HOUSTON — The largest church in the United States reopened for public worship services Sunday for the first time in eight months. In-person gatherings were suspended at Lakewood Church earlier in the year due to growing concerns over the community spread of COVID-19.
It became clear in March that it was no longer safe for Lakewood to host the church’s more than 50,000 weekly attendees. The services were part of the weekly routines of tens-of-thousands of Houstonians and visitors who come to the church from all over the world.
“It feels amazing to be back at church,” said Lakewood Church member Erin Cannon before she walked inside the building. “I was screaming. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I just couldn’t wait.”
Tim Brown and his wife traveled from Minnesota to visit family.
“We’ve come to see our granddaughter down in Houston,” Brown said. “Every time we’re in Houston, we come to see Joel.”
A greeter in the lobby shouted at the masked visitors making their ways inside for the first time in many months.
“Good morning family. Welcome home! Welcome home!”
Approximately 4,000 people were permitted to attend each of the church’s Sunday services, a Lakewood Church spokeswoman said, which is a fraction of the church’s pre-pandemic service attendance.
“I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again, I’m looking at strong, anointed, powerful, children of the most-high God,” Pastor Joel Osteen said.
Osteen continued to preach during the shutdown without live worshippers in the audience. Lakewood said its digital and broadcast audience boomed while the church’s physical doors were locked. The church says 4.6 million viewers were watching Lakewood’s services on Easter weekend. Things looked different at Lakewood’s services on Sunday.
Aisles once packed with the prayerful before the pandemic were peppered by socially distanced family groups.
The church is only allowed to host 25% of its normal number of attendees who had to register for seats online days ahead of the services.
Everyone who comes is told to wear a mask.
An upgraded air filtration system has been modified to kill germs and escalator handrails are now equipped with UVC sterilization technology. The common spaces and restrooms are cleaned more frequently than in the past.
But although the venue for Lakewood’s elaborate services may appear different in person now, its familiar message that resonates with so many people is still the same.
The words are welcomed by thousands who have long waited to hear them in person again.
“You don’t have to be perfect, we’ve all made mistakes,” Osteen said. “It’s not so much about your performance, it’s about your heart.”
The pastor’s eyes became glassy as he attempted to complete his final remarks.
“Keep God first place. Do the right thing,” Osteen said. “When it’s hard, say ‘no’ to things that are pulling you down. You’re not just anyone...”
Osteen pauses, turns his back to the audience and the cameras, and reaches for a handkerchief on the podium.
He wiped his eyes.
“Oh, shoot,” he says. “I almost made it.”
The church sent an email to its members last month, indicating online sign-ups would be required and also informing worshipers of the safety and health protocols that will be in place:
"As usual, all of our weekend experiences will be online for all to view. In addition, we are creating an in-person service starting October 18th, at 10am. If you are comfortable and want to worship with us in person we’d love to have you!
As a safety precaution, we plan to reopen at 25% capacity and require that all attendees wear masks. Those members who wish to attend a service must reserve their seat online prior to the service.
Additionally, we’ve undertaken measures inside the church to insure a more sanitary environment for church attendees, such as:
Bathroom and Plumbing Upgrades: The installation of touchless faucets, touchless soap dispensers and touchless flush valves. All restrooms walls, doors, floors and fixtures will be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized regularly.
Escalator Safety Upgrades: All Escalators have been fitted with a combination of Schindler Safe Ultra UVC Sterilization and CleanRail Antimicrobial Escalator Handrails. This will be effective in killing bacteria and viruses, and will provide the attendees with peace of mind when holding on to the escalator handrail.
Interior Building Air Purification: The main Air Handlers that supply the Sanctuary are being upgraded along with Bi-Polar ionization technology designed to assist in purifying the air supply.
Sanitizing High-Traffic Public Areas: Increased frequency and scope of all cleaning services including enhanced sanitization of high-traffic areas such as lobbies, hallways, elevators, bathrooms, counters, rails, doorknobs, and other frequently contacted surfaces in the church."
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