'We're doing our services online': Hillsong, Gracepoint churches move to livestream

As coronavirus policies update, the 500 person limit for meetings may not last for very long. Victoria’s medical officer has told the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas that he would like the cap to be 100 people.

Churches should not be meeting at all, according to Bill Bowtell, an infectious diseases expert who is an adjunct professor at the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of NSW.

He says that that is especially true of churches with an older demographic. “If you limit your contact to five people, that’s better than 50. It’s just a mathematical viral thing,” he tells Eternity.

Bible studies or connect groups should meet online: “That’s what God invented Skype for,” he says.

“The sooner we do all of this, the sooner, hopefully, we can get back to normal.

“If we wait too long, [the time before] getting back to normal increases dramatically. And if you wait too long, the danger is there will be a lot of people who used to come to Bible study or church who won’t be there.

“I am not saying I can predict it, I am just saying these are the massively prudent things that people in their own interest must do. And if it doesn’t come to pass, well, great.”

Although Bowtell might be regarded as one of the voices in the medical community suggesting radical action, some churches are taking the same approach.

Hillsong Church has made all its Sunday gatherings online. “This will be the last weekend we are able to gather in full,” Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston said in a video message. “Because we want what is best for you and we also want to be compliant with all the health and government authorities. Next week we will be beaming online – so we are still gathering, we are gathering online.”

Not every Hillsong service has an attendance of over 500 people – but the all the campuses will follow this policy of only online gathering on Sunday. “So next week church is on,” Pastor Peter Toganivalu added. “That’s because church is not a building. It’s you.”

“This has not been an easy decision to make. It’s not made out of fear or panic.” – Grace Christian Church

At the other end of the size spectrum, Grace Christian Church, a Westminster Presbyterian church in Buderim, Queensland has cancelled its meeting for two weeks. “The coronavirus has become a major global health issue, and our church leaders have been trying to determine the best response for us as a church family,” the church elders John Butler and Clint Lombard announced.

“Last night, John and I (Clint) met with a small team of medical professionals in various fields who are part of our church family here at Grace. On their advice, the church leadership has made the difficult decision to suspend all Grace gatherings following this morning’s service for the next two weeks …

“This has not been an easy decision to make. It’s not made out of fear or panic. We’re making it because we’re taking seriously Jesus’ words in Mark 12 to ‘love your neighbour’ – both inside our church family and in our local community.”

The church will livestream sermons and Bible readings.

Gracepoint, a Presbyterian Church that meets at Lidcombe and Burwood in Inner West Sydney, is an example of a mid-sized church that is suspending its services. “As an eldership we are taking precautionary measures for the next few weeks that we believe is in the best interest of our congregations and the wider community,” Gracepoint announced.

“While we are aware that those over 70 are most susceptible to the virus, we are mindful of those who have pre-existing medical conditions. We’re also mindful that many in our congregations have also got elderly and vulnerable family members they would have contact with. So we would rather take preventive steps to look after our church community and our wider community by minimising contact in a large group.

“We want to let you know WHAT our plan for church will be from next Sunday the 22nd of March. From next Sunday we’ll be live streaming a pre-recorded worship service at 10am and 4pm – which will be through a live feed on our FB page and website.”

“We can help the community catch the Holy Spirit and … limit the risk of catching COVID-19.” – Guy Mason

City on a Hill, a multi-campus church in Melbourne, is another large church going online. “We’re ramping up ways to keep and hold community together in these testing times, either by Facetime, Googling or Facebook Live,” Senior Pastor Guy Mason said.

“With the help of technology, we can help the community catch the Holy Spirit and at the same time limit the risk of catching COVID-19. While we may have less opportunity to gather physically, we are committed to staying connected and uniting spiritually.”

These churches might just be ahead of the curve.

Other churches have asked people to sit one chair apart, and increased the space between rows of chairs.

But other churches have made changes – St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Parramatta, in western Sydney held a communion service last weekend “without the elements”.

David Ould, a minister at the cathedral, posted on Facebook the ‘Rubric’ (rule) from the Book of Common Prayer which says that if someone through sickness or another reason can’t have the bread and wine “the Curate (minister) shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.”

Other churches have asked people to sit one chair apart, and increased the space between rows of chairs. Communion has been served with gloves, and it’s been pointed out that there is so much hand sanitiser at services that Baptist Churches or Salvation Army corps have more alcohol in the building than they ever have had.

But the real possibility that the size of gatherings is set to be reduced, possibly drastically, will make churches go online.

Some will wait, possibly, for government guidelines. Others, particularly those with vulnerable people, make changes early.

Eternity is keen to hear from those who create alternatives. Maybe churches will share a livestream. Some might make cell/connect/growth groups the main form of church.

For those interested in going online, here is a simple guide that only uses simple equipment.