Wary of Omicron, Some Churches Shift Christmas Services Online

By Jack Jenkins
churches omicron COVID services
As the omicron variant arrived in the capital region, several churches incl. Westmoreland United Church of Christ change Christmas Eve plans. (Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

As the ruthlessly contagious omicron coronavirus variant blazed through the Washington, D.C., area over the past week, the Rev. Timothy Tutt hastily scheduled a series of conversations with leaders of Westmoreland United Church of Christ.

Tutt, senior minister at the Bethesda, Maryland, church, consulted with its COVID task force, an assembly of members of the congregation with medical expertise. He also reached out to leaders of the congregation to gauge the feelings of the community and checked in with other local pastors about their plans.

“There was obviously sadness and frustration, a sense of ‘Oh, no, here we go, again,’” he said.

The church had already canceled its late-night Christmas Eve service and planned to convene its one remaining service that day outdoors — partly to accommodate the presence of children not yet eligible to be vaccinated, partly to allow live sheep to roam around during the Christmas pageant. But as coronavirus cases in the city continued to rise, the congregation decided more action was needed: On Wednesday morning, leaders announced Sunday services would be virtual for at least the next two weeks.

Churches across the country have made similar decisions in the wake of the omicron variant, with pastors and congregations wrestling with whether to continue in-person worship services during a major Christian holiday or to revert back to virtual services that were a hallmark of the early pandemic.

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“We want people to be safe, feel safe, and to not feel they have to go somewhere that puts their health at risk,” said Tutt. “We think it’s one way that we can show that we love God and love our neighbors by not exposing people to potential risks — risks they may then expose to others.”

The push for online services has been especially strong in and around Washington, where COVID-19 case rates are currently the highest in the country, according to The Washington Post. Although the area is heavily vaccinated compared with many states and early evidence suggests COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant may be milder, experts still fear the lighting-fast spread of the virus could wreak havoc on unvaccinated or immunocompromised populations.

On Tuesday, the Washington National Cathedral — whose policies often set the tone for churches in the area — announced alterations to a litany of planned services. The cathedral intended to scale back some, shift a few online and cancel at least two altogether.

But by Wednesday evening, officials said they were moving all services online during the holiday season.

“As one of the largest churches in America, we routinely welcome more than 15,000 people to celebrate the Christmas holiday,” read a statement from the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the cathedral. “However, given the spike in infections, I simply cannot justify gathering massive crowds as the public health situation worsens around us.”

The move follows a similar announcement by St. John the Divine, an Episcopal cathedral in New York City, where cases are also skyrocketing. The church announced Tuesday that it would move Christmas services to a virtual format.

“As the Cathedral has done before, placing the needs and concerns of the wider community first is crucial,” read a statement on the cathedral’s website.

For the Rev. Ashley Goff, pastor of Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia, the issue was hashed out in a conversation she had with the church’s music minister earlier this week. Guided by what she calls a “theology of neighborliness,” she said they pored over local health data, which showed a COVID-19 test positivity rate far above what the church deems acceptable for gathering. They also considered the plight of local hospitals, which experts warn could soon be overrun with patients as the virus continues its unprecedented spread.

Ultimately they were left with the question: “Are we fighting against omicron or enabling it?”

They decided to move services online, she said, because “who we are, how we show up in the world, has the well-being of the neighbor at the center.”

Some churches made the shift even earlier. Washington’s Union Temple Baptist Church posted a Facebook announcement on Saturday declaring all services would be virtual for the rest of the year “due to the rise in COVID cases and out of an abundance of caution.”

Other congregations are sticking with existing plans to worship in person, however. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a sprawling Catholic house of worship in Washington, said it is requiring masks but otherwise intends to hold in-person Mass on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The Archdiocese of Washington, which oversees the church, currently recommends abiding by local mask guidelines but has otherwise not suggested dramatic changes to worship.

Meanwhile, faith leaders such as the Rev. Tony Suarez, who runs Revivalmakers and serves as chief operating officer of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, expressed resistance to the idea of suspending in-person worship. He insisted the virus is “real,” noting he contracted COVID-19 in July 2020, and urged people who feel sick to stay home. But as a traveling evangelist, he said he plans to preach on Sunday in what he hopes will be a packed church in Kingsport, Tennessee.

