Virtual worship has sparked a trend that may outlast the pandemic

First Congregational United Church of Christ has accepted a new member who lives in Houston. Photo credit: Grace George

By Grace George

WASHINGTON—Over the summer, as protests against racial injustice and police brutality emerged throughout the world, the Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss of First Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC) led Black Lives Matter demonstrations and held a Juneteenth event that honored Black Americans killed by police.

From her home in Houston, LaTayna Purnell scrolled through pictures of these events on Facebook. She was both impressed by how First Congregational UCC was addressing racism and dismayed by how her local faith community failed to do the same.

“LaTayna made an offhand comment [on Facebook]: ‘I wish I could join your church,’” Hendler-Voss said in an interview. “And I said, ‘You can; All of our worship services are online. You can tune in from anywhere.’”

Since as early as March this year, houses of worship, including First Congregational UCC, have had to adjust to holding religious services online due to the coronavirus pandemic. Faith leaders and worshippers have dealt with the setbacks of virtual worship, but there have also been some unexpected upsides.

“I think this is one of the few positives that has [come out of the pandemic] because we can connect with so many people in so many different places easily and have that have a genuine connection together,” Purnell said.

For Purnell, the shift to virtual worship services has allowed her to join a church community that aligns more closely with her views.

The Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss speaking on how virtual services present some positives.

“I can actually choose a church and go to church with a group of people who are very likeminded with me,” Purnell said in an interview. “Whereas I may not be able to find that in my current community.”

Purnell and Hendler-Voss met almost ten years ago through denominational networks. They had a long conversation over coffee during which they became friends on Facebook and Purnell was able to glean Hendler-Voss’s “pastoral heart,” Hendler-Voss said.

First Congregational UCC has been holding strictly virtual Sunday services since March. Over Zoom, Hendler-Voss preaches from the church’s sanctuary, accompanied only by volunteer liturgists and scripture readers who are comfortable joining in-person.

Purnell has been an official member of First Congregational UCC since August, despite the fact that the church is one time zone and over 1,000 miles away from her home. She remains a member at a local parish, Houston Mennonite Church, and she attends both services on Sundays, one after the other.

“I love the diversity of [First Congregational UCC], and that there are people who look like me in the pews as much as people who don’t look like me in the pews, and I think that’s really valuable because I have two sons,” Purnell said. “For them to see people who look like them being a part of the church was an important piece of it for me.”

Purnell’s wife has yet to become a full member herself, but their eldest son is taking confirmation classes with First Congregational UCC. The family plans to take a trip to the district so their son can get confirmed at First Congregational UCC in-person once it is safe to do so.

Extending “a worship invitation”

Since it started making their services virtual, First Congregational UCC has been able to reach worshippers from Costa Rica to Siberia, Hendler-Voss said. Some are former members who moved away. Others are local members’ families.

“[Virtual worship] also enabled us—many of us—to extend a worship invitation to multiple generations,” Hendler-Voss said.

First Congregational UCC’s reaction to virtual worship is not an anomaly.

Data from Pew Research Center

Various faith communities and regular worshippers in the U.S. have been taking advantage of the ability to join a variety of religious services. According to the Pew Research Center, most worshippers who attended virtual services during the pandemic watched congregations other than their own and most are satisfied with the virtual services they have attended.

“It is going to become a new trend simply because we can,” Purnell said. “We can do this in our homes safely.”

Pastor Bill Lamar from Metropolitan A.M.E. Church said that his congregation, which currently holds all services online only, has also accepted members from “all over,” including worshippers in California and Florida.

“These people who find virtual sustenance from communing with us should be allowed to enjoy the privileges and take upon themselves the responsibilities of being a part of the community,” Lamar said in an interview.

Lamar said he is not “a 100 percent cheerleader of any technology,” but he recognizes the benefits of allowing people from across the country to join as members to his congregation.

“We want people to be a part of what we’re doing, and we don’t want to place any barriers,” Lamar said. “If folks can maintain employment virtually, if folks can maintain relationships virtually, they should be able to maintain membership and faith communities virtually.”

For Purnell, joining First Congregational UCC is her chance to be a part of a faith community that truly aligns with her values. Lamar said that non-local worshippers are looking to join his church for the same reasons.

