Photograph courtesy Prestonwood Baptist Church
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Megachurch pastor Jack Graham usually preaches to a congregation of 7,000 at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. Now he delivers sermons from a makeshift TV studio.

Photograph courtesy Prestonwood Baptist Church

'It’s surreal': Faith leaders preach to empty pews at Easter

Churches are normally packed at Easter. But with the coronavirus, nothing is normal this year.

The Church of St. Paul the Apostle stands one block from New York’s Columbus Circle. It is the second-largest Catholic church in the city, and this is Easter Week, the busiest time on the church calendar.

But St. Paul’s is nearly empty, shuttered by COVID-19.

“It’s surreal. Ordinarily at Easter we worry that the fire marshal is going to come and shut us down,” says Father Eric Andrews, president of the Paulist Fathers, who have been leading worship on this site since 1858.

In more than a century and a half, St. Paul’s has never seen times like this. The churches of New York have never been closed before, not even for the devastating 1918 flu outbreak. This year, the Easter Sunday congregation at St. Paul's will be a bank of television cameras. (Here's how some cities "flattened the curve" during the 1918 flu pandemic.)

An unexpected Easter

Worldwide, the planet’s Catholics are coming to grips with worship in the time of COVID-19. Nowhere is that more evident than in Rome, where the Paulists run the city’s official American Catholic Church.

“The Pope’s Mass is going to be weird,” says Andrews. “The place will be empty except for a handful of attendants. In past years the Pope has walked the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum. On Holy Thursday he’s washed the feet of the poor, and those of Muslim refugees. It’ll all be different this year.”

In Jerusalem, the cradle of Christianity, streets that are usually teeming for Easter observances will be ghostly quiet. (See Easter traditions from around the world.)

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St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was all but empty when Pope Francis conducted the Palm Sunday service on April 5. He offered a prayer for those sickened by COVID-19, their families, and their caregivers.

“International pilgrims will not be able to enter Israel, and internal pilgrims will not be able to enter Jerusalem,” says Anna Koulouris, a spokeswoman for Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.

All of which leaves one medium for group worship: the internet.

The Manhattan-based Paulist Fathers have a long tradition in video. Their syndicated TV anthology series, Insight, aired weekly for 25 years. But the Catholic Church as a whole has not caught up with its evangelical Protestant brethren when it comes to TV, and it showed in the first weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown.

“It’s kind of like TV in the early 1950s,” laughs Andrews, who studied film at New York University. Still, what the video Masses lack in production value they make up for in spiritual enthusiasm—on the receiving end.

“We’ve got pictures of families kneeling in front of their computer screens for the Consecration portion of the Mass,” Andrews says. “After I finished one streamed Mass, a parishioner called and said, ‘We loved the Mass, but I must say the wine we had at home was much better than yours!’”

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Worshiping in isolation, a family kneels for a televised Palm Sunday Mass in Niteroi, Brazil. The Catholic Church released the faithful from their Sunday obligation, but millions around the globe attended Mass remotely.

All churches great and small

On any given Sunday, the 7,000-seat worship center at Prestonwood Baptist Church north of Dallas, Texas, would be packed for multiple services. A band would be clustered together onstage, playing worship songs at just-this-side of respectful decibel levels. And the church’s food court would be teeming with families sharing a meal together.

But this is not any given Sunday. Today pastor Jack Graham is preaching before a camera in a darkened church activity room-turned TV studio. The band is there, but the musicians are spaced 10 feet apart. As for the congregation, they’re somewhere beyond the camera lens, scattered across North Texas and beyond.

“This is surreal,” Graham says, using the same word that I heard from faith leaders nationwide. “It’s like Groundhog Day, waking up to the same thing every day.”

Graham is no stranger to the TV camera. For more than two decades his sermons have aired on his syndicated program, PowerPoint. But those talks are nearly all taped live in front of his congregation. Here, he’s had to change his style.

“Usually, I get pretty passionate,” he says. “But now I have to act more like I’m just talking to one person. It’s just me, you, God, and a cup of coffee.”

On Palm Sunday, he said, Prestonwood’s streamed morning service—its third since closing the doors—logged around 70,000 hits, representing an estimated 200,000 viewers.

