Four Ways COVID-19 Changed the Church
A year ago, our churches suddenly closed, and worship communities rapidly switched to virtual or online services. As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, churches have provided parishioners with multiple ways to gather in socially distanced settings, via live-streamed services, or on social media sites. Church leaders had no knowledge or experience about how these substantial changes would affect the emotional and spiritual lives of the faithful.
This article presents preliminary findings from two surveys (one conducted in May 2020 and another in January 2021) of nearly 100 Episcopalians, mostly from the Episcopal Diocese of New York. They examined parishioners’ feelings about virtual worship experiences and issues confronting returning to in-person worship. The surveys also explored the question of God’s presence while worshipping via a computer screen. Additionally, the most recent survey asked participants about their feelings toward receiving Communion.
Concerning virtual worship, several conclusions are clear. Those viewing online services are devout believers who have continued their pre-pandemic worship patterns. People enjoy connecting virtually with other parishioners. One person wrote that the best part of virtual worship was “seeing familiar faces and knowing there are others praying simultaneously.” Another respondent who lives alone noted, “Connecting with my church and members was so comforting. Sometimes it brings tears, but they are joyful tears!” Virtual worship buoys church members’ spirits and helps overcome their feelings of isolation.
People also enjoy the convenience of virtual worship. As one person wrote, “For me, not traveling, getting dressed up, or worrying about things I might have forgotten to do at home” are plusses to virtual worshipping. About the convenience, another noted, “Not having to get dressed and go out at a specific time” are the best parts. The last response points to another trend. The second survey showed that the number of respondents who watch recorded services had doubled to a whopping 70%. The surveys show that virtual worship has maintained a sense of community for most, and many enjoy the convenience of worshiping at home and when they have time. I must also state that some spoke about their fear of contracting COVID-19 making online worship options essential for them.
However, virtual worship is not a placeholder. Many have felt God’s presence while worshipping in their living room, home office, kitchen, dining room, or bedroom. Echoing the responses of many, one person stated, “I felt God was in my home the same way I feel when I am at a church service. I was able to connect with God and felt comfort that everything would be alright.” Another person added, “I was alone in my home office. It was a service with a lot of previously recorded choir music, in which I had sung. I intensely missed that experience, both the music and the community, yet I was very thankful for the chance to feel that sadness. And I felt God was with me in my sadness and loneliness.” While some did not find a real connection, the surveys identified that worshipers could feel God’s presence in and through online worship. The surveys also indicate that virtual worship will continue to be an essential option for many, even after the current crisis has passed.
COVID-19’s impact will change parishioners’ behavior. For instance, many will change the way they participate in the Eucharist. When Communion services resume, only 20 percent of participants indicated they would want to drink from the common cup. 40 percent would prefer intinction or to dip the wafer or bread into the cup of wine. The other 40 percent would skip the wine for the time being. As one person stated, “The sharing of fluids presents an unnecessary risk until we know more about COVID.” Another person wrote, “Not anytime soon if the cup is shared…not until health authorities basically give the all-clear on COVID-19.” Others disagreed, stating they preferred the common cup. One respondent wrote, “I feel a special connection with others when drinking from the same cup.” Another person also affirmed receiving communion in both kinds, “Yes; both are essential. ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’” Perhaps, the most incisive statement was, “If I become ill, I’ll stay home, and I trust fellow parishioners to do the same.” Even though many priests used heightened hygiene measures before the pandemic, the survey results indicated parishioners are more hesitant than before the current lockdowns.
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many aspects of our lives. The importance of our church community, however, has not changed. For many of our parishioners, regularly gathering for communal worship has helped them maintain their hope and optimism in the face of unprecedented isolation. Even after the pandemic’s effects fade from our daily lives, the convenience of virtual worship experiences will remain a vital option for some. The good news is that God’s presence can pour forth across digital communication, feeding the spiritual needs of those who cannot be at church. Even so, the pandemic will likely change the way Episcopalians worship now and perhaps beyond. The understanding of the Communion and partaking in both the body and blood of Christ may need further theological teaching and expanded knowledge in its practice. The pandemic and the social distancing that has ensued have and will shape Christian worship in unexpected ways, but our faith’s fundamental tenets have remained unaltered.