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Church Officials Weigh Canceling Services Amid COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In times of uncertainty, people lean on their faith. The coronavirus emergency is arguably one of those moments. But churches across the country are trying to figure out whether or not they should be shutting their doors. My mom was watching a church service on Sunday on a video connection - being given in an empty sanctuary. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The way churches are responding to the coronavirus depends on their proximity to an outbreak and their resources? The nondenominational Westminster Chapel in the Seattle suburbs is just a 10-minute drive from the senior living center where more than two dozen residents have died from the virus. The church doors have been closed for the last two Sundays. Pastor Ryan Falls recorded yesterday's sermon standing alone among empty pews.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

RYAN FALLS: Well, this is really, really strange. I'm here. A couple of people are here, but you're not here. And I want you to know, Westminster, that we are thinking about you, we're praying for you and that we love you.

GJELTEN: Falls says he and his associates did not hesitate to shut their church down.

FALLS: We have a significant population at our church that's over the age of 60.

GJELTEN: So facing high risk. And Falls can't yet point to a time when the church will reopen.

FALLS: We really have no idea. This could go on for months. We just don't know what's going to happen.

GJELTEN: Some churches are continuing operations almost as usual, even with worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's praise his name together.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) All hail the power of Jesus' name...

GJELTEN: First Baptist in Dallas was open yesterday. Attendance was limited to 500, but that hardly makes a difference. The online operation reaches nearly 100,000 people each week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Lord of...

GJELTEN: First Baptist has its own orchestra, a big choir and professionally produced TV services.

But many churches are just now scrambling to get online in response to the coronavirus. Pastor Beth Horsch at Mount Olivet Lutheran in Plymouth, Minn., faced some audio challenges yesterday when she spoke at her empty church, but she managed it via a Facebook feed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACEBOOK VIDEO)

BETH HORSCH: These ancient words don't give us answers, but they do speak into the mystery and...

GJELTEN: One advantage for churches with a lot of online experience - they don't depend as much on ushers passing a collection basket.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JD GREEAR: Even though we're not here, there are easy opportunities on our webpage - summitchurch.com - right there on the front page, ways that you can give.

GJELTEN: J.D. Greear addressed his Southern Baptist congregation in Durham, N.C., yesterday in online-only mode. Big churches like his have used technology to expand their reach.

Scott Thumma studies the megachurch phenomenon at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

SCOTT THUMMA: Megachurches have gone into high tech rather than the high touch. So in many ways, they're exceptionally adapted to meet the challenges of not gathering for a couple of weeks.

GJELTEN: But the average congregation in America, Thumma says, has just 65 members.

THUMMA: When you're functioning at that size, there's no wiggle room in your budget, all right? One or two people not giving can make the difference between being able to pay the light bills or pay the pastor.

GJELTEN: Which means that for a lot of churches in America, this coronavirus could be life-threatening.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HILLSONG WORSHIP'S "THE PASSION [INSTRUMENTAL]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.