California churches detail Sunday reopening plans; Rick Warren says Saddleback will wait

Greg Laurie
Evangelist Greg Laurie preaches at the 2018 Southern California Harvest Crusade in Anaheim, California. |

Pastor Greg Laurie’s Harvest Church and many other California’s megachurches are reopening on Pentecost Sunday with detailed plans to keep their congregations safe from COVID-19. But others, including Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, say they will wait for conditions to improve before resuming large gatherings.

“Harvest Church will officially be reopening its doors on Sunday, May 31 for a very special worship service!” Harvest Church says on its website, which adds that a maximum of 100 people will be able to attend per location even as the church utilizes all its facilities, including outdoor spaces.

Laurie is giving a special message and host Christian musician Phil Wickham as a special guest artist.

“We strongly encourage everyone to wear masks while on campus ... We will have hand sanitization stations at various locations around campus,” the Southern California megachurch says.

The Church United network, which has around 3,000 churches representing 2.5 million members in California, has announced its intentions to reopen.

Pastor Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, released a video message saying Saddleback Church in Orange County will remain closed.

He said the state government has outlined four phases of reopening as the pandemic subsides. The state has released 12 pages of instructions that churches must follow exactly, to open places of worship during phase two, he noted.

The rules, he added, are unworkable for all churches, especially for large churches like Saddleback. For example, no church, irrespective of its size, may not have more than 100 people in attendance. This would mean, he points out, only 2,000 of the 30,000 members of Saddleback could attend.

Recently released guidelines in the state allow churches to gather but only at 25% capacity or with 100 people (whichever is lower). 

“While we’re all eager to gather together for worship, we have decided for many important reasons that Saddleback is going to be patient and we’re going to wait for better conditions before we resume our large, public gatherings,” Warren said.

His motive for remaining closed is love and faith, not fear. “Saddleback has never been closed during these past 11 weeks. On the contrary, we’ve been doing more in our communities than ever before. Our buildings have been closed, but the church is not a building. We are a living, breathing body; … we are a people, not a place.”

On Friday, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision rejected a California church’s request to set aside Gov. Gavin Newsom’s guidelines that allow congregations to meet in person but limits attendance.

Christians have been debating how much state entities can restrict certain freedoms, particularly religious worship, by deeming it “nonessential” to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Our fear is simply this,” Governor Gavin Newsom said earlier, as was reported by The Center Square, “Congregations of people from far and wide coming together in a closed space at a large scale remains a point of concern and anxiety for us. We are working on guidelines for physical distancing and working with faith leaders talking about unique conditions in their own facilities. Nothing is etched in stone.”

Like Pastor Laurie, Jack Hibbs, the pastor of 14,000-member Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, has announced his megachurch is reopening.

Hibbs said in a video message that the church is having three services on Pentecost Sunday while continuing to livestream the services. However, he said he estimates that each location may have an attendance of about 40-45% of the capacity.

“The decision to reopen our church doors was not taken lightly or rashly decided. This decision was birthed out of intensive prayer, fasting, and patience to hear God's voice,” the church says on its website, which carries a detailed plan for reopening. “It is our aim to do all we can to protect those who attend our church with common-sense measures to prevent the spread of all possible illnesses.”

In an interview with The Christian Post earlier this month, Hibbs explained that it is the pastor’s burden to minister to the people, particularly those in his congregation, and to continue to proclaim the Gospel.

“When we look around at this crisis, the issue of not exactly meeting the criteria of what is defined as a church — meaning our getting together, our fellowship with one another — the mandate given to us from Scripture to pray for one another even to the point where we are to lay hands on the sick and pray for them,” he said.

“The Christian ought to be the wisest, ought to be the best, the most resourceful citizen in any community. So by no means do we desire to resist the authorities that be according to Romans 13,” which speaks about how followers of Jesus are to conduct themselves in relation to the governing authorities.

"In fact, we have been extremely compliant for over two months, our state, when petitioned, when we asked our governor's office: 'Where are you placing the value of the church? The fact that we provide mental and spiritual health and stability at such a critical time, where do you place us in priority?'"

Hispanic evangelical leader and Sacramento megachurch pastor Samuel Rodriguez also announced, in a video message, resumption of physical services on the campuses of New Season on Pentecost Sunday, while abiding by “every single CDC recommendation.”

According to Rodriguez, 7,000 to 8,000 churches are reopening. He said he is “believing God for a fresh outpouring of His precious Holy Spirit.”

“We are mindful of our nation’s proud heritage of religious liberty, established from its founding as a place of refuge and respect for people of faith,” Rodriguez and William Jessup University President John Jackson earlier wrote in an open letter.

“Today, we join together respectfully urging California’s governor, county supervisors, mayors and other civic leaders to support the reopening of church gatherings in ways that are sensitive to public health concerns as well as providing for the fundamental freedoms so richly encouraging to personal and societal well-being and ensconced in our founding documents.”

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