On Sunday, the Washington Post ran a story on churches that are continuing to meet despite most states having banned assemblies of more than 10 people. The article cites only seven churches, yet suggests a nationwide pattern of recalcitrant Protestants who are defying government orders and continuing to meet.
But is this portrait accurate?
At first glance, the Post’s claims seem to be backed up by data from a respected polling firm. The article cites LifeWay’s recent report on whether Protestant churches are meeting. To be fair, the top-line numbers in LifeWay’s chart are striking; one religion reporter cited the 7 percent figure and mused, “if this is still happening in areas that have had outbreaks, it's a serious, serious issue.”
Three questions need to be answered: Did Protestant churches defy government bans on public gatherings? Are a large number of churches continuing to meet in person? And, if not, what are they doing instead?
Did Churches Defy Government Orders?
The answer is, by and large, no. A quick search for recent news stories reveals that most of the headlines are traceable to a handful of high-profile churches, some of which (including at least two churches featured in the Washington Post article) stopped meeting weeks ago.
These findings are backed up by the LifeWay report, which notably only covers the month of March. Many states did not impose bans on public gatherings until only very recently, and according to the Washington Post, “more than a dozen states” exempted churches from stay-at-home orders as late as April 5th. State orders lagged behind the CDC’s March 15th recommendation to pause all gatherings of more than 10 people. Even so, the LifeWay data show that the sharpest drop-off of in-person meetings was on Sunday, March 22nd, suggesting that most churches took the CDC’s nonbinding recommendation (announced the previous Sunday night) seriously.
State bans on public gatherings were soon followed by stay-at-home orders, but according to a New York Times timeline, only nine states had a stay-at-home order as of Monday, March 23rd. By then, 89 percent of Protestant churches had stopped meeting. Furthermore, many state bans on public gatherings were amended several times and would have initially applied only to large churches. For example, Maryland initially banned gatherings of more than 250 people on March 12th; its March 16th order banning gatherings larger than 50 would not have applied to churches with fewer than 250 attendees that met on Sunday, March 15th.
This is an easily-overlooked point: Small congregations, which make up the vast majority of American churches, tend to be overlooked in media reporting in favor of megachurches. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, for example, cites research indicating that half of all churches have an attendance of less than 75, that 59 percent of non-Catholic/Orthodox churches have less than 100 attendees, and that the average church size for all churches is 186. The Hartford Institute also estimates that there are 314,000 Protestant churches in the U.S., of which less than 1 percent are megachurches.
Stay-at-home orders rolled in throughout March: By Thursday, March 26th, 21 states had stay-at-home orders. By the following Monday, March 30th—one day after 93 percent of Protestant churches did not meet in-person—20 states still did not have statewide stay-at-home orders.
The study cited by the Washington Post does not necessarily support the notion that a significant number of Protestant churches were meeting in defiance of government orders.
Are a Large Number of Churches Continuing to Meet?
Less data exists on how many churches are currently meeting. However, despite the implication by the Washington Post story that this is a national phenomenon, the available data suggests that an overwhelming majority of churches are abiding by the CDC’s recommendation and are not holding in-person services.
LifeWay’s report only covers the month of March, but a deeper dive into their data is instructive. According to the report, 64 percent of churches met in-person on March 15th, 11 percent on March 22nd, and 7 percent on March 29th. Significantly, the report also shows that only 45 percent of churches with more than 200 attendees met on the 15th, fewer than 1 percent met on the 22nd, and 0 percent met on the 29th.
In other words, more than half of all churches with congregations numbering 200 or more had ceased meeting in person by the middle of March, 99 percent of them were not meeting by the fourth Sunday, and a statistically negligible number were meeting by the last Sunday of the month.
Clearly, churches still meeting after the end of March are statistical outliers. Yet the Washington Post story suggests that a significant number of churches are still meeting in defiance of government orders, despite strong evidence to the contrary. The very few churches that are still meeting are attracting outsized attention from the media.
How are Churches Adapting?
Instead of flaunting the government’s orders and continuing to meet in large groups, churches across the country are adapting to serve their congregations and communities in creative ways. For example, many churches are using live-streaming technology such as Zoom, YouTube live, and other streaming platforms to hold weekly services and prayer meetings with their members. Others, such as 3D Church, in Lithonia, Georgia, Genoa Church in Westerville, Ohio, and Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, are holding “Drive-In” services where members stay in their cars and listen to a message delivered by their pastor from a small stage (or even from a forklift!) near the front of the parking lot. These services allow churches to meet while still maintaining social distance and honoring the government’s ban on public gatherings.
Churches are also looking outward, seeking ways to serve their communities in tangible ways despite limitations on public meetings. For example, Faith Life Church in New Albany, Ohio, has delivered lunch to nurses and doctors and has provided meals to needy people in the community. Resurrection Lutheran Church, in Juneau, Alaska, and Canyon Hills Friends Church in Yorba Linda, California, are running food pantries in their communities, and I-Town Church in Fishers, Indiana, set up a pantry at a local school. Trinity Church in Temple, Texas, set up a “prayer tent” and prays and ministers to anyone who pulls into the parking lot. OpenDoor Church, in Burleson, Texas, created a national hotline for people to call in to receive prayer or to submit requests for help with grocery shopping. Even smaller church plants, such as the Oaks Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, are providing free childcare to healthcare workers and buying groceries for those in need.
Other churches are focusing on helping vulnerable people groups. St. Paul Lutheran Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is serving refugees with their food bank, and River City Church in Montgomery, Alabama, is providing showers and laundry services to the homeless. Still others, like the Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, are serving their community by opening a virus testing site at one of their church campuses.
These stories, and many others like them, represent the response of the vast majority of churches to the pandemic. Although the hearts of believers around the country are heavy because they cannot meet with their brothers and sisters on Easter, it is encouraging to see so many congregations walking in obedience to our risen Lord while also obeying Scripture’s mandate to honor governing rulers (Rom. 13:1-7).