Regardless of status of state size limit order, major churches in Johnson County won’t be gathering in person for Easter

Several churches in Johnson County, like Heritage United Methodist Church in Overland Park, are offering online-only worship services during local and state stay-at-home orders.

Johnson County government officials on Thursday said they were reviewing the impact of the Legislative Coordinating Council’s move to overturn Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide order restricting religious gatherings to 10 or fewer people.

Regardless of whether a 10-person restriction is in effect or not, though, many churches in northern Johnson County said they weren’t planning to offer in-person Easter services this week, instead electing to temporarily offer services online only.

Johnson County government on March 19 ordered that churches were subject to a 10-person size limit on gathering size limit, but the order as it pertained to religious groups expired April 2. Gov. Kelly’s executive order would have subjected all churches in the state to the 10-person cap through Easter this coming Sunday and beyond.

Major local churches say had already moved away from in-person services weeks ago and are planning to keep that system in place for Easter. This includes United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village and Lenexa Baptist Church in Lenexa.

“These days the best way to love our neighbors is to practice physical distancing,” said Rev. Tom Are of Village Presbyterian. “To do otherwise is inconsistent with the message of Easter: a celebration of God’s gift of life.” File photo.

“These are strange times and they require wisdom and a willingness to take the long view,” said Rev. Tom Are at Village Presbyterian. “Village Church has a long history of seeking to practice our faith in a way that is good for the larger community. These days the best way to love our neighbors is to practice physical distancing. To do otherwise is inconsistent with the message of Easter: a celebration of God’s gift of life.”

Lenexa Baptist Church recently started offering online worship and Bible studies on a smaller scale without the usual choir and orchestra. Jim Fruth, executive pastor at Lenexa Baptist Church, echoed Are’s sentiments, noting that it’s important to “do the right thing and follow the request of our local and state leaders.”

“We want to be good neighbors and good citizens, and we want to respect those in authority over us as well,” Fruth said. “It’s a tough thing to do for Easter Sunday, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Fruth added that they’ve seen attendance actually grow in recent weeks with services online.

“Lord willing, though, we will see the largest Easter attendance that we have ever seen,” Fruth said. “It’ll just be hard to count them all because we can’t see them. But we know that our online connections have grown immensely, as much as five times the volume that we would normally see.”

United Methodist Church of the Resurrection has also been offering remote services for its 20,000-plus members for the past few weeks.

Since March 17, Catholic Mass services in-person were canceled at parishes in northeast Kansas, under the direction of Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. St. Joseph Catholic Church in Shawnee is livestreaming daily Mass online.

“You are dispensed of your Sunday obligation to attend Mass, but you are still to make the sabbath holy as best you can,” wrote Father Scott Wallisch in a message to members.

Bethany Lutheran Church has also switched to online worship services only, as well as internet-based Bible studies and other fellowship opportunities.

Some church leaders question legality of a 10-person limit on religious gatherings

Whether it has much impact on how Sunday plays out in churches across Johnson County or not, the Legislative Coordinating Council’s move has elicited a range of political reactions.

Multiple church leaders in Johnson County said they agreed with Gov. Kelly’s order on a moral level, though some had concerns about any legal mandate that prohibits church gatherings. Pastor Kevin Wyssmann at Bethany Lutheran said he appreciated the legislative leaders’ move to overturn Gov. Kelly’s order, citing his concerns with the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, he believes that churches should refrain from gathering in person to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“I really believe that constitutionally, they made the right call; I think the governor overstepped her bounds,” Wyssmann said. “However, I do believe Christians are morally obligated to voluntarily comply with the intent of what she was doing, which is to protect our society…There’s still the need to cooperate in this environment and not to assert our freedoms or our rights at the expense of the health and safety of society. I think we’ve got to find that balance.”

At least one church in Johnson County has opted to continue in-person worship services: Church KC, an independent church in western Shawnee. Lead pastor Drew Smith said they’re adhering to CDC guidelines by limiting the gathering to 10 people.

“We’re a small church to begin with,” Smith said, noting the church size of a little less than 100 members. He estimates about 80% of members are staying home and participating online; remote worship is new for Church KC and other churches as well.

Worship services at Church KC now look different because members are also practicing physical distancing, Smith said.

Smith added that he approved of the legislative leaders’ move to overturn Gov. Kelly’s order.

“As a citizen, I am happy that they overturned it…not because we’re going to take that right, but I think preserving the right of the church to meet is important and has been important in our country since its founding,” Smith said. “I still want the right to meet preserved because it gets very dangerous. There are other reasons later that we can’t even see, which our founders understood, when we start making it illegal to meet.”

Some state and federal officials, however, were clearly upset with the move.

In a statement Thursday morning, Rep. Sharice Davids called the decision to overturn Gov. Kelly’s order “outrageous and irresponsible.”

“Rather than work to ensure the health and safety of Kansans, extremists in the state legislature have created chaos and confusion and endangered our public health,” Davids said. “To be clear: the governor’s executive order does not prohibit anyone from worshiping, only from gathering in large public groups. Thank you to the many responsible faith leaders in our community and across the state who have also urged their congregations to take preventative measures to slow the spread of this virus, including limiting mass gatherings. I join them in asking Kansans to please stay home if you can.”

Sec. Lee Norman, MD, of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment took to Twitter to express his frustration after the Legislative Coordinating Council’s vote.