Across the country, pastors preached their sermons to empty pews this weekend, as their congregants watched their Sunday morning messages at home, via Facebook Live or other means of streaming over the internet, Slate reports. It’s a tactic churches big and small are attempting to replicate, as most of the country tries valiantly to avoid masses of people in enclosed areas while coronavirus spreads.
On the one hand, religion is a large part of the lives of millions of Americans — Americans who, in these difficult times, seek guidance, hope, and community. On the other hand, bringing people into a building to sit close to each other and, in some cases, have person-to-person contact with each other is the exact opposite of what we should be doing to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
To strike a balance, many churches are making use of the internet, broadcasting their services to congregants at home.
Some churches, such as so-called “mega-churches” or other affluent, suburban churches, have already had systems in place for years to livestream their services over the internet, to sick congregants at home, for example, or in case a congregant missed church and wanted to see it later. These churches already have all of the cameras, audio-visual equipment, and tech people in place to flip a few switches and get their livestream up and running with minimal fuss.
Pastors at other, smaller churches are flying by the seats of their pants when it comes to technology.
Pastor Donna Giver-Johnston preaches to a mostly empty sanctuary today at Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, which temporarily moved to livestream-only services to protect the community in this time of COVID-19. Her husband Brian listens from a pew. pic.twitter.com/k3icjmZ5VZ
— Steve Mellon (@stevemellon412) March 15, 2020
In larger churches, fully-staffed praise & worship bands, complete with the latest audio technology, performed their songs in empty buildings while their audiences at home sang along, absent the usual communal experience of singing together. In smaller ones, amateur camera operators tried their best to keep the lens on a single pianist or organist, as their limited technology picked up every echo in the empty building.
Viewers of livestream of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church got to watch as the music team fumbled with their sheet music and instruments and tidied up the stage after the service as cameras continued to roll.
Meanwhile, at the Life.Church megachurch, which has satellite locations in multiple cities, leader Craig Groeschel joked about his own experience being isolated. He and pastor Bobby Gruenewald finding out on a flight home from a conference in Germany that someone they’d had dinner with had been diagnosed with the virus, after which the flight attendants cleared space around them on the plane.
“Now I know what it’s like to be a leper,” he said in a message that was pre-recorded in front of an audience.
It’s not just Christians who are wrestling with religious worship during a pandemic. As CNN reports, Islamic leaders are assuring Muslim men, for whom Friday prayers at mosques are not optional, that they can skip communal prayers with a clear conscience.
“One’s personal desire to do obligatory prayers at the masjid (mosque) or fulfill other religious duties comes secondary to ensuring the common health of the larger community,” says the Fiqh Council of America in a statement.
The Rabbinical Council of America, meanwhile, has told congregants that public gatherings at synagogues should be “severely limited.” Leaders of Sikh and Buddhist congregations are also taking similar measures.