But megachurches also need small groups to engender and sustain a sense of community. Prestonwood has more than 200 groups, none of which can presently meet in person.

“They’re all using Zoom,” says Graham, referring to the group video chat app that has found universal use under COVID-19. “I guess some of our older people are just using their cell phones. But the important thing is, they’re staying connected.”

A personal touch

The fire marshal has never complained about crowds at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Corry, Pennsylvania—population 6,300. Most Sundays you’ll find three dozen of the faithful scattered around a sanctuary that holds 150. For more than a century and a half, Emmanuel’s brick profile has been a landmark in a sleepy town whose claims to fame are two major league baseball players and the inventor of the fun house mirror.

Rev. Mary Norton is strolling through the sanctuary, the sun filtering through its arched stained-glass windows. Don’t look for any TV cameras. Don’t ask where the church’s media center is.

“When the bishop closed all the churches, I called all my parishioners on the phone,” Norton says. “It didn’t seem right to send an e-mail. People need that personal touch. Ours is a very loving, sharing congregation. When services went away, a big part of everyone’s lives did, too.”

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Keeping their distance, a handful of congregants attend a Palm Sunday communion service at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, California. Trying to balance faith and health regulations, church members cycled in for communion, ten at a time, throughout the day.

Then the congregation went online together. Now, Sunday services are a virtual gathering on Zoom. (In the midst of COVID-19, housebound Italians have embraced virtual Mass.)

“The moment everyone could see each others’ faces, their eyes just lit up. They were so happy,” Norton says. “And when we all recited the Lord’s Prayer together, it was almost like hearing it for the first time. Just beautiful.”

“I can’t wait to get back to church!”

Bishop Charles Johnson arose early on a recent morning, dressed, and headed down to Greater Morning Star Apostolic Ministries in Largo, Maryland, where he’s been pastor since 1986. The church is closed due to COVID-19, and Johnson is presiding over live-streaming Sunday services for the duration.

“Where are you going?” his wife Sheila asked. “I’m going to church,” he said. “It’s Sunday.”

She smiled and shook her head. “It’s Saturday,” she said. “That’s the way I am these days,” Johnson says. “I can’t wait to get back to church. And everybody in our church feels the same way. We miss it.”

On typical Sunday mornings at Greater Morning Star Apostolic, Johnson embraces the pulpit, his voice growling out the Gospel like the Lion of Judah. The church choir launches into a soaring rendition of “Take Me to the Water” and 1,300 congregants respond with shouts and blessings.

“Now I’m live streaming,” Johnson sighs. “I go up to the pulpit and look out on the church where the congregation would be, and I see maybe one or two people. I try to preach with the same attitude, the same fervor, as though they were sitting there. They’re watching online. But I know them. All they want is to be back where they belong.”

Pandemic paradox

“It’s a wake-up call to the world—but also to the church,” says Bishop Johnson of the pandemic. “Some seldom came to church before. They figured it would always be here. But now they want to come and they can’t. I hope that when this is over they’ll think about that. Because we don’t know when a worship time will be our last.”

Preachers have always proclaimed that “the church is not just bricks and sticks,” says Pastor Graham. “Now we get to live that. Events like this remind us of the urgency of our need for God—and the hope that in the midst of a mess like this there is a miracle coming, the miracle of renewal and regeneration and redemption.”

Adds Father Andrews, “I keep saying to people, ‘This has happened before. Remember all those scriptures we’ve read through the years? About God’s people in exile? That was all to prepare us for moments like these.”

In the fading light of her church, Rev. Norton is reminded of the story of two dejected disciples walking along the road to Emmaus following Christ’s crucifixion.

“They are so forlorn,” she says. “They’ve placed all their bets on this man who they thought would be their savior and messiah, and now he’s dead. Then Jesus comes to walk alongside them. At first, they don’t recognize him, but when they do, they’re beyond happy. I think that’s sort of what we’re going through. We’ve been deprived of what we long for, and we’re really sad about it. But so what? He’s still right here!”

After Easter, the Catholic and Episcopal church calendars count down 40 days to the feast of Pentecost. Then comes a long stretch, until Advent, called Ordinary Time.

This year, Ordinary Time begins June 1. Ordinary never sounded so good.