For better or worse, worship may never be the same after the coronavirus.
Nearly every religious tradition has gone virtual — sermons and some sacraments went online; baby blessings, confirmations, baptisms, weddings and funerals were streamed; mask-wearing became ubiquitous; most singing was discontinued; and Communion practices were transformed.
Priests and pastors became adept at speaking into a camera rather than to a congregation. Rituals that used to include a large group now are done individually, if at all. Or they were adapted to comply with the restrictions prompted by the virus.
Drive-thru confessions. Livestreamed Bible studies. Do-it-yourself sacrament meetings. Google Hangout prayer groups.
As some of the public safety requirements ease up, believers wonder: Which pandemic procedures will remain and which pre-COVID-19 traditions will return?
Some Utah religious leaders have offered a glimpse at how their faiths have been transformed and what future worship may look like.
Pastor Corey Hodges of The Point Church in Kearns says he has read research that indicates maybe a third of most evangelicals won’t come back in person after the pandemic.
That shows the importance of online streaming, which his church will continue, Hodges says, and “may beef up.”
When his church wasn’t meeting in person, Hodges made a video instructing members how to do Communion on the first Sunday of the month at home. In the video, he would “administer the official rhetoric,” he says, then those watching would take the “elements” — bread and grape juice — by themselves.
When some congregants returned for services, administrators “sanitized the elements and placed them in trays,” Hodges says, so people could grab them as they entered the church and take them to their seats.
Hodges still addresses viewers at home, because in-person services are livestreamed as well.
At the same time, the residual effects of the year’s deprivations have caused members to be more aware of the loss of togetherness.
“We have taken the communal aspect of our faith for granted,” the pastor says. “COVID has made us embrace that more — appreciating more hugs and wanting to be together.”
Even before the pandemic, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City had invested some $50,000 to set up a streaming system for Mass, says the Rev. Martin Diaz, and that made it possible to go online soon after the church discontinued services last March.
Within a couple of months, the diocese added hours for “adoration of the blessings,” which is a “private prayer” practice so when members couldn’t come to Mass, they could meet privately with a priest while social distancing. Many would also go to confession at the same time, boosting the numbers for the two practices.
Both will continue, says Diaz, rector of downtown Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine.
When in-person Masses resumed in May, with small groups sitting 6 feet apart, attendees had Communion brought to them in their seats, rather than having them approach the priest. Handshaking during the sign of peace was discontinued.
By summer, Communion likely will return to its traditional practice, the priest says, “but will anyone drink wine from the same chalice?”
The diocese will continue livestreaming Mass, Diaz says. “It gives a great comfort to people who are sick, get busy, or just can’t come. People watch from around the world.”
Some members of the diocese — serving Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics — now regularly view Masses in other places, including the Vatican.
“God always brings good out of evil,” he says. “We are working to bring good out of this pandemic’s evil.”
Last March, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suspended weekly services worldwide, shut down its temples and returned thousands of missionaries to their home countries.
Most temples have partially reopened, and some in-person Sunday services have resumed with limited numbers, although a fair portion of members still watch online. The sacrament part of the service, though, cannot be viewed virtually, so cameras are clicked off while the in-person attendees partake and those watching (who are authorized) take it at home.
Some missionaries are now being called to countries outside their own, but many still do their language training at home and their proselytizing on the internet from their apartments.
“The church has learned a great deal during this period, and is looking at which elements will remain following the pandemic,” says church spokesperson Doug Andersen, “but no specific changes have been announced.”
Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf told missionaries in a recent digital devotional that technology will continue to be a prime contacting and teaching tool.
“When restrictions to our missionary work ease again, don’t just go back to the old ways. Go back to the future,” he urged the global force. “...Don’t neglect proven principles and practices from before the pandemic. But learn, add and adapt technological advances that the Lord has provided to accomplish his work.”
Steve Evans, founder of the Mormon blog By Common Consent, says temple changes “are a little harder to guess at.”
Physical contact “is probably more important for some aspects of the temple,” Evans says, “and I would guess those will return as soon as possible.”
A bigger question: “How many people will return to meetings after having been absent for so long?” he asks. “I fear that congregations will never return to the same levels of attendance they were pre-pandemic.”
At the same time, technology has provided an opening for a lively independent community to offer supplemental discussions.
Last spring, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, an independent quarterly publication, offered a weekly Sunday gospel study program on the church’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum “with a diverse set of scholars and teachers up through the end of 2020,” says Dialogue Editor Taylor Petrey. “In October 2020, we added a monthly fireside to the schedule.” At the start of 2021, Dialogue switched to biweekly Sunday lessons while keeping the monthly virtual fireside, Petrey says,
“We plan to continue this programming indefinitely even after COVID.”
To be clear, though, these online offerings are not meant as substitutes for worship services, Petrey says, but rather to “draw on our amazing network of experts to provide additional content.”
