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For once, my hat’s off to Bethel, the megachurch in Shasta County’s midst that boasts 11,500 local attendees. Due to fear of the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus pandemic, last week the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry postponed all foreign and domestic travel for student missions and ministry trips not deemed “essential travel” for the next two months.
Bethel Church canceled this past Sunday’s services, encouraging congregants to watch on Bethel TV instead. It’s unclear if future Sunday services will also be canceled. Bethel’s healing rooms on Saturday strangely remain open.
“Bethel Church is proactively taking steps to ensure the continued safety and health of our region,” Bethel’s announcement began, and it was right on the mark. Bethel’s globalized business model is particularly susceptible to a disease like coronavirus. What do you get when you combine foreign travel, meeting in large groups and laying hands on random strangers?
These days, you just might get COVID-19.
So, Bethel did the right thing, knowing it was going to take media flak. “Fake faith healers admit they’re phonies, can’t cure coronavirus,” was the general tone of the coverage. That had to hurt a little.
Bethel is frightened, and it should be. Shasta County should be frightened. In my opinion, the county should have shut down all public schools last week, following the lead of Taiwan, which to date has only 50 confirmed coronavirus cases despite being off the coast of mainland China. With adequate testing and social distancing, it may not be too late to contain novel coronavirus in Shasta County, which so far has just one travel-related case of COVID-19.
How can you tell Bethel is scared? I spent the weekend listening to their leaders’ comments on social media and reading their blogs. That’s all head pastors Bill Johnson and Kris Vallotton and Bethel musician/ex-congressional candidate Sean Feucht were talking about: fear.
Apparently, these spiritual entrepreneurs who claim they can heal just about any illness through impartation aren’t too worried about coronavirus’s lethality to the general public. Economics seems to be the primary concern. On a Facebook livestream, Feucht asked Johnson, who said he was in an airport at some unknown location, to comment on the fear and paranoia going around—and the stock market crash.
“I’ve never seen the spirit of fear spread so quickly,” Johnson said, advising viewers to “wash their hands” and use the “prophetic word” as a weapon against the virus, particularly Psalm 91, which asserts those who shelter in God’s shadow are protected from deadly plagues and pestilence.
But just when you think Johnson’s has some common sense, he literally ridicules common sense and then claims recent pandemics were far worse than COVID-19 and suggested the new disease has been blown out of proportion by the mainstream media.
“There’s something not right here,” Johnson said. Asked by Feucht for a few keys to surviving the outbreak, Johnson said, “Turn off the news. Get rid of that voice that haunts and torments you.”
President Donald Trump made similar claims, right up until he declared a coronavirus national state of emergency last Friday.
To his credit, Kris Vallotton opens his most recent blogpost, “Are Facts or Fear Influencing Your Faith?” with a link to the CDC’s coronavirus recommendations. He casts COVID-19 as a demonic spirit that wrecks economies. Check it out:
“The coronavirus is creating a tornado of intense fear across the planet. … I believe what is masquerading under the guise of a worldwide outbreak is devious and even demonic, but it does not need to dictate a feeling of demise. I’d like to propose that we are going toe-to-toe with a foreboding spirit that’s pressing in on our planet … threatening to shut down entire nations, attempting to destroy economies.”
Going toe-to-toe with a demonic tornado. I’m down with that!
“You are right that I believe in Jesus, but I’m not a medieval fool that ignores science and medicine,” maintains Vallotton, who has trained thousands of gullible students in the dodgy art of faith-healing fakery. “It’s paramount that we are wise, take precautions, and not participate in spreading the virus.”
Sound advice. But like Johnson, Vallotton suggests that much of what we’re learning about coronavirus via the media is fake news.
“Yet it’s equally important that we do not perpetuate any fear from this evil doom and gloom spirit that’s projecting a false narrative through the twisting of facts and spreading of fallacious rumors,” he writes.
It would seem Vallotton is also clinging to the idea, promulgated by Trump, FOX News and right-wing radio, that the growing fear about the spread of coronavirus is some sort of “liberal” plot to take down the economy and make the president look bad. His advice for dealing with the frightening news unfolding daily before us?
“Remember fear is a liar.”
But fear doesn’t lie all the time. Sometimes fear tells the truth, and the truth can set you free.
In my own case, as more epidemiological information became available about COVID-19 during the past several months and I understood that both my parents and I are in high-risk groups, my spider-sense started tingling. Last week, I chose to go on hiatus from substitute teaching because I feared, rightly, that it was impossible to maintain the CDC’s cleanliness and social distancing guidelines for my risk group at a school. My fear went away the second I made the decision.
Similarly, I was relieved when Bethel, on the very same day, announced it was postponing all foreign and domestic travel for student missions and ministry for two months, as well as canceling this past Sunday’s church services. Bethel is a $60 million annual global business enterprise; foreign travel, meeting in large groups and laying hands on random strangers are baked into its business model.
The leadership didn’t make this decision lightly and should be commended for getting it right so far.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not an “evil doom and gloom spirit projecting a false narrative,” as Vallatton would have it. It’s a novel coronavirus that’s far more contagious and at least 10 times more lethal than seasonal flu. Fearing it is the appropriate response. Bethel canceling mission and ministry trips and its services this past Sunday aren’t “twisted facts” or “fallacious rumors.”
They’re warning signs that the rest of Shasta County should heed as well.