A few Sundays ago, as the coronavirus pandemic swelled in my town of New York City and I remained stuck home alone, I let an overnight focaccia do its second rise while I went, virtually, to church.
Going out wasn’t really an option. In an effort to slow the spread of covid-19, most places where people gather had been shut down. Bars, gyms, and movie theaters were all closed. In response, a lot of things moved online, including religious services.
I’ve always been religious, though what religion I’ve practiced has changed through the years. Before I got into video games journalism, I got a Master’s in theology from Harvard Divinity School, where I co-ran the school’s LGBTQ group and helped organize a service for a different faith tradition each week.
My daily life these days is largely secular, and most of the religious dialogue I engage in now is on Facebook, where my friend group includes people from my div school days who lead congregations as ministers and pastors, or who work as chaplains and religious activists. For years, I’ve remotely followed my friends’ ordination processes, talked theology, and heard about the joys and struggles of their congregations. But I never got to see their services myself until covid-19 closed things down.
That first Sunday, scrolling Facebook and waiting on my bread, my feed was full of livestreams of worship. From the anxious comfort of my couch, I got to watch my friends lead services, preaching to empty pews while the congregants I’d heard so much about flickered by in chat. I watched one friend’s Unitarian Universalist minister, craning into the camera, realize he hadn’t lit the symbolic chalice until halfway through the service. I peeked in on another service at the church my sister used to attend. It was cool to see where she had worshipped, even if it left me with modern praise music in my head for the rest of the day. These services helped me feel closer to my friends, and they brought me back to how I felt during those weekly div school services, praying in traditions that weren’t my own.
Bookmarked by the need to tend to my bread, that morning felt like an oasis, a callback to skills and practices I’d almost forgotten I possessed. It felt weird, but nourishing, to find something positive in the midst of so much pain.
Virtual religious services aren’t new—Catholic Mass has been shown on TV for decades, and churches like Lifechurch have long been online—but when most people think of worship, they likely think of going to a building. The backlash against closing houses of worship has echoed the idea that gathering together is a foundation of what it means to practice a faith.
But during a pandemic, many people are left with no choice.
A Christian friend of mine who has started going to livestreamed church services told me she liked it. “Watching our service on [Facebook Live] was so cool because I got to see all my friends who were watching at the same time...The only downside is missing parts of it because no childcare. The upside of no childcare, though, was seeing my kids dance to the worship music.”
A Jewish friend described a shortcoming about worshiping via video conferencing: “A lot of Jewish prayer involves singing together, but Zoom can’t really handle that, so everyone was muted and I guess sang to themselves.”
While virtual worship was an imposition for some, it also provided new opportunities: my Jewish friend continued, “The most gutting moment was when an old lady started crying because she hadn’t been able to attend services in six years. I hope that livestreaming becomes a permanent part of my synagogue’s services.”
Religious leaders with whom I spoke described technical issues, nerves and other challenges that are complicating their ability to conduct services online, but they’re figuring it out.
“What I see many people experiencing is the depth of connection possible in an intimate Zoom worship, or the willingness and necessity of letting go of some idea of perfection in the face of glitchy (and humbling) technology issues,” Presbyterian reverend Alex McNeill told me. “In this covid-19 crisis we get to practice being the church far more than just going to church. My hope is that these practices will remain with us long after our social distancing is done.”
The rules about houses of worship during this pandemic vary by state—in New York, they’re still deemed essential businesses, though Governor Cuomo has encouraged congregations not to gather in person, advice most seem to be heeding.
Some religious groups have been reluctant to stop gathering. Hasidic Jewish communities in New York initially chafed against social distancing. A megachurch pastor in Florida was arrested for failing to heed the state’s rules against large gatherings. Reuters conducted interviews with several Christians still attending in-person worship, with some respondents seeing physically worshipping together as their religious duty, or as a pushback against the government infringing on their freedom of religion and right to assemble.
But others have accepted the necessity. Mosques around the world have closed, including the one at Mecca, with some broadcasting their prayers over megaphones while reminding people to stay home. Sikhs have been taking the free meals they traditionally serve directly to people in need. Buddhist teachers made dharma talks and meditation sessions free online.
Some religious people have seen refusing to gather as an extension of their faith. In response to President Trump floating the idea of re-opening the country by Easter, Mennonite pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler wrote in Sojourners that doing so would be “a perversion of our communal worship.” Unitarian Universalist Lead Minister Jake Morrill wrote, “A packed church this Easter would be a church testifying to the importance of the stock market over the sacred worth of human life. A packed church this Easter would only be a death cult.”
Most of the people I know moved to online worship quickly, recognizing its necessity for public health. But shifting to online service just as quickly showed how digital interactions are so different than being together in person. The Reverend Kit Lonergan, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Groveland, Massachusetts and a colleague of mine from Harvard, told me via email, “There is immense holiness in seeing the hands of people as they open them for communion, or having someone cry into your shoulder and feel the wetness of tears staying there for a while, or being able to read in the eyes of someone how they really are doing (not just New England ‘fine’). So nothing we do online can replace that.”
