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Churches are closed, but religion has a new home on the internet

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, houses of worship have been forced to figure out how to bring services, rituals, and other religious practices online in an engaging way.

Churches are closed, but religion has a new home on the internet
[Photo: Chris Liverani/Unsplash]

In ordinary times, about a third of Americans say they attend religious services at least once a week, according to the Pew Research Center.

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But during the coronavirus pandemic, houses of worship across the country have shut their doors along with other public places. Some states have begun to ease restrictions and allow in-person worship to resume amid public and presidential pressure, but many religious leaders don’t plan on reopening yet, concerned about spreading the virus. And even institutions that are reopening know many members are still wary of venturing out.

“I think until there’s a vaccine, and even after there’s a vaccine for this COVID-19, you’re going to have people that are cautious,” says Phil Thompson, VP and streaming video specialist at Arizona-based StreamingChurch.tv, which provides digital services to churches.

That’s meant that houses of worship, traditionally a spiritual and social home for members, have had to find ways to reach people confined to their physical houses. Institutions like churches, synagogues, and mosques have quickly sought to bring services and rituals online in ways that honor their religious traditions while still engaging members who could easily click away to Netflix or Spotify.

“We had just a major influx of brand-new people wanting to learn this streaming thing and figure out how it’s going to work,” says StreamingChurch.tv founder and CEO Steve Lacy. “We kind of felt like there was a rush on toilet paper and we were the toilet paper providers. It was really crazy.”

We kind of felt like there was a rush on toilet paper and we were the toilet paper providers. It was really crazy.”

Steve Lacy

Lacy’s company lets churches broadcast live and recorded sermons and events through their websites, social media platforms like Facebook, and streaming platforms like YouTube and Roku. The company provides customer service to help digitally unsure pastors get services online, often using computers and video equipment they already have in the church or at home. It also offers a range of options such as multilingual digital Bibles that parishioners can access, live chats and prayer requests that can be facilitated by church volunteers, and even automated messages to check in on members who may not have virtually attended in a while.

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“If someone doesn’t show up for a few weeks, it will send an email: ‘We missed you,'” says Thompson.

StreamingChurch.tv isn’t the only religion-focused streaming service. Some religious leaders may prefer to do business with those who share their spiritual philosophies, and some are wary of broadcasting through mainstream platforms like YouTube or Facebook.

“There are also some concerns people have, depending on their theology, of utilizing some of these platforms and relying on them,” says Matt Frazier, president of church streaming service TruthCasting. Some religious leaders are concerned about unrelated video recommendations that might pop up after their services air on nonreligious sites, he says.

Those leaders also know that even if they’re not broadcasting through YouTube, Facebook, or Roku, those platforms are only a click of a mouse or tap of a remote control away when the faithful are watching from the family couch, not tucked into pews alongside their neighbors. That means they have to not only become acquainted with what might have been unfamiliar technology, but they also need to adapt their traditions to engage their adherents online, all while interpreting religious laws and customs that might prefer in-person rituals or restrict the use of technology. On the other hand, some faith communities have found that moving online has helped attract new visitors or win back lapsed members, including some people who couldn’t easily get to houses of worship because of distance, schedule conflicts, or disability. While the new style of worship is a challenge for some, others report it’s making religion more accessible than ever.

“The church of tomorrow is back again”

Until the virus outbreak, online religion was often the province of people dissatisfied with some aspect of their local institutions who were looking for extra spiritual support, rather than a mainstream way to attend church, says sociologist Tim Hutchings. An assistant professor of religious ethics at the University of Nottingham, he’s researched online religion since 2005. After some initial experimentation in the early days of the internet, many churches have focused more on in-person connections than digital preaching, he says.

“Suddenly, the church of tomorrow is back again,” he says. “The dead future has come back.”

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Ideally, religious leaders are learning, the digital church of tomorrow isn’t just a traditional sermon broadcast through a webcam or posted as a podcast. During the pandemic, that’s sometimes not even an option: Clergy may be broadcasting from home out of caution, and traditional service elements like choirs and bands may not be able to gather in person, requiring some experimentation.

“We’ve seen some really creative things,” says Sam Brenner, chief operating officer at the Cleveland-based streaming service BoxCast. “Some people are Zooming in various musicians.”

[Screenshot: courtesy of Boxcast]
But some religious leaders are also finding traditional services aren’t a great way to reach people distracted by the temptations and duties of home.

“Sitting in front of a computer for an hour for a Sunday service is not an easy thing to do,” says Joe Garcia, who works with streaming technology at the Center for Spiritual Living in Reno, Nevada, where his wife, the Reverend Liesa Garcia, is senior minister. “It’s very easy watching something on your computer to get distracted, so we have to make it engaging.”

