Counting more than 62 million adherents worldwide in 190 countries, the Assemblies of God church is a flagship of Pentecostal Protestantism. Church efforts to spread evangelical Christianity and social assistance span the entire globe.
Coming from the intense Christian movement born out of the Los Angeles Azusa Street Revival in the early decades of the 20th century, the decentralized denomination has been headquartered in Springfield for 102 years. A slate-blue midcentury modern building, the National Leadership and Resource Center, dominates Boonville Avenue between Historic City Hall and Commercial Street, and congregations large and small across the region usually attract thousands of attendees each weekend.
This week, the scourge of 2020's global coronavirus pandemic began to affect the faithful in very public ways.
Two key mission leaders infected
On Wednesday night, the Assemblies of God World Missions organization announced on social media that two key leaders had tested positive for COVID-19.
A public Facebook status read, "BREAKING NEWS AND CALL TO PRAYER: AGWM Executive Director Greg Mundis has been positively confirmed as having COVID-19. We ask everyone to intercede for Greg in this crucial time—for complete healing of his lungs and kidneys, and for the Spirit of God to fill his hospital room with God's healing presence."
All week, family members of Mundis posted frequently about his treatment for "double pneumonia," later confirmed to be COVID-19, at an intensive-care unit in Springfield.
Ron Maddux, world missions northern Asia area director, was also recognized Wednesday on Assemblies of God public social media pages as having been infected by the virus.
Hundreds of denomination members throughout the world took to the internet since the men were hospitalized to express their hopes and prayers for his recovery.
"Our global outpouring of support for them has been overwhelming to witness," Mark Forrester, a spokesman for the denomination, told the News-Leader late Friday.
Mundis was even featured on "Good Morning America" Friday morning. His son, a physician, told the broadcast that his father had been treated with chloroquine, a malaria medication that some scientists believe holds promise to treat COVID-19.
Greg Mundis Jr. told the ABC show that it was hard to say if chloroquine helped his dad, but “24 hours after he was on it, he really turned the corner."
Thursday, a social media "praise report" from Assemblies of God World Missions stated Mundis was able to wake up in the ICU. "He moved his arms, squeezed hands, wiggled toes and ankles, and opened his eyes," the church said on social media. "There is a really good chance his endotracheal tube will get to come out soon. Please continue to pray."
But the same day, the church announced that along with the missions officials, two employees in the Assemblies of God national office were diagnosed with COVID-19, according to a written statement.
The statement said that before the positive tests were confirmed, AG leaders closed the church's headquarters "to allow employees to practice adequate social distancing."
An automated phone message the News-Leader heard Wednesday indicated the building closure extended until at least Friday. On Friday, the automated phone message no longer mentioned the closure.
The Thursday statement said the denomination is "working closely with local health departments and following all recommendations" and asked people to pray for the two employees.
Christian County warns public
More big news arrived Thursday as the Christian County Health Department warned the public of possible exposure at the biggest church in Christian County. James River Church counts some 15,000 weekly attendees, a church official said earlier this week.
A report first published by the Christian County Headliner-News noted that the local health department alerted anyone who attended the third Sunday service offered on March 8 at James River Church's Ozark location that they could have been exposed to COVID-19.
A patient who attended the service "was reportedly exposed to COVID-19 by international travelers who have also tested positive for the coronavirus," the newspaper reported. "That patient reportedly isolated himself when he developed symptoms."
Earlier Thursday, Forrester, the Assemblies of God spokesman, confirmed, "There were 16 visitors from France in Texas who drove to Springfield on March 4 to see our National Office. They left Springfield to return to France on March 6. They did not attend church services. We later discovered that by March 9, after they had returned to France, one of them had begun showing symptoms of COVID-19."
It is not clear if the French visitors are the same "international travelers" referenced in the Thursday update from Christian County.
The Springfield-Greene Health Department previously had linked at least one of its initial cases to the French visitors, who ate at several local restaurants and toured Bass Pro and Branson Landing March 5-6.
Twice since Thursday, the News-Leader reached out to two top officials with the Assemblies of God in France to learn details about their church's trip to Missouri. The newspaper has not yet heard back.
A French public radio report from 2017 indicates the Assemblies of God has some 650,000 members in France, spanning 2,500 congregations, adding about 35 more congregations each year.
A service with a 'blessing'
The March 8 service was not the only James River Church service prompting questions in the local community.
On March 13, Springfield-Greene County Director of Health Clay Goddard advised churches to practice social distancing, in part by postponing in-person services beginning with the weekend of March 21-22. But the health department said that March 15 services might go forward due to the short turnaround.
"It was not the expectation of the (Springfield-Greene County) Health Department that religious leaders cancel services," a department spokesperson said Monday afternoon.
Health officials do not appear to have been aware at the time that a person exposed to coronavirus had attended a James River Church service in Christian County on March 8.
On the same day as Goddard's advice, James River Church posted to its Facebook page that it would go forward with “services at all of our campuses” for this past weekend, moving to online services thereafter.
“YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS THIS SERVICE!” church leadership told the congregation last week.
The church added, “This morning, after visiting with city, county, and health officials we received their blessing to hold services this Sunday at all of our campuses.”
The blessing did not come from the Christian County Health Department, administrator Cindy Bilyeu said this week. She acknowledged she was surprised by the church action.
James River took precautions for last weekend, according to its social media, banning hand-to-hand contact along with "offering buckets" and prayer lines for the sick. Door handles were to be sanitized throughout the building during and after every service, with hand sanitizer available throughout the building.
Bilyeu, with Christian County’s health department, said she thought the James River church "blessing" comment referred to remarks by Goddard and other officials in Greene County. She noted James River has at least two campuses north of the county line, and the flagship in Christian County, off Highway 65, is located close to the line.
Brandon Lindell, James River executive ministries pastor, told the News-Leader this week, "We received the blessing from the Springfield-Greene County Health Department to have services this (past) weekend. That’s who we talked to who gave us the blessing."
Lindell said going forward, services would be online. Asked if church leaders thought they might have made a different decision last weekend, Lindell said, "You know, really our statement stands for itself on Facebook regarding that."