Spiritual Communion Onscreen: Houses of Worship Rush to Go Online

Last Sunday, Denise Nicholson-Metz, a regular attendee of Sunday services at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, worshiped—but not as usual. She and her husband were in bed, watching on a Microsoft Surface laptop.

“I had bedside Baptist service that day,” said Ms. Nicholson-Metz, 44, who lives in nearby Decatur and works as a business-analysis manager for a telecommunications company.

On March 15, her church, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father were once pastors, moved its 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services online in an effort to keep visitors and its members safe from the novel coronavirus.

A view of the Ebenezer Baptist Church live stream seen on Denise A. Nicholson-Metz’s laptop.

Photo: Denise A. Nicholson-Metz

With local and state government officials restricting large public gatherings and President Trump urging Americans to limit their gatherings to fewer than 10 people, houses of worship all over the country are making the online move. Suddenly, a spiritual communion millions have depended on has moved from the presence of a religious leader and the reassuring solidity of a church, mosque or synagogue or similar building to a 15.6-inch screen.

The World Council of Churches and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research estimate there are about 350,000 houses of worship and congregations in the U.S. Roughly 50% have 65 attendees or fewer, according to Scott Thumma, director of the Institute. Mr. Thumma said he has been conducting webinars on creating digital worship for church leaders.

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Historically, people have turned to houses of worship during troubled times. Now, religious centers must figure out new ways of offering spiritual comfort—when some of their groups have themselves spread disease. A Jewish congregation was at the center of one of the big early U.S. outbreaks, in New Rochelle, N.Y., while in early March, South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most of all confirmed Covid-19 cases in the nation were related to a secretive Christian sect, the Shincheonji Church of Jesus.

For some pastors, the move online is less disruptive because they have long used web platforms to reach their congregations. Joel Osteen, whose Lakewood Church services in Houston typically attract more than 50,000 people, has long reached out to a wider audience via live streams, satellite radio and TV. His worship services, which will now occur without congregants in attendance, will be viewable on such platforms as Facebook Live, YouTube, Roku and AppleTV. The church said it would continue to monitor the situation week by week with the hopes of resuming its services with live congregants in the near future.

Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, and his wife, Victoria Osteen, in 2017.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Any online shift is intrinsically jarring. Suddenly many congregants accustomed to singing together, for example, can’t do so. In New Jersey, the Islamic Center of Passaic County will live stream its Friday sermons, but the congregational prayers following the sermon can’t be replicated online, so followers will have to pray on their own at the same time. “On a normal day, we would have up to a thousand people in one place praying,” said board member Mohamed El Filali, adding, “Now we’re physically distant but spiritually together.”

Even a reduced service can ease “the sense of loneliness,” said William Martin, a fellow in religion at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Streaming “reduces the sense of ‘this is a strange, strange time,’” by reassuring worshipers that “there are people still taking care of us. We’re still part of a community.”

But technology can threaten that fragile sense. In Portland, Maine, synagogue closing notices went out “on Facebook and through our website, and some of our people said ‘Well, we don’t use those things,’” said Gary Berenson, rabbi of Etz Chaim synagogue, where the average age of congregants is 70. He and other rabbis in Maine are discussing—on listserv email, of course—ways to continue offering services. “It could be that at least they have email, so we can tape something live and just send it” to elders who might be otherwise technologically challenged, Mr. Berenson said.

Rabbi Gary Berenson of Congregation Etz Chaim, photographed in 2018 at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland.

Photo: Ariana van den Akker/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

Many religious organizations have gotten behind the shutdowns. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said recently that it was canceling services and other public gatherings, while five influential Islamic organizations, including the Islamic Society of North America, recently recommended the temporary suspension of daily congregational prayers and other gatherings. These shutdowns come as a number of religions approach big holy days worshipers usually celebrate en masse, including Easter (April 12), Passover (beginning April 8) and Ramadan (beginning April 23).

Pope Francis will celebrate Holy Week and Easter mass in Rome without a public, a first. Services will instead be broadcast online, and on television and radio. In the archdiocese of New York, which consists of 10 counties including Manhattan, spokesman Joseph Zwilling said no final decision has been made about Palm Sunday, Holy Week or Easter Sunday. “It’s something we’re going to be looking very carefully at in the days and weeks ahead,” he said.

In Brooklyn, Altshul synagogue moved its regular Saturday morning services online on March 13 and scheduled them for, Fridays since some observers refrain from using technology on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Congregants tuned in to the online application Zoom to worship.

“I was leading part of the services, and normally in Jewish prayer there are relatively few moments where the leader is singing something and the congregation isn’t singing along,” said Rebecca Park, a 26-year-old public-school teacher. But “we were worried about everyone’s audio being delayed, or a little off. … So everyone had themselves muted, and they’re singing along in their own space. So I could only hear myself, and that was really strange.”

“It was mostly heartwarming but also heartbreaking to see everyone on the screen,” said Ms. Park, “but it was really powerful.”

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