Online Church during a Pandemic

Most of us are only a few days into this pandemic and I’m seeing many signs that life will not be normal for a while. While the LDS Church cancelled official church meetings, you may want to hold church or gather with friends online. If you are a regular church attender, this may help anchor your week in the way that church usually does. If you aren’t a regular church attender, you may need to begin meeting with friends online to maintain relationships and find social support during a time of social distancing.

I’m on the leadership team of an online congregation and I’m the pastor of a congregation that is moving online. I’ve been doing online church services for a couple of years and I have a few tips and thoughts that I’d like to share.

Reach out to friends, family, and ward members through Zoom, a video conferencing app. You will need to download this free app onto your phone or computer, though there are upgrades you can pay for. People typically join a Zoom meeting by clicking on a link to the meeting, but others can also join by phone, making it more accessible than other platforms. There are also Google Hangouts, Skype, Facetime, and others that will let you see people as you talk with them.

An online service/gathering could easily look like a prayer, a music video of a favorite hymn (group singing through Zoom does not work well), an opportunity for people to share their joys and concerns, a spiritual thought, a spiritual practice (like scripture reading, poem, short meditation) and a closing prayer.

Services that can adapt to give people time to share their feelings and what is going on in their lives will help people feel connected. I see a lot of people creating house church meetings at the moment, but this may not be best practice for social distancing. Informal gatherings in online spaces also give women a bit more power and say in what can happen. Traditional in-person LDS services use a very specific format, but you might want to experiment with format and different kinds of activities in an online environment. Remember, the goal of a service should be for people to feel connected to God and community. That can happen in a lot of different ways.

Consider using these kinds of gatherings to focus on empathy for each other and others. It is easy at the moment to narrow our focus to our own and our immediately family’s/household’s health and safety. It is this fear that moves people to stockpile food and resources, reducing availability for others. Let’s (figuratively!) embrace our neighbors and community members within the circle of those whom we hope to support and protect. Online gatherings that include discussions, spiritual thoughts, and scriptures that focus on empathy and care of community might be a good topics in the coming weeks. I’m already harboring unkind feelings for the woman at the supermarket yesterday who touched several bags of bread but only took one. Most of us are going to need to change our routines to support the health of others, but we’re also going to need to do a lot of forgiving.

In your conversations with others, consider finding ways that you can serve others while practicing social distancing. Consider finding ways to assist those who cannot practice social distancing, due to job or other situation. These might be things like donating to a local food pantry, writing to detainees at the southern border, joining/forming a local group to drop off food and supplies to those who are in a high risk group or those who are struggling financially.

I’m leaving you with a poem and a prayer that I see folks sharing on social media.

Pandemic
by Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Prayer for a Pandemic
by Cameron Bellm (Krug the Thinker)

May we who are merely inconvenienced
Remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors
Remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home
Remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent.
May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close
Remember those who have no options.
May we who have to cancel our trips
Remember those that have no safe place to go.
May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market
Remember those who have no margin at all.
May we who settle in for a quarantine at home
Remember those who have no home
As fear grips our country,
Let us choose love.
During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other,
Let us find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors.
Amen

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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