” Howell said in a church Facebook post, joined by Worship Pastor Michael Slaughter. “The issue is not one of fear. … The issue is one of protecting our people and looking out for the ‘least of these.’ Given all the precautions that we can take to protect our people, we simply cannot ensure that they will not contract the virus at HGBC.”

The church practiced safety measures during its brief return to in-person worship, he said, but many members did not take advantage of the opportunity to gather.

“Many in our fellowship have expressed that their reluctance to gather for worship relates directly to the increase of cases across the state,” Howell said. “From my conversation with pastors in Texas whose churches opened in May or June, they have expressed a similar response.”

    About the Author

  • Diana Chandler
    Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.Read All by Diana Chandler ›