How COVID Has Changed How We Worship
It’s different, but that’s not altogether a bad thing.
While faith and spirituality can be deeply personal, much about how we worship is highly social. Or at least it was, until the pandemic hit. Singing, praising, communing and celebrating are something we used to do together. Just as COVID, and the resulting need to social distance, has affected just about every aspect of how we live, so too has it had an impact on worship. While certainly some of those impacts have been for the worse, there have been some positive effects as well. And in a few cases, there have even been some pleasant surprises.
If nothing else, the global pandemic has taught us (or maybe reminded us) that we are all in this together. So while my own perspective is as a Christian, I suspect those of other faiths may find some commonality in my experience. We have all had to find a new normal for the way in which we worship.
I’ve been going to church ever since I was a little kid. Over the years I’ve gone more or less often, maybe sometimes taking my ability to attend church for granted. I belong to a small church, with an aging congregation, that is facing some financial challenges. In that way we are like a lot of smaller churches in America.
When the COVID lock down began, we went online with our religious services. Not having done this before, it was a bit clunky in the beginning, but we quickly learned to livestream our services on Facebook with the Pastor and a couple of members on hand to assist. Our patient and caring church secretary spent many hours on the phone with some of our older members who needed help navigating to the web page and opening the livestream.
Rather than multiple in-person services, we just offered one virtual service each Sunday morning. Right from the start, attendance was strong. Older members, who hadn’t been able to get out to church even before COVID, could suddenly participate. Someone’s cousin who was in Japan tuned in. Everyone said hello and identified themselves through the chat feature so we knew who was watching. We had a bulletin online and could sing along to the hymns, even if only our cat or dog was there to hear us. It was very different to be sure, but it was a lot less lonely than it could have been.
The other amazing thing that happened was that our member giving increased. It was not a dramatic increase, but there was an uptick. We were worried that members would either stop or reduce the amount that they gave to the church each week, but the opposite happened. The members pulled together to help keep the church afloat during these very difficult months.
When our state said that churches could meet in person again, we kept the livestream going for our members who wanted to worship from their homes. But we also began to offer a second service on Sunday mornings. This one was in-person and in our church parking lot. We offer folding chairs but most members just bring their own. Being a small church, there is plenty of room to social distance in the parking lot.
We had to cut out any singing to prevent the spread of the virus but each Sunday we wheel out a small organ for the organist to play instrumental music. Many members miss the singing and our choir had to stop rehearsing. While I look forward to singing again, I’ve noticed its absence puts more focus on the scripture, lessons and prayers. Maybe I listen a little more and pray a little harder.
I’ve also noticed an interesting contradiction. While we all sit in our chairs spread across the parking lot, socially distanced from one another, in some ways I feel that we are closer to each other than we were pre-COVID. I attribute this in part to the absence of the pews. The hard wooden pews, lined up neatly row after row, focus your attention forward towards the altar. Our parking lot style allows for greater visibility and awareness of those around you. When we can see each other, I feel like I am more a part of the whole.
My church is apparently not the only religious group that has discovered the benefits of meeting in the parking lot. In a different parking lot, the one behind the grove of trees adjacent to our lot, another group has set up their worship. Their service starts thirty minutes after ours begins. I can’t tell exactly what is going on, as the service is entirely in Spanish, but the number of “Hallelujahs” that can be heard attests to their worship.
I do worry about the fall and about the winter. Of course I worry for our world and for our nation, and I worry for our church. How do we safely take our worship indoors? Will our attendance and our giving be affected? What will the holidays be like when we can’t be together?
I pray that we somehow manage through, and that we continue to worship joyfully, whether in-person or virtually. And when we finally emerge from the pandemic, I hope that we are changed in some ways for the better. I pray that we take the important things for granted a little less, and that we appreciate each other a little more. And may there be a few pleasant surprises in store for us all.