By Peggy Fletcher Stack, Syndicated from The Salt Lake Tribune
For better or worse, worship may never be the same after the coronavirus.
Nearly every religious tradition has gone virtual — sermons and some sacraments went online; baby blessings, confirmations, baptisms, weddings and funerals were streamed; mask-wearing became ubiquitous; most singing was discontinued; and Communion practices were transformed.
Priests and pastors became adept at speaking into a camera rather than to a congregation. Rituals that used to include a large group now are done individually, if at all. Or they were adapted to comply with the restrictions prompted by the virus.
Drive-thru confessions. Livestreamed Bible studies. Do-it-yourself sacrament meetings. Google Hangout prayer groups.
As some of the public safety requirements ease up, believers wonder: Which pandemic procedures will remain and which pre-COVID-19 traditions will return?
Some Utah religious leaders have offered a glimpse at how their faiths have been transformed and what future worship may look like.
Pastor Corey Hodges of The Point Church in Kearns says he has read research that indicates maybe a third of most evangelicals won’t come back in person after the pandemic.
That shows the importance of online streaming, which his church will continue, Hodges says, and “may beef up.”
When his church wasn’t meeting in person, Hodges made a video instructing members how to do Communion on the first Sunday of the month at home. In the video, he would “administer the official rhetoric,” he says, then those watching would take the “elements” — bread and grape juice — by themselves.
When some congregants returned for services, administrators “sanitized the elements and placed them in trays,” Hodges says, so people could grab them as they entered the church and take them to their seats.
Hodges still addresses viewers at home, because in-person services are livestreamed as well.
At the same time, the residual effects of the year’s deprivations have caused members to be more aware of the loss of togetherness.
“We have taken the communal aspect of our faith for granted,” the pastor says. “COVID has made us embrace that more — appreciating more hugs and wanting to be together.”
Even before the pandemic, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City had invested some $50,000 to set up a streaming system for Mass, says the Rev. Martin Diaz, and that made it possible to go online soon after the church discontinued services last March.
Within a couple of months, the diocese added hours for “adoration of the blessings,” which is a “private prayer” practice so when members couldn’t come to Mass, they could meet privately with a priest while social distancing. Many would also go to confession at the same time, boosting the numbers for the two practices.
Both will continue, says Diaz, rector of downtown Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine.
When in-person Masses resumed in May, with small groups sitting 6 feet apart, attendees had Communion brought to them in their seats, rather than having them approach the priest. Handshaking during the sign of peace was discontinued.
By summer, Communion likely will return to its traditional practice, the priest says, “but will anyone drink wine from the same chalice?”
The diocese will continue livestreaming Mass, Diaz says. “It gives a great comfort to people who are sick, get busy, or just can’t come. People watch from around the world.”
Some members of the diocese — serving Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics — now regularly view Masses in other places, including the Vatican.
“God always brings good out of evil,” he says. “We are working to bring good out of this pandemic’s evil.”
Switching to livestreaming services from Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami was “a controversial move that had been debated for years,” says Rabbi Samuel Spector. “However, now that it is here [because of the pandemic], many want it to stay.”
It is a “welcome tool” for homebound, hospitalized members, and far-away congregants, or for people unable to travel to “life-cycle events,” Spector says. “We have yet to make an official post-pandemic decision, but it is receiving tremendous support.”
Virtual services are “not ideal,” he says. “But it provides a way for people to be connected to their community and faith.”
Still, the rabbi adds, “it doesn’t beat being together.”
Online worship is “here to stay,” says the Rev. Rebecca Dunagan of Trinity United Methodist Church in West Valley City. “That genie is not going back in the bottle.”
And she believes that is a good move.
“Church is a lumbering dinosaur, slow to change,” Dunagan says. “This crisis created the ability to change like nothing else has.”
“Virtual church” has increased accessibility to services, now including shift workers and the less-mobile elderly, she says. It has also pushed churches to focus less on the physical space, and maybe several could even share buildings in the future.
This will give religious groups a chance to be “good stewards of resources,” the pastor says, since a lot of churches sit empty six days of the week.
“As a pastor, I hope people come back to the building and continue to value getting together,” Dunagan says. “Part of communion is ‘table fellowship,’ which can’t be replicated.”
Dunagan was transferred to Utah from Fort Collins, Colo., in July, so she has never worshipped physically with her congregants. She is eager to meet them in person.
Meanwhile, Trinity is looking at how to expand its presence to more online platforms.
For years, mainline Christian denominations have seen a decline in attendance and needed to figure out how to reverse that trend, Dunagan says streaming online might be part of the solution.
First Presbyterian Church in downtown Salt Lake City was “kicked in the pants into livestreaming worship,” says the Rev. Steve Aeschbacher. “And it has really been a blessing.”
It’s been a great help to allow “homebound and traveling members to participate in worship,” he says, “as well as to reach out to our neighbors.”
Eventually, social distancing in worship and not passing the offering or Communion will disappear, Aeschbacher says. “It will be interesting to see if some small groups choose to stay on Zoom (maybe the people are physically far apart or have trouble traveling), while others return to in-person meetings.”
He adds: The idea of engaging our older population in a deeper way is exciting.”
The church’s “understanding of worship has changed. We realized that we can, to some degree, worship together virtually,” Aeschbacher says. “It is much better than not worshipping at all.”
At the same time, “we all have a deeper appreciation for the importance of presence. Being physically together is powerful and meaningful. We appreciate God’s presence to us through our neighbors in worship,” the pastor says. “We have been reminded that worship is fundamentally different from consuming a movie or a TV show. It is something we do together, not something we watch others do.”