In worship, still touching hearts if not each other

For Jews, Muslims, and Christians, a temporary absence of in-person services can lead to fresh approaches to reaching others.

A worshipper attends a Mass being broadcast at an empty Roman Catholic church in Vilnius, Lithuania, April 5.

For the three Abrahamic religions, physical distancing during the pandemic seems like a crisis in the wilderness. Adherents of each faith must forgo traditions of worshipping together in person. Yet the crisis could also turn out to be a welcome blessing.

For Jews, the celebration of Passover (April 8-16 this year) usually means among other things families gathering for a special meal and observances. A week later, Muslims will begin the month of Ramadan (April 23-May 23), which typically includes families gathering for a special evening meal (iftar) after daytime fasting, as well as the regular attendance at mosques, where those praying are often shoulder to shoulder. For most Christians, Easter falls on April 12 or 19, and would customarily include a special service followed by meals with loved ones.

For most of the world’s faithful, large in-person gatherings are on hold. The vast majority of religious leaders recognize that suspending their services inside buildings is an act of love for both their congregants and the public at large. A March survey of Protestant leaders by the Barna Group found that 73% reported their places of worship were not open to the public.

Many Christians have taken to heart a phrase often seen on the roadside boards of churches: “Be the church.” It seems to say, “How are you expressing godliness to others in your daily life?” The question carries extra meaning this year. The act of coming together as believers must not only be done from afar, the crisis itself demands a collective spirit of giving to others.

Using technology to practice one’s faith is hardly new. In the early 20th century, American preachers used radio and later television to spread the gospel, drawing large audiences of people at home. Today, congregations are able to stream services over the internet, allowing people to watch from anywhere. For Christians, this virtual togetherness can still help achieve one purpose: As the Gospel of Matthew puts it, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Nonetheless, religious leaders worry about an erosion in attendance or interest if the crisis persists for months. On the other hand, by focusing on digital services, churches can inspire new interest from those who are unable to attend a particular church or are uncomfortable with entering one.

“The church’s absence, its literal emptying, can function as a symbol of its trust in God’s ability to meet us regardless of the location,” writes Esau McCaulley, an assistant professor at Wheaton College, in The New York Times. “The church remains the church whether gathered or scattered.”

The comfort, camaraderie, and familiarity of meeting in person, praying and singing side by side, has been temporarily put aside. But this moment in history also offers opportunities to “be the church” in fresh ways, seeking to reach people at another level, even as believers still support each other through prayer and communion.

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