From households clustered around computer screens to sanctuaries filled with people, church services have taken a variety of forms since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic more than three years ago.
Although the days of holding church services solely by online meetings are firmly in the past for most congregations, the pandemic undoubtedly forced churches to consider technology use anew—in what it takes from a congregation, but also in what it can bring.
“There was an urgency to do church well online,” says Lisa Enns, pastor of Winnipeg’s Charleswood Mennonite Church, in reference to pandemic worship-service planning. “People were isolated, people were lonely, and people were stressed. My sense of pastoral care kicked in.”
Like many churches then, Charleswood Mennonite chose to hold its Sunday morning worship services over Zoom throughout the pandemic, due to the online platform’s interactivity. In addition to being able to send messages to one another over Zoom throughout the service led by the worship team alone in the sanctuary, the congregation was also split into randomly assigned breakout room groups after the service, to approximate “foyer conversations” between households.
Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg also incorporated breakout rooms into its online church services.
“But it wasn’t the same as being in the same space and seeing someone across the room, and saying, ‘There’s so-and-so. I’d like to talk to them,’ ” says Pastor Lynell Bergen. This barrier to natural fellowship was reinforced by the loss of physical touch, she says.
For both churches, holding their worship services only online was always understood to be a temporary response to the temporary demands of the pandemic.
“A huge piece of not being in person was the stress of performance,” says Enns. “It wasn’t about what you were actually doing. It was wondering, will the technology actually work? Is the worship meaningful this way? I just remember constantly longing to be back in person.”
While both churches are now worshipping in person once more, their services are still offered in some form online. The losses that came with being limited to online church can be overcome, while the advantages of this format can continue to benefit the churches overall.
Hope Mennonite is still offering service attendance online.
“It expanded the possibility of what we could do,” says Bergen. “We could have someone who didn’t live in Winnipeg preach or share.”
This was something Hope began doing during the pandemic, and still does today.
Bergen also says there are a number of people who continue to attend the church every week by Zoom who otherwise wouldn’t be attending at all.
“They have formed their own community,” she says. “They can’t be in our church physically for one reason or another, so this gives them a chance to be present in another way, and to create a bond with other people.”
Charleswood Mennonite, on the other hand, now records and livestreams its services, making the recording available online for anyone to watch once the service is over.
“We will likely never stop livestreaming,” says Enns. “Now that we know we can, for those people who cannot come into church, it feels important.”
Beyond regular congregants, both Bergen and Enns also note the ability of online services to attract newcomers to their churches.
“It can be a way for people to check out the church without having to step in the door,” says Bergen. Attending church online can allow newcomers to answer questions like, Who are these people? What happens when they gather? Is this a church I might feel comfortable in? she says. “Zoom is still there, still available, if people want to step in the door metaphorically.”
That said, worshipping as closely together as possible is still the goal for Hope Mennonite.
“We don’t record our services,” Bergen says. “If you’re not there at 10 o’clock, you’ve missed it. There’s something about that, that we’re all here together, and this is when we meet, and you’re welcome to join us.”
Enns and Charleswood Mennonite share this value of togetherness in worship.
“The time in the foyer is the best part of being back,” says Enns, adding that she cherishes “being able to greet people, to hear that buzz of energy and conversation in the foyer.
“We always have to quiet people down before the service, and that’s good,” says Enns. “It’s good noise.”
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