“We worship together, we shop together, we’re going to sports games together, we’re going to the mall together and in certain political climates we’re marching or protesting or rallying together,” said Suarez, who previously served as one of former President Donald Trump’s informal band of evangelical advisers.

“For me, personally, I just don’t understand why there would be any type of concern with worshipping together at this point.”

He acknowledged differences among Christian traditions, saying evangelical Christians and members of the “charismatic, Word of Faith, Pentecostal” community operate in “a very different world than mainline Christianity right now” when it comes to COVID-19 and in-person worship.

“Theologically speaking, I don’t see Jesus not walking into a leper colony. I don’t see him not engaging the sick and praying for them,” he said. He claimed inspiration from famous evangelists of the past, saying, “I don’t see where Oral Roberts or A. A. Allen or Aimee Semple McPherson or R.W. Schambach ever canceled a tent revival or a healing meeting because of tuberculosis or any other kind of outbreak.”

Other churches have taken a dramatically different approach. A representative for Metropolitan AME, a historic Black church in downtown Washington, told RNS the congregation doesn’t have to shift to online services — because it has not resumed meeting in person since March 2020, when the congregation first switched to virtual worship.

Similarly, Tutt noted that while many Westmoreland members celebrated a return to in-person worship earlier this year, the church has maintained an online component as part of a “hybrid” model. The result: a congregation that has found spiritual meaning in both physical and virtual spaces, he said, a dynamic he hopes will soften the blow of a sudden return to virtual worship.

“There’s a subset of congregations — and I would put Westmoreland in this list — who are like, ‘During the pandemic, we’ve learned how to connect online really well,’” he said. “We now have an online congregation that reaches across the country and around the world.”

He added: “People of this congregation — and so many other people of faith — have great reserves of patience, and creativity, and flexibility and grace. … What we’re reminding ourselves is that those reserves continue to be deep.”

As for the difficulty surrounding this season, Tutt said it reminds him of the Christmas story, where Jesus was born into “a very troubled world” with “a whole lot of problems.”

“Into that world of problems and complications and difficulty came this little baby — this God enfleshed creature, to live in the middle of those complications,” he said. “At those moments where I’m like, ‘Oh, this is terrible. I hate this,’ I have the privilege of pausing to remember: The story of God enfleshed is a story of God enfleshed in the middle of complications and difficulty and pain and confusion.”

Jack Jenkins is an award-winning journalist and national reporter for the Religion News Service



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27 thoughts on “Wary of Omicron, Some Churches Shift Christmas Services Online”

  1. I don’t know….
    The Lord God says: “when you see the day approaching, do not forsake the gathering together.”
    What this looks like might vary.

    1. The word “forsake” in Hebrews 10:25 means “abandon completely” and the author further qualifies, “as is the habit of some.” The churches that choose not to meet in person are responding to the needs of their local congregations, not deserting them, and are not making a permanent decision.


      1. Sara, Mark took one possible definition of forsake. That is the problem with word studies is that they can skip the greater context and in this context it could also mean to leave behind as well. That’s twisting the scriptures!

        1. So you’re contending that a church that decides not to meet in person for Christmas Eve/Day because they do not want to further the spread of a contagious disease that is spiking in their locale has “forsaken the gathering, as is the habit of some?”

          What exactly do you think I am “twisting the Scriptures” to say?

          1. Mark, I do. Tutt said, “reached out to leaders of the congregation to gauge the feelings of the community… We think it’s one way that we can show that we love God and love our neighbors by not exposing people to potential risks” There is 1 reported death in US from Omicron with other issues that exasperated this virus. The church solution? Forsaking?

            Mark, I am contending with your definition of forsake. ἐγκαταλείποντες-Gk word “forsake” in Hebrews 10:25 to mean “abandon completely” another definition- ἐγκαταλείποντες (forsake) “leaving behind.” The verb tense is present and active. Another tense of that verb may render the definition of “abandon completely” a finished action. The exact opposite of your narrative.

            Leaders decisions based on therapeutic perspectives not theological perspectives. These actions choose comfort and convenience over biblical boldness. I am contending with a church who decides not to meet for the holidays. What about the abandon soul needing a place to meet and find the gospel? How are needs met if the church decides to forgo assembling?

