Pandemic prayers: COVID is reshaping organized religion 

Could Zoom herald change in faith observance as big as the printing press?  Welcome to the 'vurch' era.

IT HAS BEEN more than a year since Temple Beth Zion, a nondenominational Jewish synagogue in Brookline, closed its physical doors. The synagogue started holding daily prayer services for the first time, but conducted entirely online. It began running virtual programs morning, afternoon, and evenings – prayers, classes, and social events. And then a surprising thing happened as the temple did its best to make up for the shutdown of in-person servicesThe 400-household congregation gained 43 new members.   

“In times of isolation, people were really looking for something meaningful,” said Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, Temple Beth Zion’s senior rabbi. “We were offering not just good programming but also a sense of community.” 

As with all aspects of daily life, organized religion has undergone a sea change during the COVID-19 pandemic. As vaccines are distributed and people begin contemplating a return to normalcy, religious leaders are considering what the new normal will look like. Many anticipate that it will take years for religious services to be as well-attended as they were 13 months ago. Yet many also say the pandemic provided an opportunity to expand engagement with religion in ways that were previously unthinkable. After all, how many Bostonians would have previously considered attending a church service in New York on a Sunday – from their bedroom, in their pajamas? 

“My sense is that Zoom, which is part of a larger digital revolution, is one of the great revolutions in human history, not less important than the print revolution, and we will look back on the digital age as changing everything,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and one of the country’s leading scholars on American Jewry. “Just like we can hardly imagine what religious life was like before the age of printing, so too this is very fast changing.” 

As Temple Beth Zion considers its future, Kreiman said synagogue leaders will be looking at what level of virtual programming to continue and asking questions about the values and goals of its programs. The synagogue must grapple with how to create and maintain community, when some of its newest members live far away. “What does it look like to build intentional community in a virtual world, not necessarily a local world?” Kreiman asked. 

In congregations across all denominations, weekly communal prayers and social hours have been replaced with livestreaming services and Zoom breakout rooms. Pastoral phone calls replaced visits. Support services provided by religious institutions increased in importance. Fundraising through the collection plate has been replaced with online giving. The Catholic Church gave a dispensation relieving parishioners from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass. 

Bethel AME Church, an African Methodist Episcopal church in Boston with around 670 members, mostly African American and African Caribbean, held its last in-person, indoor worship service on March 15, 2020. Rev. Ray Hammond, Bethel’s co-founder and pastor, said the church had been livestreaming services for over a year before the pandemic, but when it stopped holding in-person services, there was so much interest in online services that the church had to switch vendors to handle the internet traffic. 

The church has since done some drive-in services and is starting to think about reopening the building. But Hammond said church leaders have committed to becoming a “vurch,” what he calls a virtual church, permanently. “We now have connections with people literally around the globe who tune into our worship services, our prayer meetings, our Bible studies, community gatherings… We can’t justify abandoning those folks,” Hammond said. 

Hammond said pre-pandemic, church attendance had been slowly declining. Now, with virtual options, participation is increasing. Class attendance has in some cases increased by between 50 percent and 200 percent, since attendees no longer have to drive to the church after work or find a babysitter. “If you lower barriers to engagement…you’ll get more people engaged,” Hammond said. 

Different churches have different needs. Rev. Adam Dyer, lead pastor at First Parish in Cambridge, a Unitarian Universalist church, said an urban church often has less of a sense of built-in community than many suburban churches. So while some of his colleagues focused on large livestreaming productions, he focused on more intimate events – a 10-minute recorded worship service on Sundays followed by an online discussion and small breakout rooms. “My congregation needed a lot more support in terms of holding and building community, so I had to create a system whereby that could happen,” Dyer said. He has focused on pastoral care and outreach through telephone calls and outdoor visits. 

Worshippers at Harvest Ministries of New England in Weymouth during the COVID pandemic. (Courtesy Sergio Perez)

While nearly all the religious leaders interviewed said their parishioners miss in-person engagement, many said they believe there will be a need for a hybrid model for years to come.  

Rev. Steve Watson, senior pastor of the nondenominational Reservoir Church in Cambridge, has not yet restarted in-person services. He hopes to start hybrid services this summer, with in-person and online options. Watson said some congregants badly miss the regular worship gatherings, but others have gotten used to worshipping from home, without having to commute to Cambridge. For health or convenience reasons, some may be reluctant to return. “I do think some people will be reticent to be singing in large crowds of not close friends for many, many years,” Watson said. 

