As three Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — approach their season of sacred holidays, the pandemic that has gripped the world seems to be loosening its hold.
With that, many believers are joyously embracing the possibility of in-person participation — including those “Chreasters,” Christians who attend only on Christmas and Easter — and reconsidering the streaming services that became so ubiquitous during COVID-19.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have returned in person for the first time in two years to the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City for their twice-yearly General Conference sessions.
The question is: Will Zoom services completely disappear as faiths recognize the clear benefits of physical togetherness?
Every faith has to grapple with the reality of a dual approach to worship, and whether to push for just one.
What Muslims are doing
For Utah Muslims, online worship is impossible.
“Prayers are not accepted if you are not in the physical location to hear them,” says Utah Islamic Center Imam Shuaib Din. “Even when we did have Zoom and the sermon was virtual, the actual prayer required your presence.”
When the virus struck in March 2020 and everything shut down, Ramadan, the annual 30-day fast from dawn to dusk, was a month away.
“We did not have prayers at the mosque at all,” Din says. “It was a very different Ramadan but unique.”
Instead of mingling in the daily break-the-fast meals, Utah Muslims spent the time “in solitude and meditation,” he says. “You got a different flavor of spirituality.”
Last year, the mosque was open, but it required masks and social distancing, which limited the number of participants.
Worshippers were able to return to a semblance of normalcy (with hints of caution) when Ramadan began this weekend.
Men in the first three rows at the Utah Islamic Center in West Jordan stood shoulder to shoulder to pray, while those who preferred social distancing could find a place in rows farther back.
The practice “will be as close to normal,” Din says, “as it can possibly be.”
What Jews are doing
Congregation Kol Ami “is trying to get people back in person,” says Rabbi Samuel Spector. “However, we recognize that livestreaming also provides a method for our housebound and hospitalized congregants to attend services.”
The state’s largest synagogue is a blend of Conservative and Reform Jews, and Judaism has strict guidelines against using electronics on Shabbat. Traditionally, use of electronics has been prohibited on the Sabbath. However, during the height of the pandemic, the synagogue had to make “a difficult and controversial decision,” Spector says, “to allow for livestreaming in order to give congregants access to prayer and continue to have services.”
With Passover approaching in mid-April, the synagogue “will likely have discussions about this more in the future,” the rabbi says. “There are obvious pros and cons that come with and without livestreaming.”
What Catholics are doing
At the Cathedral of the Madeleine, streaming will continue, says the Rev. Martin Diaz, the pastor at Utah’s sublime Catholic edifice.
Just before the pandemic, the diocese had invested some $50,000 to set up a streaming system for Mass to provide that service to those who couldn’t attend in person.
Some members of the diocese — serving Utah’s 300,000-plus Catholics — regularly viewed Masses in other places, including the Vatican.
But, with Holy Week looming this month, nothing can replace being there.
“Community is essential to Christianity,” Diaz says. “Worship through streaming is prayerful albeit lacking or missing community. For Catholics, we have a Holy Communion which is missing with streaming.”
What Protestants are doing
Utah’s Episcopal Diocese has not made a decision about whether to continue streaming, says retiring Bishop Scott Hayashi.
“My opinion is that it should continue indefinitely as it reaches people who are homebound as well as people who want to see what the Episcopal Church is like,” Hayashi says. “It is also an easy way for a member of the church to invite someone who may be reluctant to come to church to attend virtually.”
Salt Lake City’s First Presbyterian Church plans to continue the dual track — virtually and in person, says the Rev. Steve Aeschbacher. “Masks now are optional and refreshments are available in fellowship time and livestreaming on Facebook and YouTube.”
The pastor’s hope is “that people primarily will come in person and the streaming is available for shut-ins, those who are sick or out of town, etc.”
The Point Church, a Baptist congregation in Kearns, is going to continue to provide in-person and online worship experience, says Pastor Corey Hodges. “There’s no going back.”
Though some 80% to 85% of congregants attend in person, he says, “a significant number of people have found virtual worship a valuable and convenient alternative. It gives us an opportunity to reach people who don’t feel comfortable walking through the church doors. They feel safe being able to watch it online.”
Such members will “experience some loss in terms of fellowship and touch,” Hodges says, “but we will continue to provide a hybrid to serve them.”
What Latter-day Saints are doing
In March 2020, 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.
Now the temples are open, missionaries are receiving assignments outside their home countries, and most members are back in the pews weekly.
What does that mean for virtual participation?
Latter-day Saint area authorities have advised congregations, according to several local bishops, to keep broadcasting to those who are unable or uncomfortable attending.
Beyond those few, the leaders urged, the rest should return “to full activity.”
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