COVID-19 physical distancing strategies bring about new ways to come together as community

Over the past few weeks, the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has changed how we function in our day-to-day lives drastically. Working from home is now a reality for many. Visits have become phone calls, while gym memberships have turned into home workouts. But what has happened to traditional church worship?

As the first wave of that reality started to hit Canadian churches on March 15, we have seen many congregations turn from grieving about the loss of gathering together in person to exploring new ways of connecting with church members and the wider community while ensuring physical distancing strategies are maintained.

“There has been a sharper shift towards embracing the possibilities of internet church via Skype, Zoom, live-streaming, and YouTube videos,” says Kristina Kuhnert of Waterloo, ON who heads up the ELCIC Young Adults Twitter feed. “I have been watching, participating in and creating Church services over the internet all week. There is a way to find Church whatever your internet-comfort level is. Once you have a device and the internet, and know where to access that list from the ELCIC, it is pretty straightforward.”

Last Sunday through @ELCICYoungAdult, Kuhnert posted, “In 24 years I have never felt more like a National Church, or seen the breadth and differences across Lutheran Canada than the church-hopping I’m able to do this morning.”

There are currently over 50 congregations (roughly 10 percent of its total congregations) broadcasting livestreams or posting weekly pre-recorded services on a variety of different online platforms. And the list is being added to daily as congregations assess capacity and need.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I did find it very worshipful,” reflects online viewer Marquise Sopher. “I had an Evangelical Lutheran Worship book so my husband and I could join in the hymn singing. We truly felt like we had been in community.”

Michele Mitchell tuned in to Rev. Kimberlynn McNabb’s Sunday worship from Church of the Resurrection, Halifax this past Sunday. Now living an hour away in Newcombville, Mitchell was able to take in the many sights and musical sounds from the church in which she grew up attending as a child.

“As the live feed came to an end there were 137 people tuned in,” Rev. McNabb says. “Many of those were households which held ‘watch parties.’ Responses in the comment section helped those watching see who else was present. We have now had over 450 views to the online video; more people were in attendance than on a regular Sunday.”

Although ease of access was noted by some, others did experience difficulty creating the ever-present connection found at typical Sunday morning gatherings.

“I found it weird, odd, disconnected,” reflects Rev. Mike Harmon. “You’re there, but you’re not. There were some computer issues, so we lost the connection at times, or it jumped and we missed things. But we will definitely try it again next Sunday.”

With many congregations across the country hosting Wednesday Lenten services, evening prayer vigils and Bible studies, there are numerous possibilities to connect with faith communities and no limit to geographic boundaries.

“I felt connected to my church family which was really beautiful,” says Deanna Decelle of Unity Lutheran in Medicine Hat, AB. “I was heartbroken when the suspension [of worship services] was first announced, but this brought us together again. My family delivered paper copies to our members without internet and waved to them from our car. I think that was very meaningful to everyone.”

“The appreciation from the community, far and wide, has been astounding,” says newly-ordained Rev. Pam McNeil. “God does make good from all situations. The connections that have previously been made in-person are what lend authenticity to a communal virtual worship experience.”

Luther Village Camp of the Manitoba/Northwestern Ontario Synod held an ‘LV Online Campfire’ on Saturday, closely resembling summer evening worship on the lake.

“Considering we threw it together within a couple of hours, it went very well,” says Kim Scherger, Executive Director of Manitoba Camping Association. “We used the gallery view on ‘Zoom’, and all attendees could see everyone else who tuned in. We even had people online from Kenora, Wisconsin, Scotland and Texas! It was a community of people coming together after what seemed like forever, even though for most of us we hadn’t even been in isolation for even a week at that point.”

The ELCIC continues to provide daily prayers and online resources that identify congregations in each synod offering webstreams, live links or pre-recorded Sunday services. That information can be found here.