Sitting in front of a computer for an hour for a Sunday service is not an easy thing to do.”

Joe Garcia

Services at the center are available for live-streaming with the help of StreamingChurch.tv, but afterward, the church typically only posts the minister’s message and a portion of the church service, while omitting other elements like announcements and some of the music.

Other institutions have taken steps to engage more directly with at-home congregations. Steve Ely, lead pastor at Oklahoma’s Passion Church, uses TruthCasting to get material online. Sermons are mostly prerecorded, but a live host appears on camera before and after to take prayer requests, ask questions—”On Mother’s Day, we asked for a favorite memory with your mom,” Ely recalls—and digitally chat with churchgoers. That typically lasts anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes after the sermon.

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“As long as the comments are continuing, they stay in front of the camera,” Ely says.

Some houses of worship also use different platforms for different purposes: Parkside Church, in the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls, has worked with BoxCast to put sermons online, initially primarily for churchgoers who were traveling or home sick. Now that’s naturally reaching a broader audience, says media director Bruce Coffy, while prayer meetings and other interactive group events have migrated to Zoom.

“It’s kind of interesting because you can peek into everybody’s home a little bit,” he quips.

Deciding what to move online

From business conferences to concerts, organizers of all kinds of events have had to decide what elements will keep people engaged in an online forum. But religious institutions not only have to consider audience attention spans, they also have to reconcile the necessities of the pandemic with often centuries-old religious laws and traditions.

Rabbi Mark Bloom, of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, California, started video streaming the conservative Jewish synagogue’s services on YouTube, the synagogue’s website, and social media in response to the pandemic. Services are fairly similar to what they would be in person, he says, and there have been positive comments from members, with attendance counts for Saturday services higher than they were in person. Still, services are somewhat shorter due to religious rules requiring a quorum of at least 10 people for certain elements, and some elements just aren’t possible in a streaming context, he says.

“There’s a lot of ceremony around the Torah itself that happens—you bring it to the people, everyone touches it,” he says. “That’s one that I think people miss entirely.”

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Jewish communities have also wrestled with rules that limit some uses of technology on the Sabbath, with different congregations coming to different interpretations about what’s permissible in connecting their members. And other religions have faced their own challenges: Muslims around the world observed Ramadan without in-person communal prayer or fast-breaking meals, and Christians skipped or reimagined traditional church processions for Palm Sunday and services for Easter. Different Christian denominations have also taken different approaches to communion, says Heidi Campbell, a communications professor at Texas A&M University who studies online religion. Some encourage members to provide their own ritual bread and wine, and others, including Roman Catholics, prefer “spiritual communion” without the physical elements until services can resume.

[Screenshot: courtesy of eCatholic]
“Our services are so incarnational,” says Josh Simmons, CEO of eCatholic, which provides digital services to Catholic churches, speaking of the importance of Mass, where Jesus is believed to be physically present in communion. “It’s not just scripture, and a homily, and great music—it’s an experience every time you go there.”

Finding new places to worship (from home)

Streaming services have given some people the opportunity to virtually visit different houses of worship than they might otherwise attend. Simmons says some Catholics have been digitally attending Mass at churches far from their home parishes for a variety of reasons, including many worshiping with St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York when the city was hit hard by the pandemic.

“It’s been a way for people to be in solidarity with the people in New York to go to Masses and hear Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan speak,” he says.

Simmons said he and his family used the opportunity to virtually worship with a church in a city they formerly lived in—”It was still kind of near and dear to our hearts,” he says—and knows of others making similar online visits.

“Maybe it’s a church they grew up in and they haven’t been to in 30 years,” he says. “Then they can show their kids, this is where I received my first communion or this is where I was baptized.”

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Worshipers across religious lines are also taking advantage of online streaming to drop in on institutions they’ve been curious about socially or theologically, without the constraints of geography or the intimidation factor of dropping in on a new congregation. Many online streaming platforms let broadcasters see where attendees are logging in from, and religious leaders have spotted new faces from around the world, drawn in by word of mouth or social media.

“I think a lot of people are looking around,” says Campbell. “Some of it’s just curiosity, and some if it is dissatisfaction.”

Some of those visitors may also be people who found it physically difficult to attend church in the past. Relaxed work-from-home rules have been a boon to some people with disabilities and others who had difficulties with traditional office life and commutes. Similarly, online worship has made it easier for some people to comfortably attend religious services.

“In many communities, there are people who are housebound, they’ve moved into a care home, they’re disabled—for some reason, they’re not able to get to church every week,” says Hutchings. “There are some people for whom the pandemic has been a new accessibility of church.”

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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