Virtual Worship in Lockdown: The Technological Future for Faith Groups

Lockdown during the Covid-19 crisis has had an inevitable impact on several facets of people’s life. From working to hobbies, we are all figuring out how to adapt important areas of our lives. One of these impacts is on our spiritual lives too, and has been felt on a global scale. Internet searches for the word ‘prayer’ have surged during the pandemic, as questions around spirituality arise during times of difficulty. From local to international scales, religious groups, organisations, and leaders are navigating a drastic reconsideration of how to continue their religious practices in the midst of this never-seen-before situation. Spring is a particularly active time in many religious groups’ calendars, and significant celebrations and religious events have undergone rapid transformations.

Orthodox Rabbis issued compromises on Passover customs, such as the use of electronics on Seder night, to make allowances during a time when many wished to celebrate the feast by contacting relatives with phones and laptops. The Archbishop of Canterbury led The Church of England’s Easter Sunday service from home, recorded on an iPad. In the near future, breaking fasts and congregational prayers during Ramadan will no longer look the same, as Mosques build up to supporting their religious communities from isolation as Ramadan begins. Religious communities have had to find alternative ways of continuing their mid-week and Sunday activities.

Technology, a great blessing, has played a vital role in allowing religious groups to continue their ministries: Zoom has gone from being a business conference app to a household name, particularly in religious groups, used for Qur’an classes to youth groups. Services where people once gathered together as a congregation are now commonly live-streamed on platforms including Facebook and YouTube: prayers, preaching, and worship being filmed from people’s living rooms up and down the country. WhatsApp has become the resident place for group-chats, where members of home-groups and life-groups can keep up to date with each other and pray for one another. Whilst technology cannot, of course, replicate the exact feeling of worshipping in the same space together, such as a Temple, Mosque, or Church, it reminds us that we belong to a community which we love and which loves us, though we may be physically scattered.

There is still much to be figured out, however, for future religious celebrations and customs during the pandemic. I spoke to a Royal Holloway student who has returned home to her family, who expressed her concerns in the midst of the virus. “We won’t have that sense of community during Ramadan”, she wrote, as she explained that breaking one’s fast at the Mosque can no longer be an option. She anticipates that Eid, that falls on 23 May this year, might also be spent at home, as opposed to at her grandma’s house with the whole family. “[It’s] sad because it’s years of tradition and festivity which we’ll have to practice differently”. One certain thing is that these moments of celebration and joy will be cherished so much more when they can recommence again.

It seems that through the turn to technology, forms of group worship and spiritual expression are being rejuvenated, and in some cases even created anew for the first time. I myself have been taking part in worship nights, communion, and prayer time via Zoom with different groups in my church community, as we endeavor to worship together, though we are apart. Robin, a member of a small Baptist Church in Bovey Tracey shared that the local Anglican and Baptist church have actually joined together to do a merged live-stream to YouTube for their Sunday services. Despite the lockdown, communities are coming together in ways they may not have conceived of before. Jo, a member of a free church in Southampton commented that “people are particularly enjoying the opportunity of the live comments to share greetings, participate in the service and share humour” on their services, now streamed on Facebook. Since prayer meetings can no longer happen in person, her congregation have been relying on their email prayer chain “for people’s current situations, to enable prayer and practical support for keyworkers, health needs” and more. Debbie, mother-of-two and Children and Schools Minister for the Parish of Chandlers Ford, discussed overseeing Zoom meetings, having never used the platform previously for all the children’s and youth mid-week groups, so that younger members of the Parish can play games, partake in activities, challenges, and Bible studies, and see their friends. Both Jo and Debbie are some of the many who have been attending ‘Spring Harvest’ this week, an Evangelical conference that would usually be taking place in Sussex, but has moved online, deciding to broadcast its sermons and resources for free.

The practicalities for faith-groups to provide such resources in such a short amount of time has required flexibility, adaptability and a creative mindset. “We’ve had to very quickly work out a schedule of putting together a church gathering”, Harry, a worship leader from Belmont Chapel in Exeter, said. “Mixing music is something I’ve had to learn very quickly.” What keeps him going through the time-consuming process is remembering “we’re called to give God everything we can to the best of our ability”, focusing on the privilege it is to have the means to worship: “we’re so fortunate to have so many willing musicians and singers that give up hours of their week to record various parts for songs. It’s taken what would normally be a couple hours of practice to a whole different level!”

Harry’s comments demonstrate surprising ways lockdown has enriched some people’s experiences with faith. I spoke to one Exeter student, whose uncle contracted the virus and was treated in hospital. Through this difficult time, avenues of spiritual community emerged in ways previously unseen: the WhatsApp family group-chat became a place where her relatives would send in their prayers, verses of encouragement, and worship songs, which “never happen[ed]” before. Through this uncertain and worrying time, and with the help of technology, lockdown is bringing us even closer together than before.

Whilst there is much encouragement, it is undeniable that lockdown can make us feel isolated, lonely, and disheartened, and our spiritual lives are not exempt. Debbie shared that she finds being away from friends particularly difficult: “as somebody who suffers with depression –– and I announce that to everybody; that’s not something I hide –– I do find it very difficult being away from my friends who give you a big hug, and make you feel the world’s okay”. Others, like Jo, with tendencies towards anxiety, find lockdown can feel like a “daily struggle” between appreciating the contemplative time granted to us to pursue God, but more time to worry too. If you feel you might be struggling to practice your faith at home during this time, or are wondering ways you could explore your spirituality more, here are some suggestions:

  • Find out what online content your regular place of worship might be producing and keep updated, or Google online services that have been uploaded or streamed online from other places. There are lots of options, from individual churches and temples to much larger scale organizations, that are creating content every week.
  • Try setting aside a part of the day as a quiet time, where you can reflect and spend time growing in your faith. This might look like journaling, singing, drawing or simply meditating.
  • Reach out to your faith community and close friends to share how you’re feeling with people you trust. Consider suggesting setting up a regular Zoom call or group-chat with a smaller group of people where you could open scriptures together, pray or worship. It’s likely your friends will be feeling a lot of the same emotions as you are, and you can strengthen each other.
  • Focus on the opportunities you now have during the lockdown that you might not have had before, and how you might be equipped to help others. Debbie’s Parish, for example, have set up a mailing system whereby the children can write letters and send pictures to elderly members of the Parish, building new relationships between families. What gifts of yours could you use to bless others during this time?

Many of us across the country might now be fasting, praying, and praising from behind our screens. I’ve definitely felt at times the oxymoronic nature of sharing communion whilst my religious community is so dispersed. But I am committed to seeing lockdown as a season of growth, and am trying my best to focus on the things I can be thankful for. The use of technology within faith groups during Covid-19 might just be the beginning of an international revolution in the way we maintain our community, share our faith, and express our spirituality, and I, like many others, am excited to witness it.

 

– Charlotte Fitch

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