          2. Chris, Merry Christmas.

            I trust the churches in the article to better understand the needs of their congregations and communities than you do.

        1. Mark Gunderson, Merry Christmas, I trust the Bible more than gauging the emotions of people. The church is in trouble if we continue along this trajectory.

    1. John: I believe God gave his followers the sense to not endanger themselves and others. The Pandemic has helped me to realize some seem to worship going to church.

      1. Tom… what text or Bible character do you draw from with that conclusion? Daniel? Joseph? Moses? Mary? The immoral woman in Luke 7? Abraham? When he chose fear over faith… How did that work? The church in Acts 12?Jesus should have know about the man with leprosy.Maybe it was Christ at the cross?

        More people use google’s information over gospel’s transformation as their mode for life.

      2. “I believe God gave his followers the sense to not endanger themselves and others.”

        How would that translate to His followers that are missionaries, EMS, police, firefighters, life guards, mountain rescue, ER personnel, test pilots, etc …?

        “The Pandemic has helped me to realize some seem to worship going to church.”

        They are called Churchians

        1. Agreed! Today’s “So-called” Christians would not fall in line with what the Bible teaches about a follower of Christ. We are double-minded because technology and therapy have eclipsed theology. Try this text as a response to the narrative of today’s excuse ridden thinking. “ And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?”

          Our mentality as a response to Covid-19 is Joel Olsteen’s Best Life Now. It’s secular thinking. The word secular comes from the Latin word seculum which means “NOW” Secular thinking is all about having to have everything now. It’s time the church is willing to lose her life for the cause of Christ. We may lose our life to this pandemic. God is still sovereign and Kingdom thinking realizes the following words of the Apostle Paul, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
          Kingdom living would transform the world if the church thought Biblically.

          1. @ KC Dell

            I think you are correct. You mentioned in another comment one of the pastors stating they were loving their neighbor by not exposing them to potential risk (my paraphrase). Have we forgotten that exposing people to the Gospel is to expose them to risk.

            In many countries, acceptance of the Gospel carries a death sentence. Among the cults, to accept the true Gospel is to lose your family. If the definition of “loving your neighbor ” as used above is something we are commanded to follow now, then we should stop preaching the Gospel because if its inherent risk to the hearers and the proclaimers.

  2. It would be nice if so many Christians didn’t feel the need to judge each other so uncharitably for the different ways they choose to respond to a difficult situation.

  3. Gordon Hackman, you stated, “It would be nice if so many Christians didn’t feel the need to judge each other so uncharitably for the different ways they choose to respond to a difficult situation.” Does the Bible demand that we never practice ethical discernment or evaluation of others? Matthew 7:1 states, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” John 7:24 states, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” How do we be true to both Biblical truths?
    John Stott in his book, Christian Counter-Culture, states about judging in Matthew 7:1,“… does not mean to assess people critically, but to judge them harshly.” He is saying it is not right to judge harshly but critically. Might I add biblically and not self-righteously. Judging motives is not possible unless the other person states his/her motives. Judging or evaluating statements with the Bible is my aim The irony of your statement is that you are doing the very thing you are telling us not to do. By stating it is “uncharitable” you are ascribing a motive. Reading the article and comments calls for critical and biblical evaluation.

    1. I expected some sort of response like yours. All I can say is that this isn’t a first or second order issue for me, hence I don’t see this as an issue for passing judgement on other Christians concerning how they respond. If you and others feel it compulsory to meet in person then do so but don’t judge others for choosing to respond to a difficult situation in a different way than you do.

  4. By the way, referring to others as “So called Christians” strikes me as the very definition of judging harshly.

  5. You obviously didn’t read my statements, Gordon Hackman. My questions are based on Mr. Tutt’s thinking of “leaders of the congregation to gauge the feelings of the community.” No where does it state he consulted God or considered what His Word says.

    The Roys’s Report podcast on Leadership had author Lance Ford (Julie Roys’ guest). He states man made leadership models are used over Christ as a servant leader model. This post fleshes that out. I am not judging a person for not attending services in person. I am evaluating LEADERS canceling services based off 1 death of C-19 Omicron variant (Which that person had several other health issues).

