COVID sign on door of church

Masks are often requested but not required during worship at churches in Colorado.

As pandemic restrictions ease and churches open more fully, some congregants report feeling pressured to attend services in person.

Colorado Springs resident J. Miller recently resigned her membership at Calvary Worship Center, saying the head pastor shames people who aren’t sitting in the pews.

“We’ve been told you can’t serve Christ from your couch,” she said.

The church livestreams some services online and provides in-person services.

One Sunday, Miller said, Senior Pastor Al Pittman “repeatedly indicated that ‘cowards’ are hated by God and will not enter heaven.”

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“I feel what they’re saying is if you don’t go to church, you’re not fully believing in Christ and you’re not following Pastor Al’s spiritual leadership,” she said.

The messages don’t make sense, Miller said, since Pittman was hospitalized with COVID in November but has recovered.

“Why do we have to risk our lives to go to church?” Miller said.

Pittman declined to be interviewed, and does not want to speak about his experience with COVID, said Calvary’s Executive Pastor Mark Bofill.

“It’s never our practice to shame people,” Bofill said. “The Holy Spirit brings conviction to people. However they might have personally interpreted things, that’s not our intent.”

Congregants in New Mexico have made claims similar to Miller's.

Two former members of Calvary Church in Albuquerque launched an online petition in December, saying church leaders were guilting congregants during sermons into attending live services.

Nearly 2,150 people have signed the petition. In late December, the New Mexico church was threatened with a $10,000 fine for not abiding by the state's mask and social distancing regulations.

“Scripturally, we go by what the Lord is showing us through his word,” Bofill said, citing a passage in Hebrews 10:25, which commands the faithful to have personal contact with other Christians.

“The purpose of the church is to glorify the Lord,” he said. “We gather to glorify the Lord.”

Bofill thinks that Calvary, an evangelical Protestant church, has been "sensitive" to the needs of congregants. The church closed for several months last spring as the pandemic began spreading and has been offering not only online services but also Bible studies and trainings.

The church closed during last weekend’s bitter cold snap as well, he said, to protect congregants.

“As a local church, we want to bless the community in every way,” he said. “Never would we want to bring harm in any way.”

Favorable rulings on several lawsuits claiming Colorado’s health restrictions unfairly targeted churches led the state to alter its policies late last year, lifting capacity limits on places of worship and relaxing mask requirements during worship.

Wearing facial coverings in churches now is often optional.

Miller, a nurse, requested in a letter she sent to Calvary leaders before revoking her membership that they provide a separate space for people who want to wear masks during services.

"There's people giving big hugs and shaking hands and thinking it's in God's hands," she said. "They act like they need not accommodate the afraid or the weak. Where is their Christian charity?"

She said she received no reply to her letter.

The church objects to having defend itself, Bofill said, because “we’re not doing anything wrong.”

Calvary Worship Center, which has more than 2,000 congregants, cleans thoroughly between services and has consulted with the county health department on its COVID practices, Bofill said.

“We don’t make people wear masks — we believe people can act responsibly on their own,” he said. “We provide masks, we have signs up, but we don’t walk around like the police.”

Many people long for in-person services, Bofill said, and Calvary has seen new congregants, with some churches continuing to limit in-person worship.

“There’s a hunger for people to worship God, and they're frustrated because their churches haven’t opened yet,” he said. “Churches should be open — that’s what they’re called to do.”

Decrying guilt-tripping

After nearly a year of COVID-19, people have grown weary of constraints on daily activities, said Harold Graves Jr., president of Nazarene Bible College, an online program headquartered in Colorado Springs.

He commends churches for adapting to livestreaming services, providing online fellowship and Bible studies through video chat programs and holding outdoor events.

“Most churches in America have less than 100 people, and they didn’t do online services before, with the exception of some of the mega churches,” Graves said. “Smaller churches had to get the technology and equipment to help their congregants remain connected.”

Overall, the pandemic put church leaders across the nation in a tough spot, he said.

“Some pastors have had issues with people saying, ‘I’m not coming to church if I have to wear a mask,’ and others saying, ‘I’m not coming to church if people don’t wear masks,’” Graves said.

“How do you solve that?”

Many Colorado Springs churches have been operating under a reservation system and are inching closer to normal.

First Presbyterian Church is restarting its regular worship service times on Sunday and reopening its nursery and Sunday school programs. Masks are required, according to its website.

After gathering in auditoriums for the past month, Woodmen Valley Chapel campuses now are open with no reservations needed to attend. Masks are expected to be worn indoors, the website states.

Graves said he hasn’t heard of any churches going out of business during the pandemic, and for the most part, donations have held steady or just below anticipated tithing.

But he and other religious leaders decry any guilt-tripping that may or may not be occurring among any faith or denomination.

“It is erroneous of any pastor to promote that,” said The Rev. Joe Warrington, pastor of Grace Church of the Nazarene in Colorado Springs. “In-person services have risks during this time of the pandemic, and you have to be cautious for people to protect themselves as well as others.”

His church requested elderly members stay home during the height of infection last year, said Warrington, who also teaches at Nazarene Bible College.

“To say someone is not trusting God enough is wrong,” Warrington said, referencing a chapter in Deuteronomy that advises people not to tempt or test God.

“That is being presumptuous to think that God will protect us from the virus,” he said. “We are not to be careless or neglectful with our lives.”

Some evangelical leaders early on in the pandemic indicated that their faith would spare them from the virus.

Andrew Wommack, founder of Andrew Wommack Ministries International and Charis Bible College in Woodland Park, claimed that that no germ can touch his body and live. 

The largest outbreaks of COVID in Teller County to date were traced to two of the organization's events held over the summer, with 154 cases among staff and participants from a late June-early July event and 44 cases and one death originating from a late July-early August event.

During a “Virtual Victory Campaign,” Kenneth Copeland, a televangelist who has been a speaker at Wommack’s events, last April in what's titled "Kenneth Copeland spits at virus" on Youtube, blew the word of God on Satan and commanded COVID be destroyed forever. 

At Calvary Worship Center, Miller said she felt if she just believed in God enough and were obedient enough, she would be rewarded by not getting the virus.

Such a view is what The Rev. Jeff Gwinn, an elder at Highland Bible Church in Woodland Park, calls “speaking with a forked tongue,” or an intent to mislead or deceive.

“It’s nonsense to say God’s going to protect us from the virus,” he said. “That’s like saying I’m not going to get cancer or be in a car accident. It lays a guilt trip.”

His church has about 70 people attending in person, compared with up to 130 pre-COVID, but many are watching online.

While attending church provides an enhanced experience over seeing a service on a phone or a computer, Gwinn said, attendance should originate from a desire, not a human demand.

“That’s the reality of what church is,” he said. “It’s not just checking something off. It’s people coming together to worship God.”

Gwinn’s does fear that people livestreaming at home might “lose the importance of what church is. And they won't want to come back.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.