The sounds of religious worship these days are intermingled with the vocabulary of conference calls: “Try to mute your microphone.” “You’re frozen.” “I can’t seem to turn my camera around.” “I have to hop off.”
In a matter of days, religious congregations across the country have learned how to go virtual. Churches that never had a camera in the sanctuary before are live-streaming services. Elderly members who never miss a Wednesday night Bible study are becoming adept instead at morning prayer calls by Zoom. Close-knit communities are keeping each others’ spirits up by seeing each others’ faces in pixel form and singing together, headphones in their ears.
Almost 11,000 new churches signed up for a tool called Church Online Platform in the past week, according to Oklahoma-based Life.Church, which created the platform. Life.Church said that 4.7 million people watched services from churches on the platform this past Sunday.
In the associated Bible app YouVersion, searches for “fear” went up by 167 percent last week, and “fear not” by 299 percent.
“This moment is inviting religious leaders and religious communities to really think about what is essential about our practices,” said Letitia Campbell, a Presbyterian pastor and a professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. “What is the heart of confession? What is the heart of gathering for prayer? Which elements of it are things we can adapt and still hold onto something that feels meaningful?”
Campbell and Rabbi Joshua Lesser, of Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Haverim, started a Facebook group for clergy across the country to share ideas for virtual ministry. More than 5,000 people joined within days. “A whole new liturgy is being created. People are writing prayers,” Lesser said.
Lesser might implement one of the ideas gleaned from the Facebook group with his youth group teens — showing a movie on Netflix’s new platform for remotely watching together. Clergy are offering virtual classes on every subject they can come up with. They’re live-streaming art projects and challah baking lessons.
In Springfield, Ohio, Central Christian Church had never live-streamed a service before. As last week came to an end, the staff realized that they needed to rapidly change how they do things.
They decided the Rev. Carl Ruby would tape his service on Saturday and they would post it on YouTube Sunday for churchgoers — about 150 on a typical week — to watch online at their normal worship time. Congregants could come to the church to pick up prepackaged Communion wafers.
“Everything we do changed in an instant,” Ruby said.
After his first sermon to an empty sanctuary last week, Ruby walked into the sanctuary on Thursday to prepare for this weekend, and found a surprise: His administrative assistant, Julie Prater, had taped photos of members in the pews so he wouldn’t struggle as much to preach to empty benches.
During Thursday afternoon’s Baha’i prayer service, which was held over Skype and hosted in living rooms and bedrooms across the District, with a few friends tuning in from farther cities and countries, worshipers took turns leading songs and prayers while others muted their mics.
“Remember at all times and at all places that God is faithful, and do not doubt this. Be patient even though great calamities may come upon thee,” one woman sang, strumming a guitar. In the tiny boxes filling the screen, her fellow faithful moved their lips along with her.
The scene resembled that taking place in congregations of every faith across the city, as community members yearned to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices while missing their weekly time together. Your priest is live-streaming the rosary from his bedroom? Your pastor is preaching while his kids climb up his chair? All normal, now.
But while many clergy scrambled to put their worship experience all online, others contemplated ways to keep in-person traditions alive in the weeks to come.
For the Rev. Scott Holmer at St. Edward the Confessor Catholic church in Bowie, along with a handful of other Catholic priests across the country, the answer was drive-through confession. He set up cones in the church parking lot and sat down in a chair. Each person wanting to confess stayed in their car, with Holmer a CDC-recommended six feet outside their window.
“I can’t absolve people over the phone or through Zoom or over Skype,” Holmer said. He insisted that Jesus would never have used such technology, even if it had been around in the first century.
“Jesus could have stayed up in heaven and just made some phone calls,” Holmer said. “To be with us, to dwell with us, is the reason he ordained bishops and they ordained priests. It’s the reason he gave us his body and blood in the Eucharist, so he could be with us. … If we can’t do that, it’s a big ache. It’s a big ache in the heart.”
That lack of physical contact with the sacraments and with their priests has been hard on many Catholics who are social distancing — every diocese in the country has now suspended public Mass.
But some clergy are looking for upsides. Lesser, the Atlanta rabbi, said he might have time to tune in not just for the Reconstructionist synagogue services that he will be leading for his community, but also some Buddhist communities that he has been interested in checking out.
Campbell encouraged people searching for connection during an isolating time to sample widely from the abundance of spiritual streams. “For people who are curious, they’ll have the ability to observe and participate in a much broader range of religious gatherings than they might on a typical weekend,” she said.
And they just might return to their telework on Monday with next-level conference call skills, too.