After a confusing announcement earlier in the week, Gov. Greg Abbott clarified his remarks regarding places of worship and whether they are exempt from stay-at-home orders issued to stem the spread of coronavirus.
In announcing his statewide order Tuesday, Abbott seemed to indicate it is OK to continue to pack churches, mosques and synagogues for services. By the end of the day Wednesday, he had backtracked, saying his order “requires all Texans to stay at home,” except for essential activities.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton followed with an order of his own specifying that houses of worship must, whenever possible, conduct their activities from home or through remote audio or video services. When remote services are not possible, Paxton’s directive indicates they should be conducted in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on hand washing and social distancing.
Finding solace in these stressful and isolating times and finding new ways to connect to our closest relatives and friends can be difficult. So how do you worship in a time of pandemic if you can’t gather?
One Texas church has made big changes lately. Steve Bezner, senior pastor of Houston Northwest Church, sees churches as essential during the pandemic.
“I once heard that the Army deemed chaplains essential because the soldiers needed pastors who were willing to jump out of airplanes. While this is an entirely different situation, our people need pastors who are willing to walk through this moment — however long it may be. So, yes, the ministry of the church is essential.”
“That being said, however, we must not confuse faith with foolishness. The church is not synonymous with the worship gathering,” he said in an email. “We should listen to the experts and adhere to their best practices, no matter how much we miss seeing one another face-to-face.”
Chris Hall, associate missions pastor of Houston Northwest Church agrees.
“We respect Gov. Abbott’s order to not gather in large groups and practice other steps to ‘flatten the curve’ and help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Hall wrote in an email. “The mission and vision of HNW has not changed due to Gov. Abbott’s order or Covid19 and the utilization of technology is a means to helping share that vision and develop that mission. Those that have responded through various technological platforms shows that the reach and impact being made has broadened.”
Because of the coronavirus and the need for social distancing, the Houston Northwest Church is functioning as an online ministry as much as possible.
“We are streaming our services, holding prayer conference calls, and using social media to share content,” Bezner wrote.
“In the last two weeks we’ve created a new site (hnw.org/online), a YouTube channel with resources for preschoolers, grade schoolers, students, and adults. We’ve started videoing individual teachers and holding classes via Zoom. This may not be our preferred method, but in practicing social distancing, we love our neighbors.”
Bezner also expressed a need for compassion and to not forget to serve others if you can.
“The church’s best voice in this moment is not to gather physically, but to mobilize to love and serve. We should check on one another, check on our neighbors. We should organize blood drives and food distribution. We should look for creative ways to support essential local businesses. We should partner with organizations who are caring for the most vulnerable and impoverished in our cities.”
What about Easter?
Abbott’s executive order on religious services states, “a church may hold Easter services in its parking lot, with attendees remaining in their cars (windows down), parked in every other parking spot, with the minister using amplification to preach.”
“Or because Executive Order GA 14 permits drive-thrus to operate, then a house of worship may, according to their faith practices, provide communion or a blessing through a similar drive-up service. Or pastors with smaller congregations may consider conducting multiple services of 10 people or fewer in their sanctuaries, so long as they maintain appropriate social distancing, properly sanitize the building between each service, and provide hand sanitizer.”
For Houston Northwest Church, Easter Sunday will be different without a physical gathering.
“We will enter Holy Week this Sunday — Palm Sunday,” Bezner said. “We would do well to remember the humility of Jesus in this season. We are not the vanquishing heroes on stallions. We are to be the foot-washers willing to come among our neighbors with virtual presence, acts of service, and the motive of love.”