Congregations rise as worship moves to the internet

By Tim Wyatt

The UK coronavirus lockdown has shut all places of worship but this has not meant the end of  worship for many synagogues, mosques, churches, temples and gurdwaras.

Thousands of believers, unable to attend Friday prayers, Shabbat, or a Sunday service, have instead been logging into online platforms to perform their faith through the internet.

Questions are now being to be asked: as online worship becomes the new normal, how will this change patterns of faith in the long term?

Some places of worship are reporting significant increases in the numbers of those taking part. Dr Pete Phillips, a Methodist minister and academic from Durham University who specialises in digital theology, said he had heard anecdotally of several congregations who had seen 10 times more people watch their livestreams than ever attended Sunday services.

This was echoed by the Rev Sally Hitchiner, from St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London. Despite congregations numbering in the hundreds for ordinary services, their livestreamed worship has attracted as many as 4,500 hits online. And the surge of interest had included daily prayers, which in ordinary times would see barely five or so people turn up.

Dan Forshaw, digital media co-ordinator at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, said the handful of livestreams his team had organised for Sunday worship had accrued a total of 2,500 views, and the regular congregation numbered just 400.

Other faiths have also taken the leap to online worship: the United Synagogue – the largest Jewish denomination in Britain – has organised a livestreamed Shabbat service from a different place each week, broadcast just  before the Sabbath starts. In its first week the Facebook Live Shabbat drew 8,000 viewers.

Reform Judaism has collected links of every synagogue in its network offering live streams, and has also launched its own daily broadcasts via the Zoom platform, a mixture of programming for children stuck indoors and religious content.

Neasden Temple, the largest Hindu place of worship in the UK, is continuing to allow Hindus to practise their faith and hear sermons through livestreams. The daily aarti offering is being broadcast online so that Hindus across Britain can still take part during the unprecedented closure of all temples.

In many ways, mosques have been ahead of the curve as many have maintained their own private radio networks for years to broadcast the call to prayer. In some places these have been quickly repurposed to deliver sermons, religious content and general community advice and support.

Younger Muslims increasingly prefer digital methods over the traditional radio broadcasts, and many mosques have also offered livestreams of prayers, Islamic teaching and more, using networks including Instagram and Facebook. The Muslim Council of Britain is also collating livestreams to help individual believers find their nearest mosque online.

But in all this innovation, what more permanent changes might occur if the coronavirus lockdown stretches on for months? Dr Phillips said the livestreaming could be revealing a hidden strand of belief in an increasingly secular Britain, citing research by the sociologist Professor Grace Davie about “vicarious religion”.

“Is it the case that yes, we do have a lot more people in the country who are Christian and don’t sign up by coming to church but now in a moment of crisis they are finding the church coming to them online,” Dr Phillips said. For those unsure of what to expect in their nearest place of worship, connecting to a livestream in the anonymity of your bedroom means thousands of Britons could dip their toes into religion, maybe for the first time.

Ms Hitchiner said she believed many of those tuning into St Martin’s broadcasts were not normally religious people but were searching for meaning and hope during a bleak time. Both she and Mr Forshaw said they expected to be doing much more livestreaming in the future, even when churches were allowed to reopen.

But for the Methodist Central Hall, the main audience it was tapping into seemed not to be curious agnostics but other Methodists in smaller, less tech-savvy congregations across the world. Mr Forshaw said many Methodist churches unable to offer their own livestream had been explicitly recommending worshippers connect to Central Hall instead. If this continues, he suggested his congregation could increasingly resemble a kind of Methodist cathedral.

Some have speculated that a lengthy period of livestreaming, where believers can search out and participate in their faith with any place of worship on earth rather than just their local mosque, synagogue or church, could lead to a greater polarisation. Larger institutions, with the capacity and resources to produce slick broadcasts could become even larger via livestreaming, while small, local congregations wither away even faster.

The medium itself of livestreaming is also having an impact on the content of acts of worship. In some instances, specific rituals practised for millennia simply cannot be transferred to the internet. In some Islamic thinking, Friday prayers must be done communally and cannot simply be replicated at home. And many churches have been wrestling with how to celebrate communion if the priest and congregation are physically separated.

While Dr Phillips said he thought it was time for creative theological interpretations to allow sharing bread and wine, other denominations including Roman Catholics and Anglicans, strictly forbid non-clergy from distributing communion, leaving worshippers bereft of the central rite of Christianity for months.

The impending arrival of Passover for Jews, Easter for Christians and then Ramadan for Muslims is also sharpening minds and stirring much creativity and innovation, as almost all the normal services and celebrations during these festivals cannot occur during the lockdown.

Mr Forshaw said the Methodist Central Hall’s livestreamed services were significantly shorter than normal, down from about 90 minutes to 30 in an attempt to maintain the congregation’s attention from afar. Ms Hitchiner said her church had decided to introduce a homily, or short reflective sermon, during the daily morning prayer services because they were aware many watching on were unfamiliar with the scriptural readings used and required additional explanation.

Although the long-term impact of livestreaming remains unclear and probably depends on the duration of the Covid-19 shutdown, many commentators expect it to have lasting ramifications. Ms Hitchiner and Dr Phillips both noted how livestreaming worship was giving more power and influence to disabled and housebound believers, who have used the internet to practise their faith out of necessity for years and now found themselves the experts.

Dr Phillips also suggested the very technology each community chooses to use could shape the legacy of the pandemic shutdown. While many places of worship were using platforms such as YouTube or Facebook Live to broadcast directly into people’s homes, others had chosen Zoom or Skype. The latter options are more interactive, allowing believers to also contribute to services rather than simply passively watching.

Different places of worship could accidentally foster theological divisions by the technology they choose over the coming months. Those using Zoom could see themselves become more inward-looking and democratic, focusing on how to maintain the spirits and faith of those already within the community, which was now able to express themselves during services. On the other hand, those who prefer YouTube or Facebook could become more outward-focused, seeing their priority increasingly become the new pool of previously disengaged agnostics.

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