Houses of worship grapple with the future of their online services

(RNS) – Before the pandemic, The Potter’s House of Denver had a lot of use for its 3,500-seat sanctuary in the southeast corner of Colorado’s capital. But in early January, the megachurch announced it was selling its building and continuing to hold services online, as it had for nearly two years. Pastor Touré Roberts said the building needed “significant repairs” and COVID-19 closures had made it impossible to maintain, although some in-person activities such as the church’s food bank would continue.

As the pandemic enters its third year, more places of worship are having to weigh the costs and benefits of online worship versus in-person worship. While most will not choose to go the Potter’s House path and go entirely virtual, the dramatic changes wrought by COVID-19 restrictions are forcing almost existential questions about the nature of worship and the purpose of community.

“COVID-19 has forced every church in America to rethink how best to serve their parishioners and the wider community,” Roberts told the Denver Post. “We decided the best way forward would be to sell the property, continue our online offering which has proven to be a successful alternative, and maintain our hands-on community outreach operations.”

For some, dwindling congregations and dwindling donations have forced closures; more than 4,000 churches closed in the United States in 2020, according to research by Barna Group, a religion polling firm. Others saw wider reach as new viewers tuned in from afar – and sometimes alienated groups such as the elderly, disabled and LGBTQ found virtual church homes. What will these churches do with this new online audience? What was once a temporary measure has started to feel like a necessity for many churches.

Many of them “have spent a lot of time and resources connecting” during the pandemic and don’t want it wasted, said Heidi Campbell, a researcher studying digital religion at Texas A&M University. But in doing so, they must understand what it means to worship online in a meaningful way.

“During the holidays, a lot of them saw that fewer people had come back face-to-face,” Campbell said. “And so the churches are trying to make this decision about…how could this be not just a season of change, but a long-term change for the churches, and how do people see the church fitting into their lives? “

The idea of ​​virtual worship existed long before the pandemic, said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University. Since the internet has existed, groups ranging from neo-pagans to evangelical homosexuals who felt excluded from physical spaces have taken their religious practice online. In recent years, some churches have hired dedicated “online pastors,” while others are now making inroads in the metaverse and on social media platforms such as TikTok.

And the pandemic has prompted some people to start online-only ministries from the start, seeing an opportunity to attract diverse congregations while freeing themselves from the financial burden of physical buildings. Many religious traditions view the online space as a “new mission field” for reaching people who would otherwise not be attracted to worship, Thumma said.

Life.Church, a pioneer in the digital space and creator of the YouVersion Bible app, has been holding online church services since 2006 “as a way to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to come to church,” l one of his pastors, Bobby Gruenewald, said in an email. Life.Church has also created an online streaming platform that it offers free to other churches, Gruenewald said, and has seen an explosion in demand during the pandemic. The platform helps churches go “beyond one-way video streaming” and offers chat translation, a donation function and ways to connect congregants to service opportunities and small group meetings.

But providing a fully online platform for worship poses unique challenges. Thumma said virtual worshipers can very easily become spectators, watch a service without fully participating, and be present at the church service. In January, a New York Times column sparked heated debate calling for a return to in-person worship, arguing that people “need physical contact and interaction”, but Thumma said community can be formed online – it’s just a matter of making the effort to get there.

“How do you go from just looking to actually engaging, to actually engaging with people, to engaging enough to give money and do service and volunteering and such?” Thumma said. “And I think that’s going to be a challenge for the clergy.”

There are also theological considerations unique to each religious tradition when it comes to worshiping online. While many Catholic churches have streamed Sunday Mass during the strictest pandemic shutdowns, sacraments such as Holy Communion cannot be taken virtually. Pope Francis has said the “spiritual communion” that can be had without physically eating bread and drinking wine should not be seen as a replacement.

Virtual Shabbat box. Courtesy Image

Jews, meanwhile, must have wondered if the gathering virtually counts as a minyan, the quorum of 10 required to lead a prayer service. While members of the Reform Jewish movement embraced remote worship long before the pandemic, conservative Jews also had to decide whether it was acceptable to congregate around Zoom on Shabbat, the day of rest that typically prohibits the use of technology. The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which provides advice to the conservative movement, allowed Zoom worship as a temporary measure during the pandemic, but said “post-COVID advice is currently under discussion”.

The idea of ​​virtual worship has also been controversial for Muslims, who generally believe that common Friday prayers are obligatory for men, based on textual evidence from the Quran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Most religious leaders have interpreted this to mean in-person prayer, and during the pandemic the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America issued a fatwa, or legal opinion, banning common Friday prayer on the broadcast.

But some don’t see religious tradition as so limiting. UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl began broadcasting his sermons during Friday prayers even before the pandemic hit, and he continues to do so from his home in Ohio, gathering several family members in person and speaking to hundreds of people listening online. He said after looking closely at existing case law, he found parallels to virtual worship in Islamic law, including people who could still join in prayer even when they couldn’t personally see the worship. ‘imam.

Khaled M. Abou El Fadl, professor of law at UCLA Law School.  Photo from UCLA Law website

Khaled M. Abou El Fadl, professor of law at UCLA Law School. Photo from UCLA Law website

As long as they can follow what is happening and not perform the rituals by mistake, the prayer is valid, he said. He expects that while most Muslims will return to in-person services once the pandemic is over, a “larger minority than before” will continue to pray online now that the “psychological barrier has been broken”. And he added that virtual worship provides opportunities for people who otherwise could not attend Friday prayers, including people whose work schedules do not allow it, or those who may not live in a community with a mosque or an active Muslim population. .

“Friday prayer plays an important emotional and psychological role,” Abou El Fadl told Religion News Service in a recent phone call. “And when that event is absent from their lives, they feel the impact of it.”

For most places of worship, online services will continue to be an added measure, if they exist, Campbell said. An August 2020 Pew study found that only 2% of people who regularly attend religious services say they will watch more remotely and attend less in person than before the pandemic. Although more than a year of pandemic measures may have swayed some minds since then, Campbell said online-only churches will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.

But as the pandemic subsides, she said she expects to see churches that provide “hybrid” services either drop the online option altogether or look into it permanently, especially in communities. large urban centers where a virtual model better matches the preferences of their followers.

“For some people it’s like, ‘This meets my needs and I like this style of worship,'” Campbell said. “There are a lot of opportunities there. But to what extent is that just… because people are considering different options, and to what extent is that a long-term strategy? »

This article was produced as part of the RNS/IFYC Religious Journalism Fellowship Program.

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