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Spokane churches chart different paths after President Trump says worshipping should resume immediately

UPDATED: Sun., May 24, 2020

The Rev. Ken Peters speaks during a church service at Covenant Christian Church on Sunday, May 24, 2020. Peters said he’s been holding in-person services since May 3 in defiance of Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders to stay home. (Facebook livestream)
The Rev. Ken Peters speaks during a church service at Covenant Christian Church on Sunday, May 24, 2020. Peters said he’s been holding in-person services since May 3 in defiance of Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders to stay home. (Facebook livestream)

The debate over whether churches should resume in-person worship services has been raging since Friday, when President Donald Trump declared churches essential and said they should reopen immediately. Many states have forbidden large gatherings, which includes worship services, and many governors, including Washington’s Jay Inslee, have refused Trump’s request to open churches back up.

Life Center and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Spokane are two churches continuing to offer online services and have not yet moved to in-person services. Covenant Christian Church in Spokane also offered a livestream of its worship service on Sunday but opened the church doors in defiance of Inslee’s orders.

There seemed to be a large crowd in attendance, all standing close to one another. No masks were evident.

In a Facebook comment, the Rev. Ken Peters said he’s been holding in-person services since May 3. He spoke about the size of the crowd during the service. “We have a lot of guests today,” he said, addressing those attending Covenant on Sunday. “I can tell your church isn’t open yet.”

He also welcomed those who were watching from home, saying that he recognized that people in high-risk categories needed to take care of themselves. “If I had older parents, personally I would want them to stay safe,” he said.

There were so many people in attendance that Peters announced the church would also begin offering a second in-person service at 6 p.m. each Sunday. He also announced that the church’s small groups and child care have started again.

Peters, one of the leaders of the Church of Planned Parenthood that prompted City Council action to protect the women’s health care clinic, released a video on Facebook on Friday praising Trump’s message and declaring that it was time to fight back against the stay-at-home rules that Inslee has instituted. “Assembling together is not Zoom or Facebook streaming,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. There’s a power you get fellowshipping together face to face.”

Peters continued that message in his service Sunday. “I’m all for safety,” he claimed. “We stepped back for a while.”

Peters said it became clear to him, as the government put restrictions on worship services and communion, that there was another, “satanic” agenda happening and that it was his duty to push back against a “tyrannical, leftist, abortion-supporting, evolution-believing governor.”

“That’s not rebellion,” he said. “That’s working within the system.”

It’s important that people stand up for America, Peters said: “We need to stay free.”

He spoke about the military men and women who have died for our freedom. If they can do that, “we can risk a .02% chance of dying of a virus for our freedom,” he said.

Peters claimed that Rep. Matt Shea was in the audience and said Shea shares his desire to fight for the Constitution. “If he was governor, it would be a whole different deal right now,” he said.

The Rev. Michael Wittwer, co-lead pastor of Life Center, spoke at the beginning of the livestreamed service about Trump’s message, but said Inslee has yet to respond to Trump’s request, so the livestreaming would continue. “For now, we’re still in phase two,” he said, referring to Inslee’s phased approach for reopening the state.

Phase two allows people to gather in small groups of five or less, so he said that if people feel comfortable doing so, they should invite a neighbor or friend over for prayer. “The idea is that we’re going to connect together,” Wittwer said.

The Rev. Joe Wittwer, lead pastor at the church, addressed the issue in his sermon, citing Romans 13:1, which tells people to submit to governing authorities. It’s a choice to submit, not subjugation, Wittwer said.

“We do have a choice,” he said. “We’re called to give up our selfishness and think of others.”

He compared the current situation to following the traffic rules. We may want to drive faster than the speed limit or go through stop signs without stopping, but we follow the rules for the good of the whole, he said. “Some level of voluntary submission is essential to any group of people,” Wittwer said.

Several years ago, people wore bracelets with the initials WWJD, which stands for What Would Jesus Do? Wittwer said pausing to consider what Jesus would do is still relevant, particularly now. “Ask yourself, what would Jesus do and follow Jesus’ example,” he said. “Whatever we’re dealing with now, it’s not as bad as what those first century Christians dealt with.”

The Rev. Kate LePard of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church said during her livestreamed sermon that the church has been working on plans for when it reopens. “It will be quite a while before we are able to gather for worship,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine what that will look like, with all the regulations we need to follow. The pastors and staff are trying to design something creative, but worship will not be like it was before. It’s hard. I hear from many of you that you really miss worship.”

But it’s important to remember that people don’t need a physical church in order to worship, she said.

“The Kingdom of God is among you,” LePard said. “The Lord’s Kingdom of God is not a place. The Kingdom of God is a way of being, a way of living. The kingdom happens when you love your neighbor.”

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