James River Church, a multi-campus, 17,000-member megachurch in Missouri, is now fending off strong criticism from the public and health officials after pictures posted on social media showed what appear to be hundreds of unmasked people, practicing very little social distancing packed inside their Springfield location to participate in Christmas services.
“Missouri church service Saturday evening. One of six. With this much covidiocy in the country, we are proving ourselves to be the dumbest nation on earth. This is not a measure of faith. It’s a measure of arrogance,” tweeted retired attorney and flight instructor Jeanne Mann on Sunday with a photo from the gathering.
Many others voiced their concerns about the images coming out of the church over the weekend, including Springfield-Greene County Health Director Clay Goddard, who said he was “shocked” by what he saw considering Missouri currently has more than 328,000 cases of the virus and no less than 4,358 deaths since the pandemic began.
“I was shocked and deeply saddened to see photos from the James River event over the weekend. I can’t see those photos without also thinking of the images we’ve all seen of the impossible circumstances our hospitals are battling every day,” Goddard began in a series of tweets.
“Hosting a giant event without distancing or masking is irresponsible and insulting to the people on the front lines of this crisis, most especially the health care workers who are overwhelmed. An event of this magnitude, indoors and in such close proximity, combined with case numbers where they are and our hospitals full, could be devastating,” he said. “By and large, our local churches have been great examples of staying emotionally connected while protecting one another in this pandemic—this example does not do those congregations justice.”
In a statement Monday, the Christian County Health Department said they also received numerous complaints from the community about the services and urged those who attended to monitor themselves for COVID-19 symptoms over the next 14 days.
“CCHD has been in contact with the City of Ozark, where the venue is located and where there is a current masking ordinance in place. The City of Ozark has an established process in place to investigate, enforce, and educate violators of the ordinance,” the department said before stating that it does not condone the flouting of health mandates.
“Christian County has unfortunately seen an overwhelming rise in COVID-19 cases over the past several weeks and a subsequent increase in the number of hospitalized residents. The lack of regard for the masking ordinance and therefore its fellow community members by this venue and its occupants is not condoned by the CCHD,” the agency said. “CCHD is extremely concerned about the health and well-being of all our community members and particularly those who attended the high-capacity event over the weekend. CCHD encourages individuals who were present at the high-capacity event over the weekend to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 for 14-days from the event date and seek medical attention if symptoms develop.”
Church officials defended themselves in a statement issued to KYTV-KSPR, noting that despite what the images show, “we take seriously the safety and health of those who attend our services.”
“We have strongly encouraged masking and social distancing each and every weekend during this challenging season. For the Christmas services, additional services were added to further provide for social distancing. Going forward, we are committed to doing a better job of encouraging and maintaining the procedures necessary to keep people safe and secure,” James River Church officials explained.
They noted that since the pandemic began, they have taken very stringent precautions at each service, including: take temperatures at the door, fog-sanitize their auditorium, sanitize the children’s areas and common areas multiple times daily and provide masks to everyone who attends.
“Our heart at James River Church has always been to minister to people in our community. During this pandemic we have helped thousands of people with food, financial assistance, counsel, and spiritual encouragement. Most of all we want people to know that God loves and cares for them,” the church said.
Missouri has not limited attendance at houses of worship but has advised social distancing.
Christian geneticist and U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins suggested most churches should postpone in-person services due to COVID-19 until at least summer 2021, when every American is expected to have had the opportunity to get vaccinated, The Christian Post recently reported.
“I know people are tired of hearing these messages and having to be acting upon them, but the virus does not care that we are tired. The virus is having a wonderful time right now spreading through this country, taking advantage of circumstances where people have let their guard go down. We need to be just absolutely rigorously adherent to things that we know work. But they don’t work unless everybody actually sticks to them faithfully without exception,” Collins said.