Pastors spread the gospel online during pandemic: "Good religion goes best with some common sense"

Virtual services are “difficult,” pastors say

For 40 years, Reverend Calvin Butts has preached in front of thousands at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, a landmark sanctuary in Harlem. But for the past three weeks, as the coronavirus outbreak has taken hold in New York City, preaching has been a solitary affair.

"We decided to do virtual services after we heard the projections for the number of cases that were expected at that time, and now we see that it has become a reality," Rev. Butts said. "And we were convinced that the health and safety of our congregants comes first."

Abyssinian Palm Sunday Service - April 5, 2020 by Abyssinian Baptist Church on YouTube

CBS News special correspondent James Brown asked, "As a speaker, how is it impacting you in your virtual presentations?"

"Well, it's a little difficult. You know, I'm from that call-and-response tradition; we want to hear somebody say 'Amen!' or say 'Talk!' or something. Even when I look out into an empty sanctuary, if the spirit comes, then I can present the word of God."

Pastor Craig Altman of Grace Family Church near Tampa, Florida, has also taken to the internet to stay connected with his 11,000-member congregation. He, too, admits that he had to make an adjustment:  "I'll be honest, it's very difficult when you are standing in an empty room with no one there; you don't have the energy you would like."

He told Brown about the decision to hold virtual services online: "We realized love is really protecting people and protecting the vulnerable.  And that really drove our decision to say, you know, we want to do our best not to injure our community in any way."

Pastors Butts and Altman stand in contrast to some preachers who continue to hold in-person church services. Florida pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for violating health emergency orders; and yesterday, Louisiana pastor Tony Spell held Palm Sunday services despite being charged with six misdemeanors last week.

Pastor Altman said, "Of course, we want to believe that God can protect us, but I think there is a balance between due diligence and concern."

The Cure For Fear | Craig Altman by GFC Florida on YouTube

Rev. Butts said, at first, even he had to be convinced: "I said, 'You can't stop us from worshiping.' But someone had to really sit down and say, 'Look, Calvin Butts, this is a serous matter.'"

He noted philosophically, "Good religion goes best with some common sense."

Pastor Altman said moving to online services during the coronavirus pandemic may prove to be a blessing in disguise: "Now, with the strictly online service, we're hitting 45,000 households every weekend, so we've seen a big expansion of growth."

As these two prominent preachers begin the most important week on the Christian calendar, both have a message of hope.

"I know that God will provide that our people will get on the internet, they will tune in to virtual services, and even those who can't get to their churches will tune into us," said Rev. Butts.

Pastor Altman said, "We're going to see a resurrection of our economy, of people's lives, and I know that God is going to get us through this."