Why Christianity stays a private faith even in a pandemic

(RNS) – On Christmas Eve, members of the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, Florida gather in the parking lot for a service that’s part tailgate, part worship, and part family gathering.

Holy Comforter has been holding indoor church services with strict attendance restrictions since the pandemic began. But at this time on the liturgical calendar and this time in the pandemic, Rev. Jerry Smith, rector of Holy Comforter, said people need to be together.

“We are now zoomed out. That’s part of the problem, “said Smith. “We don’t want to sit in front of the television screen anymore. It’s not the same as being in the other’s presence. “

While many Christian communities have moved their ministries online and found new ways to build virtual communities, faith remains a tangible personal experience for many.

For some churches, this means going to court to question restrictions on face-to-face meetings. For others, it means doing the best they can and keeping the faith until they can all be together again.

Holy Comforter’s leaders have followed advice from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health professionals to provide safe services. At the beginning of the pandemic, only 10 people were allowed to attend church for one service per week. More recently, the church has switched to three services with a maximum of 25 people. The church also broadcasts live streams.

The Rev. Jerry Smith. Photo courtesy of the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church

Having a few people more in person gives people a taste of what they’ve been missing, Smith said.

“You cannot make peace, but we have that time in the liturgy when people wave and smile at each other,” he said. “You have to do that. I think the danger is that people get so frustrated that they are cautioned. And we can’t let that happen. “

The pandemic has been particularly difficult for immigrant churches, said Rev. Dieufort Fleurissaint of the Haitian Evangelical Pastors Association. Already facing economic challenges, lack of resources, and sometimes issues related to their citizenship status, many immigrants see the church as a place where they can gather to share their burdens and rejoice at the same time. They rely on song and prayer, and hugs and hugs to keep their faith strong.

Just holding hands to pray can be powerful, he said.

“We are a community of community,” he said. “There is great spiritual benefit when we can gather together.”

Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, was reminded in the pandemic that Christianity is not just a set of ideas, but a set of practices and relationships that have been dampened or changed by the pandemic.

The past nine months have been the longest Everett had been absent from a church since her conversion experience as an eighth grader. She misses the chaos and confusion of services, but especially the usual little acts of grace that result from personal connection: she puts her hand on someone who has been sick, for example, and prays for her to be healed.

The Rev. Laura Everett. Courtesy photo

“I missed that echo of voices when we speak the Lord’s Prayer, those worn-out words that sometimes make my voice drop out because I’m so tired or so sad and other people are carrying the prayer for me,” she said.

“I know that can happen with Zoom and it does. But I miss sitting next to them. I miss the smell of the old lady’s perfume and the sound of cough drops being unwrapped, the smell of incense, the phone call and the answer and the talking back. “

Kevin Singer attends and leads worship on a Vintage Church campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. The church, composed mostly of younger families and young professionals, has a contemporary style of worship and meets in the high school of a Christian school.

The church has met in person, with chairs in clusters, said Singer, and people carefully keep their distance.

That makes the longing for community and connection even deeper, he said. “It always feels like I wish I could take that mask off and hug you,” he said.

People run out of the building after the service instead of hanging around what he calls “the mingling of souls,” which happens in more normal times. And during the service, he feels that they are all more passive observers than participants. He compares it to “Christian karaoke”.

Singer also said that COVID-19 has made people suspicious as a potential threat to their health. This makes intimacy and vulnerability among friends in a church difficult.

“You can’t be vulnerable without feeling like I shouldn’t be so close to you,” he said.

Rev. Constance Cherry, professor emeritus of worship and pastoral care at Indiana Wesleyan University, said many worship leaders and pastors are concerned about the long-term implications of moving from personal worship to online ministry. Will people return, she wonders, when the bans are lifted? Or would you prefer to participate online?

The service in many Protestant churches, especially in Protestant churches, has become a spectator experience, something that “leaders do for the community”.

“What you have achieved in hundreds of churches and denominations is people in the front of a stage producing worship for the pleasure of the people,” she said. “For me, this set an exclamation point for a problem we already had.”

Vanessa White, Associate Professor of Spirituality and Service at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said online worship has separated people not only from one another, but also from the rhythm of worship – getting dressed, going out, and in a specific place a sacred space to go time with a specific group of people.

She goes to her ward to serve as an editor for one week a month, reading some of the scriptures for mass. In the other weeks she watches online – but not from her couch in casual clothes. Instead, she tries to create a sacred space at home, as she does when leading virtual retreats.

Before mass begins, she clears her living room table and places a cloth on it, then a candle and a cross. She gets dressed and takes out a Bible reading book so she can attend. White said that worship includes signs and symbols, as well as prayers and other actions.

Let other worshipers remember this.

“We are people with signs and symbols,” she said. “Just because you’re in that virtual timeframe, it’s like we’re throwing the signs and symbols away. We don’t have to do that. “

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