Trump, millions go to church online on National Day of Prayer amid coronavirus

Millions of Americans, including President Trump, attended religious services Sunday, not in person, but via screen as the nation grapples with social distancing and limiting public events to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump declared Sunday a National Day of Prayer after designating a national emergency. Megachurches -- from Bethel Church in Redding, Calif. to Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C. -- streamed their Sunday service online through apps, websites and YouTube.

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"I am watching a great and beautiful service by Pastor Jentezen Franklin," the president, who tested negative for the coronavirus according to a statement from his personal physician, tweeted at 11:20 a.m. "Thank you!"

Franklin, the pastor of Free Chapel in Gainesville, Ga., preached a message titled, "Choose faith over fear," to an empty auditorium viewed by nearly 200,000 as he thanked Trump, reading out the National Day of Prayer proclamation.

"I ask you to join me in a day of prayer for all people who have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and to pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation," Trump said in his declaration issued Saturday.

"The building and the seats are not the church, the people are the church," Franklin said.

Greg Laurie's church, Harvest Fellowship, saw four times the number of people attend online with over 230,000 people, as he preached "What to do when you don't know what to do."

The church saw more than 1,400 people commit online to follow Jesus.

LifeBridge Community Church in Fresno, Calif., offered online services with curbside prayer for anyone who still wanted to come to the sanctuary.

"There's a lot of fear occurring right now and so we kind of wanted to counterbalance that a bit so to speak," Kevin Foster, the lead pastor, told FOX 26. "We wanted to instead of spread a pandemic about fear and hysteria, we wanted to spread a pandemic of hope."

Dr. Alveda King, the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., told "Fox & Friends" Sunday she was planning to attend service in person with precautions and urged her fellow Americans, "Don't panic. Pray."

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For smaller, local churches, pastors face hard decisions about continuing to hold services and maintaining the bonds of community, as public health officials urge canceling events larger than 50 people.

At St. Philip African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta, about 100 congregants dotted a sanctuary built for thousands. Rev. William Watley told members he would follow official directives on whether to hold church services after Sunday.

The choir sings during services on at St. Philip African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Only about 100 people filled a sprawling sanctuary that seats more than a thousand at the church because of coronavirus fears. Pastor William Watley told congregants he would follow officials' guidance on whether to continue services after Sunday, calling for prayer during the epidemic. (Jeff Amy/Associated Press)

The choir sings during services on at St. Philip African Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Only about 100 people filled a sprawling sanctuary that seats more than a thousand at the church because of coronavirus fears. Pastor William Watley told congregants he would follow officials' guidance on whether to continue services after Sunday, calling for prayer during the epidemic. (Jeff Amy/Associated Press)

“Some of the younger preachers said, ‘You going to have church?’ When you think about some of the mess that all of us have been through, the possibility of coronavirus. ... It’s going to take more than this to stop us from serving and trusting God," Watley said. "His steadfast love endures!”

He quickly added: “You do your part. You wash your hands like you got sense.”

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The unique opportunity offered many churches a chance to broaden their audience.

"Over 300 salvations through Woodlands Church’s online services this weekend," Christian author Lee Strobel tweeted. "Thank God! Praying that this medical crisis sparks a revival!"

The Bay Church online pastoral team work on their computers during an online church service in Concord, Calif., Sunday, March 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The Bay Church online pastoral team work on their computers during an online church service in Concord, Calif., Sunday, March 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Religious leaders took unprecedented action over the weekend to accommodate the faithful.

For Roman Catholics, where attendance at Mass is considered a sacred obligation, many bishops -- including all those in Pennsylvania and Ohio — said they were temporarily dispensing with the requirement that parishioners attend Mass.

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“A general dispensation is given from the Sunday and Holy Day obligation,” the Utah bishop, Oscar Solis, announced. ”Catholics are asked to pray at home, with the rosary, biblical prayer, personal devotions and/or to devoutly watch televised Masses."

Comparably strong measures were taken by leaders of many other faiths, ranging from Orthodox Jewish rabbis in New Jersey to Episcopal and United Methodist bishops in North Carolina.

A sign at the First Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, announces canceled services because of fears of coronavirus transmission on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is among officials who have called on churches to consider stopping large gatherings to prevent cased of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

A sign at the First Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, announces canceled services because of fears of coronavirus transmission on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is among officials who have called on churches to consider stopping large gatherings to prevent cased of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

From its headquarters in Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, announced it is halting all worship services and church activities for its 16 million members worldwide.

Holy Week will look very different for millions of Christians across the globe.

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The Vatican has already announced all public Masses in Italy are forbidden, and with Easter, April 12, quickly approaching, it appears the measures put in place by the Italian government could extend beyond April 3.

Pope Francis left the Vatican Sunday to visit St. Mary Major Basilica near Rome's central train station, where he reportedly prayed to the Virgin Mary for the sick.

More than 6,470 people worldwide have died in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with at least 64 in the United States.

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The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.