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Back in the 1960s, Greg Laurie was a long-haired hippie who smoked marijuana, took LSD and called Christians at his high school “Jesus freaks.” Today, Mr. Laurie is one of the country’s best-known megachurch pastors, with a congregation of 15,000 people spread across five campuses in California and Hawaii. His sermons often highlight his belief that no one is beyond redemption.
As some evangelical leaders flouted federal social-distancing guidelines and kept their churches open as Covid-19 spread, Mr. Laurie took his sermons online, attracting more than a million listeners. He has spoken out against those who held in-person services despite the dangers. “I know you may see this as an act of great faith, but I think in many ways you’re testing the Lord more than you’re trusting the Lord,” he said.
Mr. Laurie, 67, has seen 45,000 new members profess their faith through a form on the church’s website since the pandemic started. He wonders if digital worship will permanently change the way that people pray. “We’re navigating waters we’ve never been down before,” he says over Zoom from his home in Newport Beach, Calif. “Part of me thinks there will be a huge surge of people who will want to be in church again” once the pandemic subsides. “The other view is I think Christians will be apprehensive about being in large crowds,” he adds. “I foresee a big question mark.”
Either way, Mr. Laurie thinks that people are more open to faith in times of crisis. “People are listening differently than they normally do,” he says. He compares it to the difference between how airline passengers pay attention to safety messages before takeoff and during a flight emergency: “If the pilot says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, two of our engines are out,’ I’m going to listen more the second time.”
Last month, President Trump publicly announced that he would be watching Mr. Laurie’s Palm Sunday sermon. Mr. Laurie calls himself politically and theologically conservative but tries to stay away from partisan politics. He recently sent a tweet thanking both Mr. Trump and California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, for their work against the coronavirus. “In a rare moment, they were working together,” Mr. Laurie says. “I believe that my role as an evangelist is to be a bridge builder.”
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