Meanwhile, a “huge” number of Latter-day Saints began “opting in to classes beyond their local wards and branches,” he says, “regularly tun[ing] in to lessons taught by friends or gravitat[ing] toward charismatic teachers outside their ward boundaries as word spread about where to find meaningful lessons.”
Petrey is optimistic about “the possibilities for meaningful Sunday worship and gospel study that have been opened up by these new conditions” but worries Latter-day Saint communities “would suffer if people did not also contribute to their local congregations.”
In an ideal world, “the insights people gain from exposure to a range of ideas and teachers can enrich all of our church experiences,” he says, “not just replace them with those we happen to like better.”
Virtual worship has not been good for the next generation of Utah’s Hindus, says Indra Neelameggham, a longtime member of the community.
Being in a religious minority, she says, has made it important to their collective identity to come together physically at the Sri Ganesha Temple in South Jordan.
Some say that if they have to watch a priest consecrate the shrines online, Neelameggham says, they might as well watch the same ceremonies from India.
But Hinduism is a sensory religion in which worship includes “incense, flowers, chanting and the sound of the bells,” she says. “You can’t smell on the computer or feel the marble on your feet.”
Before the pandemic, the Hindu community had two priests, but one of them went back to India and then couldn’t return. Because of online streaming, she says, the temple authorities think they might be able to manage with just one.
“It was hard enough to build a temple in a foreign country,” Neelameggham says. “Now it will take a little bit of effort to build [temple-going] back up.”
Still, she is resigned to the changes brought by technology.
Faith is about a “particular dialogue between you and God,” Neelameggham says. “That’s still happening — even on Zoom calls.”
Switching to livestreaming services from Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami was “a controversial move that had been debated for years,” says Rabbi Samuel Spector. “However, now that it is here [because of the pandemic], many want it to stay.”
It is a “welcome tool” for homebound, hospitalized members, and far-away congregants, or for people unable to travel to “life-cycle events,” Spector says. “We have yet to make an official post-pandemic decision, but it is receiving tremendous support.”
Virtual services are “not ideal,” he says. “But it provides a way for people to be connected to their community and faith.”
Still, the rabbi adds, “it doesn’t beat being together.”
Online worship is “here to stay,” says the Rev. Rebecca Dunagan of Trinity United Methodist Church in West Valley City. “That genie is not going back in the bottle.”
And she believes that is a good move.
“Church is a lumbering dinosaur, slow to change,” Dunagan says. “This crisis created the ability to change like nothing else has.”
“Virtual church” has increased accessibility to services, now including shift workers and the less-mobile elderly, she says. It has also pushed churches to focus less on the physical space, and maybe several could even share buildings in the future.
This will give religious groups a chance to be “good stewards of resources,” the pastor says, since a lot of churches sit empty six days of the week.
“As a pastor, I hope people come back to the building and continue to value getting together,” Dunagan says. “Part of communion is ‘table fellowship,’ which can’t be replicated.”
Dunagan was transferred to Utah from Fort Collins, Colo., in July, so she has never worshipped physically with her congregants. She is eager to meet them in person.
Meanwhile, Trinity is looking at how to expand its presence to more online platforms.
For years, mainline Christian denominations have seen a decline in attendance and needed to figure out how to reverse that trend, Dunagan says streaming online might be part of the solution.
Utah Muslims expect that this year’s 30-day Ramadan observance, which begins April 12, will be “dramatically better than last year’s,” says Imam Shuaib Din of the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy. “We had let go of our rental place because we were not hosting in-person services and our new mosque was not yet completed.”
The mosque was finished in June, weeks after Ramadan 2020 ended. Small groups have been meeting there for Friday services since then, Din says, which include a temperature check, mask-wearing and social distancing.
The imam has continued — and will continue — his Friday sermons virtually. Islamic leaders have ruled that mosque members can listen to sermons at home, but they can’t do the prayers.
For those, he says, “you have to come in personally.”
The pandemic has “forced us out of our comfort zone,” Din says, and made us much more “tech-savvy” and “creative.”
First Presbyterian Church in downtown Salt Lake City was “kicked in the pants into livestreaming worship,” says the Rev. Steve Aeschbacher. “And it has really been a blessing.”
It’s been a great help to allow “homebound and traveling members to participate in worship,” he says, “as well as to reach out to our neighbors.”
Eventually, social distancing in worship and not passing the offering or Communion will disappear, Aeschbacher says. “It will be interesting to see if some small groups choose to stay on Zoom (maybe the people are physically far apart or have trouble traveling), while others return to in-person meetings.”
He adds: The idea of engaging our older population in a deeper way is exciting.”
The church’s “understanding of worship has changed. We realized that we can, to some degree, worship together virtually,” Aeschbacher says. “It is much better than not worshipping at all.”
At the same time, “we all have a deeper appreciation for the importance of presence. Being physically together is powerful and meaningful. We appreciate God’s presence to us through our neighbors in worship,” the pastor says. “We have been reminded that worship is fundamentally different from consuming a movie or a TV show. It is something we do together, not something we watch others do.”