The coronavirus cleared out schools and store shelves, and now it has emptied the pews.
Pastors, mindful of their congregations’ physical as well as their spiritual well-being, used the social-distancing power of the internet to preach from vacant sanctuaries or their own homes.
But the sermons themselves did what they always do: soothe the worries of the day with the solace of scripture. This week, of course, the hope was to make sense of the COVID-19 outbreak that has frightened people around the world.
‘We don’t panic’
Pastor Frederick D. Haynes III hosted a virtual service at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas’ Red Bird community, calling the change in format an “unusual experience of worship in these unusual times.”
Before the church band performed in front of what appeared to be empty pews, Haynes reminded worshippers not to be fearful amid anxiety over the pandemic.
“We don’t panic. We plan, we praise, we pray, and we preach,” he said. “We are applying theology to our technology in order to ensure that your psychology stays sane during these crazy times.”
Haynes said his church would work with the appropriate agencies to make sure that children who rely on meals at school are fed and “that the vulnerable are not victimized.”
“We’re going to step up, so we need you to help us — you can do your part,” he said, pointing people to ways to donate from a distance — either by text or on the church’s website. The live stream also advertised a live prayer line for worshippers to call from home.
The Rev. Beth Dana of First Unitarian Church in University Park appealed to people’s better nature in her live-streamed sermon.
“This week, being a better person means not hoarding all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer for ourselves, and instead attending to our collective well-being, especially to the well-being of those who are most vulnerable.”
Addressing the isolation that people will feel as large gatherings are discouraged and they retreat to their homes to stay healthy, Dana said: “There’s nothing good about COVID-19, except that it’s forcing us to connect in creative ways and to recognize our interdependence. Either we withdraw, or we reach out to each other with more urgency than ever before.”
‘The church … is a people’
In Plano, Prestonwood Baptist Church also conducted online-only services. Pastor Connor Bales said Sunday promised to be “a great day, albeit a unique day.”
“Now, more than ever, we are discovering that the church of Jesus Christ is not a place — it is a people,” Bales said.
After a few worship songs, a physician — who was introduced as a longtime church member — took the stage to provide an overview of the coronavirus, including answering questions about where the virus came from, how it’s treated and how to prevent getting and spreading it.
‘Refresh your browser’
As the Rev. Andrew Forrest of Munger Place Church in Old East Dallas waited for worshippers to log in for the online service he was leading from his home, there were reminders of the odd circumstances — a virtual handshake on the camera, a suggestion that “you may have to refresh your browser a couple of times” and a reference to one worshipper’s remark that “the camera adds 10 pounds.”
“It is weird not being around people, isn’t it?” Forrest said during the preliminaries. “Now you know — I’ve been telling you every single week — that every Sunday that we get to come together is a blessing. Every interaction we have with another person … is a blessing to have.”
After leading an a capella version of “Amazing Grace,” he delivered a brief sermon in which he offered that the COVID-19 outbreak represents a challenge to American society to shift from a culture of consumerism to one of greater humility and service.
‘We ought to pray’
The Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, also spoke of the pandemic as a wake-up call, but he delivered his message in far starker terms.
Because Dallas County and city officials had banned public gatherings of more than 500 people, the downtown megachurch couldn’t pull in its usual crowd of thousands. But several hundred were on hand to hear Jeffress’ sermon on the topic: Is the new coronavirus a judgment from God?
The sermon had been promoted on billboards for days and was part of a series of sermons Jeffress has been leading on the book of Revelation.
Jeffress told congregants that he knew the title would elicit angry responses.
“This is how cavemen think” and “Do you live in the Dark Ages?” and “What a moronic statement” was a sampling of remarks he offered from his Twitter feed.
The pastor then delved into an exploration of what he offered as the definition of a plague — “a natural disaster that is supernaturally timed as a manifestation of God’s judgment” — and whether the coronavirus disaster aligns with that meaning and whether it is a sign of the end times.
He ultimately concluded that coronavirus “is not one of the plagues from Revelation.” But he called on worshippers to respond to the pandemic with a “sound mind” by taking common-sense measures, such as avoiding hand-shaking and staying away from the sick.
“Precaution is important, but also we ought to pray,” he said.
Staff writers Dana Branham and Kevin Krause, photojournalist Michael Hamtil, and news print coordinator Erik Schutz contributed to this report.