“Theologically and culturally, they are attracted to who we are,” Lamar said. “We are fully in the black prophetic tradition, and I think that people find that appealing.”

This emerging trend is not isolated to Christian traditions.

Masjid Muhammad had a robust online presence and a few non-local members before the pandemic. However, the mosque has recently seen heightened interest in joining from Muslims outside of the D.C. area.

“A lot of those outside of the community now want to also be affiliated with what we’re doing because of the work we’re doing, not just the prayer,” Imam Talib Shareef said in an interview.

Many of Masjid Muhammad’s non-local members became interested in the mosque through its fundraising and food distribution programming. Others have expressed interest in the mosque because their local mosques stopped holding virtual Jumah prayer services on Fridays.

“I think it’s positive because we get a chance to broaden our perspectives,” Shareef said of welcoming new, non-local members. “And we can become narrow if we stay one-sided … But I think it’s good that we’re able to see the various perspectives that are out there.”

Shareef said that Masjid Muhammad is now seriously considering making a deliberate attempt to recruit non-local members.

“Why aren’t we doing this?”

Those entering new faith communities as non-local members that align more closely with their beliefs have also found more work to be done at home.

“I think human beings are going to do more once they find an environment that supports their interests,” Shareef said.

Shareef said that some non-local worshippers who connected with Masjid Muhammad during the pandemic because of its charity work have become more active at their local mosques.

“One of the things we’re seeing is [that] being exposed to other areas and other knowledge is causing some to interject in their community, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’” Shareef said.

This is exactly what Purnell is doing at her home congregation in Houston.

“I’m kind of bringing some of their cool things into my current church community and really kind of marrying those two together,” Purnell said.

Purnell has been working with Hendler-Voss to encourage anti-racism work among her Mennonite community in Houston.

“We’re doing some of the stuff that [First Congregational UCC] is doing, but again, it’s not at the [same] magnitude simply because we’re in a different part of the country,” Purnell said. “And our issues, while very similar, are different, and the ability for us to address it are different simply because of our geographics.”

This exchange of ideas is something that Purnell, Hendler-Voss, Lamar and Shareef all said they see as an upside of maintaining virtual services even after it is safe for faith communities to gather in person again.

“I would encourage people to do it because it’s fun … to see what other parts of the country are doing as they all combat with similar issues that we’re combating,” Purnell said.

Remaining accessible

While a majority of U.S. adults are satisfied with online worship services they have watched, only 18 percent say they are planning to attend remote religious services more often after the pandemic than before the pandemic, according to a report by Pew Research Center.

Data from Pew Research Center

This statistic does not bode particularly well for the future of virtual services, but Hendler-Voss said that she is committed to continue making her services accessible for everyone, even when First Congregational UCC begins to hold services in-person again.

“[Remote worship] allows the work of the church to be accessible to people at a greater level and inclusive of people of many different stages of life and many geographical locations,” Hendler-Voss said.

Hendler-Voss said that by keeping services online and accessible, people who are sick, stuck at home with their children, traveling or “perhaps has moved from D.C. to a new area but hasn’t found the right church home yet,” will still be able to “feel spiritually fed.”

Despite her belief in the upsides of virtual worship, Hendler-Voss is also conscious of its potential to take away from other faith communities.

“It’s not my intention to pull away from membership in a quality community of faith that is geographically accessible,” Hendler-Voss said. “And so, I think we just have to have open conversations because this is a very new thing, and we don’t quite know what the ins and outs and the challenges and the gifts of it will fully be.” 

Metropolitan A.M.E. Church is also planning on maintaining an online presence and retaining non-local members once it goes back to offering in-person services.

“Virtual is the new normal, right?” Lamar said. “Even when we when we can go back [to in-person services], our virtual offerings will not at all be narrowed or truncated.”

Lamar said he thinks the embrace of virtual worship and the trend of people joining non-local faith communities will continue to rise.

“It will never look like it used to look,” Lamar said. “I mean, people will gather again in person when people deem it to be safe—and for us, that will be when our congregation in consultation with our denomination decides that it’s safe—but we are not in any hurry.”

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