IRVINE, Calif.—Since California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced earlier this month that churches must again close their doors, many have taken their services outdoors. But not all pastors are happy with that solution, and they’re continuing the outcry that has rang out for much of the pandemic against limits on worship.
Pastor Matt Jones of Del Rey Church in Los Angeles County told The Epoch Times he has been holding service outdoors on the church’s property. But it’s in a residential area and he worries that the noise on Sunday mornings might bother non-Christian residents.
He keeps each service limited to 70 congregants, a large decrease from the approximately 150 attendees before shutdowns began.
California churches closed in March, along with other entities considered nonessential amid the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus pandemic. Many flouted the mandate, as did churches across the country where similar mandates were in effect.
Pastor Jack Hibbs at Calvary Chapel Chino Hills told The Epoch Times that church can’t “be relegated to essential or nonessential. The church is transcendent, it meets the deep emotional and spiritual and mental needs of so many people.”
Churches were allowed to reopen in early June statewide, with limits on the number of congregants and guidelines for sanitation. But Newsom announced on July 6 that “activities such as singing and chanting” were banned in church because they can spread droplets and thus “negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.”
Three churches sued him for the ban on singing, two of which are Calvary Chapels. Calvary Chapel is an association of evangelical Christian churches founded in Southern California.
The lawsuit says the singing ban is a violation of First Amendment rights, and it criticizes the governor for encouraging Black Lives Matter protests—which include chanting—while discouraging worship.
On July 13, Newsom announced that all churches in the counties on a monitoring list for COVID-19 (where about 80 percent of California’s population resides) must close. Harvest International Ministries filed a lawsuit in response on July 18.
Liberty Counsel, which is representing Harvest International, said on its website the lawsuit is fighting Newsom’s “unconstitutional COVID-19 orders prohibiting all indoor worship services, including home Bible studies and fellowship, while encouraging mass gatherings of protestors throughout the state.”
That lawsuit also fights the singing ban, which is statewide.
The Supreme Court on July 24 rejected a similar request from a Calvary Chapel in Nevada to block enforcement of state restrictions on church services.
“I will never shut down the church again,” Hibbs said. “I will not close it. It was a mistake for me to close in the first place, I will not do it again.”
His church is in Chino Hills, tucked in the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County, and the county is on the state’s watchlist.
Hibbs said he sent a video to the governor’s office saying, “If you’re going to close the church, you have to physically come and shut the doors.”
Various media reports have featured churches across the state similarly defying the new closure orders.
Hibbs’s church has more than 14,000 attendees on Sundays, with three services. While the church was closed, he said churchgoers’ mental health suffered tremendously. Online viewership skyrocketed, but spiritual health plummeted, he said.
A research initiative called Barna has been conducting surveys among Christians, seeking to understand “The State of the Church” in 2020. According to one of its surveys, those no longer attending church were more anxious and felt more insecure.
“And so what our governor is not taking into mind is the fact that there’s a dark side to what’s going on, and that is the deep depression amongst so many teenagers and young adults,” Hibbs said.
At his church, attendees have options between participating in service indoors, outdoors, or online. Disinfecting takes place between each service, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signs are visible throughout the campus. Social distancing and mask-wearing is encouraged, but not enforced.
Overall, Hibbs said, the response from the community and his congregants amid reopening has been overwhelmingly positive.
His church is larger than average and didn’t suffer financially as much as smaller churches, he said. He decided not to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, because “in good conscience” he couldn’t take it.
Jones’s Del Rey Church, however, has felt the pinch. The church itself is doing OK, but the school it runs is suffering financially.
“We haven’t really recovered from the first closure,” Jones said. Its tuition-based preschool and nursery may be forced to permanently close if its PPP loan runs out.
“We have the best teachers and they have families; their families rely on that paycheck,” Jones said. “So, as a church we have just been very prayerful and heavyhearted about the thought of our school closing the services,” he said.
The silver lining has been that people from all over the world have tuned in for his church’s live-streamed services.
But Jones has observed what he calls “Zoom fatigue” among his usual congregants. Bible groups have continued to meet virtually, but their attendance has dropped as many people are tired of looking at screens all day for work or school.
Jones hopes to hold indoor services again with precautionary measures in place. He said three of his congregants have had COVID-19, but he still feels “our gathering on Sunday mornings is one of the safest places you can be.”
“This big high-ceiling room with open windows, open doors, and everyone’s temperature checked, and everyone’s sanitized and sitting on plastic seat covers,” he said. “ I don’t see how that is a threat.”