Prior to moving worship to Facebook Live, St. James had occasionally used Zoom, as well as Skype and FaceTime, for church business. However, some of Lonergan’s congregation wasn’t exactly tech-savvy, with some not regularly using email or cellphones. St. James used Zoom and Facebook Live for their virtual worship, streaming one service on the pages of three churches in their parish. Worship was led by three people: Lonergan, a tech-savvy parishioner, and their music director. Lonergan found the process complicated: “Wifi access, hot spots, connecting Zoom to Facebook Live through three pages, was harder and more detailed than I had anticipated,” she wrote. “We ended up having a variety of phones, iPads and laptops all aimed at us, stacked on piles of hymnals at various points in the pews—little turrets of livestreams! We probably should have done a dry run, but there wasn’t time or opportunity. Our initial task was to stop church from possibly harming folks, and making anything we did look good was way lower on the list of priorities.”
Lonergan said that there were about 40 viewers on St. James’ stream, and the numbers were similar for the other two churches’ Facebook streams. Multiple people could have been watching over the shoulders of any of those viewers. While the churches usually see about 60 people on Sundays, she noted that many people who didn’t usually attend service also saw the worship online and stopped in to watch. Parishioners, she said, were surprised by how easy it was to join the service and have volunteered to help improve it. She acknowledged that conducting the service was awkward. “Online, and not able to see all the people joining us, I felt pretty vulnerable. I was absolutely exhausted after a 45 minute service, and I’ve done a few tough ones in my life.” She also added, “A last minute suggestion by a colleague that when doing worship online, you might want to wear more makeup than usual to not look drowned out—was possibly the last thing on my mind, but threw me for a loop!”
The Reverend Sarah Taylor Peck, senior pastor at the Community Christian Church in North Canton, Ohio and another divinity school colleague, told me via email that her church had previously livestreamed audio of their services. In response to social distancing, they prerecorded a service in order to have “more editing power and creative outlets” and hired a freshman at the University of Kent to produce it as a video. They removed their lay participants and had their service led by their music ministry, youth and children’s pastors, and herself. DVDs of the service were available for parishioners by mail, and Community Christian Church also left DVDs outside the building for parishioners to pick up, along with devotions, the text of the service, and other home worship materials.
Congregants have responded positively to the new format, Peck said, with some sending in “pictures of their at-home communion, and we received a lot of messages of support. Some watched with mimosas, some with coffee. Our youth set up their own communion of crackers and lemonade as they watched in their PJs.”
While many congregations are entering into virtual worship for the first time, churches that have been doing virtual worship for a while are also having to change things. Last year, I wrote about GodSquad, a Twitch and Discord-based church focused on gamers, whose pastor, Matt Souza, previously served in a physical Assemblies of God church. GodSquad recently acquired physical space in a church in Souza’s state of Virginia; Souza told me in a recent Discord conversation that they were planning to begin in-person worship before shutdowns put those plans on hold. While GodSquad’s weekly services have remained largely unchanged, they’ve begun doing family-oriented movie nights, daily devotionals, and more small groups on their Discord server to foster community. “People need more than just an hour long video to watch on Sunday,” he said, highlighting the usefulness of chat windows so congregants can connect during services, as well as, in GodSquad’s case, Discord rooms for prayer and small groups.
“Most people thought online service was a bad thing until the coronavirus hit, and now they’re realizing the validity of it,” Souza said. “I think this is going to force the church to realize there were so many opportunities that we were not utilizing.”
Souza said that in church-centric Facebook groups he belongs to, he’s seen church leaders come together across denominational lines to share tech tips. “At times denominations can tear people apart,” Souza said, saying that “as unfortunate as all this is, I’ve seen it almost bringing unity within the churches” as leaders share their successes and failures. He told me GodSquad is currently in the process of putting together livestreaming guides for other churches to use.
Reverend Alex McNeill, another of my Harvard colleagues and the Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians, an organization serving LGBTQIA+ Presbyterians and their churches, has also seen changes in the broader church as a result of the move to online worship. “In the Presbyterian denomination we believe God is always reforming and transforming the church, and that the church is never limited to the four walls of the sanctuary,” he told me over email. “However, this moment of pandemic allows us to actually practice those beliefs and move from the comfort of the familiar into the creative and sometimes uncomfortable movement of the Holy Spirit.”
McNeill said he often visits churches as part of his work, but that churches’ move to online worship has let him “gather with many more More Light churches than I would in a given month.” More Light has called churches offering support, as well as created a resource list of queer and trans-affirming Presbyterian churches streaming their worship. The organization also hosted a Zoom call to support clergy and has started a weekly check-in on topics such as remote pastoral care and technological issues.
While online worship is opening up opportunities for people to be together in new forms, the absence of meeting together can be especially hard on some people. “Congregations that are LGBTQIA+ inclusive have long been an in-person respite and place of care for marginalized communities,” McNeill wrote, noting that “LGBTQIA+ people are particularly vulnerable, whether they live in homes that don’t support their identities, or are working lower wage jobs that are the first to be cut when companies tighten their belts.” He hopes that the churches More Light serves can “model what it looks like to care for those beyond your sanctuary walls,” adding that, “Queer and trans people have always found a way to be community when there was no way.”
In a letter to her church announcing the move to virtual worship, Peck wrote, “We are the church because we love one another and serve one another and pray for one another—not because we all sit in the same room on Sundays. May you find peace, assurance, and hope even in these strange times.”