    This whole site questions church’s corruption in leadership. I can not judge a person’s heart as to why they do or do not attend church. I can evaluate that “in person” is more intimate than “on-line”. Evaluating and Judging as defined by you are not the same.

    I also believe that fear is a poor substitute for faith. Suffering is the hallmark of being a follower of Christ Jesus.

    Just rereading your posts. What Scriptures have informed your thinking?

  6. So if a hurricane is approaching people should still gather together for church….?

    Also out in the Western U.S. there is a massive drought and wildfires break out continuously.

    A couple years ago 500,000 Oregonians were asked to evacuate, so following some of the logic on this board , people should stay in church and gather together during wildfires….?

    One large reason authorities ask people to evacuate, is so the authorities do not have to send in first-responders to rescue all the idiots that stayed behind.

    In my state everyone is wearing a mask in public areas, except one place, in churches where very few people are wearing masks.

    It is very confusing to people who do not go to church, and they seem to be not too interested in the Jesus these churches are preaching.

    1. Mr. Jansma, are you equating natural disasters with the Omicron variant? I was in the Army stationed in the Gulf. Hurricane Opal smashed through the Gulf Coast. We assisted those in need. I would never refer to those who decided to stay in their homes as “idiots”. There were many reasons these people needed evacuating.

      The necessity for those in Christ to gather has nothing to do with people staying in their homes during a natural disaster.

      1. Logically 1 out of 332 million people have died in the US from the omicron variant. 1% is 3,200,000 people.

      2. Biblically, Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side. …And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” Jesus was sleeping and the disciples said “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus spoke to the storm not the disciples. “Peace! Be still!” The storm was calm and He said, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” The church has forgotten the Jesus in the Bible. Read Isaiah 45:7 and James 1:2-8. God is the God of Omicron.

      1. @Bell

        Not certain of your stats:

        U.S. Covid deaths 815,000 to date
        Worldwide Covid deaths – 5.4 Million

        U.S. Covid costs for hospitalizations ~ upwards 250 billion

        People often recover from hospitalization, but when millions of people have spent weeks in a hospital, which costs hundreds of thousands per person, the costs are very high. Also, Covid cases put enormous pressure on U.S. hospital staffs which is very draining due to the amount of care required per patient(3 – 6 weeks). Though I rarely hear anything about hospital staffs being under intense pressure when talking to people at church who often are not vaccinated and are not wearing masks.

        Oh yes, if there is a hurricane storm surge forecasted to be 20 feet, and a person refuses to be evacuated from the coast… then yes, they can officially be described as an idiot. Also storm forecasting has dramatically improved over the past 5 years than what was in the past 20 or 30 years.

        Jesus calming the storm indicates he was the Son of God.

        Those evangelicals not showing compassion during this pandemic demonstrates they are not following Jesus of the Bible.

        The number of “Nones” in America is currently at 30%, in 20 years it will be 50%.

        The evangelical church will be much much smaller in 50 years…… I wonder why….?????

      2. The natural disaster scenario is an excellent question. If “True Christians” had faith, not living in fear, should they expect to ignore severe storms, fires, and earthquakes or should they allow fear to drive them to safe shelter?

    2. Gordon, I do not believe they view Covid as sufficiently dangerous to warrant a week or two off from in-person gatherings. It’s a cultural/political divide hiding behind, alternately, scientific or theological masks.

      1. Actually, Mark. The way you handled “Forsake” to fit your reasoning is Why I disagree with you. It has nothing to do with culture or political leanings. If a week or two would really slow the virus. Sure, I would stay at home. But we have tried that before. God is sovereign! Isaiah 45:7 gives me hope that COVID belongs to God (Isaiah 45:7) and my response count it all joy and giving Him my full allegiance (James 1:2-8). Merry Christmas.

        1. “If a week or two would really slow the virus. Sure, I would stay at home.”

          Chris, this seems to me at the root of all of your objections. You are saying that if Covid is as dangerous as they think it is, they are doing the right thing. But rather than agreeing to disagree, you have chosen to condemn them.

          I don’t even care what you believe about Covid, I would just rather see you learn to live peaceably with other believers. But you seem more interested in winning arguments than in showing grace, so I give up.

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