Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the transition to online religious services was a challenge for aging parishioners. But now, a year into the shift, many religious organizations are seeing the long-term benefits.
At 84 years old, Margaret Roth’s computer knowledge was limited and she had never heard of Zoom before the pandemic.
In March 2020, Roth’s church, Christ Lutheran, switched to livestreamed online services on Facebook and YouTube.
Then came the need for Zoom.
“The big thing was Bible study,” Roth said. “How would we become engaged?”
Zoom gives parishioners the opportunity to discuss and learn as a group. But the pandemic-friendly technology wasn’t exactly user-friendly at first, Roth said.
“(My pastor-in-training) made me do what I was supposed to do: write down the (Zoom) instructions, practice it and then the all-important review,” she said.
Now that Roth has a handle on the program, she not only uses it for church meetings, but university classes, too.
“I’ve taken many classes (in person), but now they’re all virtual,” she said.
“Today, for instance, I’m taking a class on Finland and another one Peter the Great.”
While there are perks to being able to go to class and church from the comfort of her own den, Roth said virtual meetings have their downsides.
“I miss hugging people, greeting them … those relationships,” she said.
“We’d like to be back, but it’s not wise to be at church worshipping and singing right now.”
Christ Lutheran pastor Dennis Hendricksen agrees virtual services lack fellowship, but they seem to be “meeting needs fairly well.”
In fact, Christ Lutheran’s virtual viewership has increased three to four times that of its in-person attendance, according to Hendricksen, which is about 600 views on a Sunday service.
“There is that convenience factor,” he said.
“Parishioners have discovered it’s kind of nice having that weekly ritual, even if it means they are sitting in my living room with my laptop open drinking a cup of coffee.”
Virtual changes and challenges across religious board
Similar to Christ Lutheran, Rabbi Jeremy Parnes made the decision to close Beth Jacob Synagogue to in-person services at the start of the pandemic and has yet to re-open.
“With a more senior group and a certain level of nervousness, it seemed to be more appropriate to close the synagogue for the time being,” Parnes told Global News.
Closure meant shifting to Zoom services instead, which proved to be a challenge for some older members in Regina’s Jewish community.
“For some, it’s been a fairly difficult process,” Parnes said.
“I think it’s worked out that in many cases with grandchildren around they can take care of the technical stuff and help things along where it’s possible.”
Apart from the technical difficulties, Parnes said a big challenge was adapting Jewish services to work in an online format.
A typical Saturday service, Parnes said, can be two hours long.
“You can only sit on a two-dimensional screen and single seat for so long before it becomes uncomfortable,” he said, adding screen fatigue was a concern.
“We’ve made some adjustments to tighten things up a little bit. The key is how you do that without losing the essential parts of the service and without it feeling like it’s broken up.”
However, the synagogue has managed to maintain its viewership throughout the pandemic, according to Parnes, and at times increasing its audience.
People from British Columbia and as far away as Guatemala have tuned into the virtual services.
Rabbi Parnes said there could be an opportunity to expand the synagogue’s audience even after the pandemic ends.
“I’m thinking more in terms of Jewish families living in isolated communities where they don’t have a synagogue,” Parnes said.
“Can we accommodate them going forward by having both online and in-person services where it’s more interactive that way?”
Both Parnes and Hendricksen are considering a hybrid model that would offer both virtual and in-person services once the places of worship re-open.
Until then, people like Roth are just thankful to have their faith, online or otherwise.
“It means the world to me,” Roth said.
“It’s like we have a huge family and I view our church as a family that supports everyone.”