That prediction fits with the experience of Rev. James Hopkins of the First Lutheran Church of Boston, which has been meeting in person. With capacity and safety restrictions in place, attendance has been reduced from 200 people each Sunday to 28 people at each of two services, or up to 40 when the weather allows for outdoor worship. 

Hopkins, a former Marine, compared COVID-19 to military service. “There’s a lot of trauma that comes from the situation psychologically, and that takes some time to get over,” Hopkins said. “When I came back from Afghanistan in 2004… it took me a year to get back to normal in certain parts of my life, and that was from an eight-month tour. People have been feeling the stress of this for over a year now, and there’s no magical announcement you’re going to make that’s going to make people drop their guard down and feel okay about things.” 

Hopkins said about two-thirds of his congregation has not entered the church building in a year, and even for the most pious, well-intentioned individual, it will take time to break that habit and feel comfortable returning. 

Pastor Sergio Perez, senior pastor at Harvest Ministries of New England in Weymouth, at church services on Feb. 28, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

Pastor Roberto Miranda of Congregation Lion of Judah church in Boston, a Baptist congregation with a large Spanish-speaking population, said similarly that people have lost the feeling of going to church as “mandatory,” and they will be more likely to stay home and watch a service online some weeks, such as during a snowstorm. “People have lost the fear and the sense of strangeness about worshiping from home through a screen,” Miranda said. 

Imam Asif Hirani of the Worcester Islamic Center said he thinks worshippers will return, because practicing Muslims know the importance of Friday communal prayers – although Islamic leaders ruled that communal prayer is not obligatory during COVID. “Eventually they will come back,” Hirani said. But he predicted it will take time. “Some might be eager to come back, some will take their sweet time because it will be difficult,” he said.  

Hirani said some families may be skeptical about whether it is safe to gather in crowds. Others simply feel disconnected from their community after a year away. “Previously there was cruise control. No matter what the event is, we have to go every Friday,” Hirani said. “Now this last year…there’s a natural gap of one year, and it’s going to change. Especially for those people who didn’t come for the last year to the church or mosque, they were going to take some time to put that back into cruise control.” 

Historically, times of plague have provided an immense opportunity for religious leaders to fill gaps in society not addressed by state government and to provide comfort to their congregations.  

Sarna, the Brandeis professor, said the defining legacy of one young Memphis rabbi in the 1870s was that he stayed in the community and conducted burials amid a yellow fever plague. A possibly apocryphal legend about famous 19th century rabbi, Yisrael Salanter, who lived in Lithuania during a cholera epidemic, had the rabbi ascending the pulpit on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar when eating and drinking are strictly forbidden, and eating publicly to show that it was allowed during the plague so the community would not become more vulnerable to disease. 

“What tended to happen is a plague would come, the rich people would run away, poor people wouldn’t, lots of people would die, and the heroes were the religious leaders who stayed with their people and were remembered for supporting them, helping them, and so on,” Sarna said. 

Today, Sarna said, religious leaders have developed funds to support the community in hard times. Some created innovative ways to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of congregants. For example, last Passover, Newton Rabbi Benjamin Samuels heard about the idea of “seder in a box,” a to-go package that contained all the ritual items needed to conduct a Passover seder for those who may have never hosted their own before. Samuels adopted the concept at his Orthodox synagogue, and a local Jewish federation then started distributing “seders in a box” to Jews throughout the Boston area. 

As with so much of the pandemic, the impact on religious institutions themselves is likely to be uneven. Sarna said larger congregations with sophisticated livestreams and well-known speakers are likely to gain members, leaving smaller congregations struggling to keep the members they have. “As in everything else, there will be the haves and the have-nots,” Sarna said. 

Sergio Perez, senior pastor at Harvest Ministries of New England in Weymouth and president of the Hispanic Pastoral Fellowship of New England, said the churches that are struggling are those for whom all their activity depended on people getting together at Sunday services. “Those that didn’t implement any other means to minister to people, they don’t know how to handle the internet to broadcast services, they didn’t have ways for people to contribute offerings. Those are the churches that suffered most,” Perez said.  

At Harvest Ministries, which serves around 700 people, Perez quickly got internet services up and running last spring. In August, he started having drive-in services in the church parking lot. The church is now open at 40 percent capacity, with a similar number of attendees as it had pre-COVID, split between three different services instead of one. Perez is still broadcasting English and Spanish services online, for those who feel uncomfortable coming or who cannot get a reservation at the service time of their choice, since advance reservations are required to observe capacity limits. But Perez says those who do attend in person are coming with more regularity than before. 

“I think the pandemic…just gave people that sense of we need to be together,” Perez said. “We need this community of faith, we need other families to fight alongside us.”