During tumultuous times, humans have historically sought out organized religion for comfort and answers.
The same appears to be happening as the United States faces a level of civil unrest not seen in decades while simultaneously dealing with the health, economic and social effects of a global pandemic.
But people aren’t turning to places of worship like they did after traumatic national events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. State regulations and national guidelines put in place to help curb the COVID-19 virus caused many churches, temples and mosques to suspend in-person gatherings.
Instead, people have been connecting — or in some cases, reconnecting — with religious organizations through the congregations’ websites, social media accounts, and the services and programs they are streaming online. And the leaders of some area churches have taken notice.
“It’s very interesting,” Rev. Elsa Worth of St. James Episcopal Church in Keene said last week. “Each Sunday the deacon and I, or someone else in the church and I, put together a recording of the service. A musician plays some music, we read the gospel, and open conversation about what it might mean for our lives. We end with a prayer. I get so many views. So many people are watching.”
She said the amount of interest since the pandemic began, including from people who are new to the church, has surprised her. Further, many more people have been checking St. James’ Facebook page than before the pandemic, she noted.
While people have sought out religion in trying times before, having the services online has made them, in a way, more intimate and accessible to those who are otherwise hesitant about stepping into a church, she said.
“I just think people are experimenting with spirituality, and they’re meeting with others to talk about it in a way where they didn’t feel comfortable walking into a building,” Worth said. “People have so much baggage about churches because of issues of being hurt by them or preconceptions about what they’ve heard about them.”
The Unitarian Universalist Church in Keene has noticed that offering services online has not only brought in some people new to the congregation, but also garnered interest from those who may have lost touch with the church over the years, Rev. Michael F. Hall said recently. Attendance has increased, and people’s connection to the church and each other appear to be stronger, he said.
“I think people really miss things when they’re gone,” he said. “That live connection, even if it’s now through a video connection, we have a lot more folks participating in the life of the church even when the church is mostly closed.”
Hall said he’s also noticed that having the weekly services available online affords flexibility to people who may not otherwise be able to attend in person, as they can view the service at their convenience.
The Trinitarian Congregational Church in Troy reopened for in-person services on June 7. But its pastor, Stanley Clark, wrote in an email last week that he has continued to record his Wednesday evening and Sunday morning sermons, which then can be viewed on the church’s YouTube and Facebook pages. Members of the church’s Tech Team, which formed back in March when the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect, puts the sermons on CDs and DVDs to be hand-delivered weekly to parishioners who don’t have Internet access, Clark wrote. The team also helps with the recording, editing and remastering of sermons.
He noted that with the church reopened, his sermons are recorded separately from the live services out of respect for the privacy of parishioners.
“When we reflect back on our experience during the time when the church was closed to ‘in-person’ services, we really feel as though the church family never really stopped ‘meeting’ together — the way in which we met together simply changed,” he wrote.
The United Church of Christ and Monadnock Covenant Church, both in Keene, Congregation Avahas Achim in Keene and the First Congregational Church of Swanzey were not reachable for comment Friday.
Churches nationwide are seeing an uptick in online engagement during the pandemic, according to a July 2 article from U.S. News and World Report.
Prior to the pandemic, about 25 percent of Americans claimed not to have a religious affiliation, and those of heavily white Christian denominations such as Catholics and mainline and evangelical Protestants were experiencing significant declines in membership, the article reports. The question now is whether the influx in online interest will translate to in-person attendance once churches reopen, the article notes.
It’s one Michael Grayston, location pastor for Next Level Church in Keene, has thought about as the church plans for an in-person gathering on Aug. 2, the first in many months.
Like others during the pandemic, the church has experienced an increase in its online and social media presence, and seen many new faces tune in to its online programming, he wrote in a recent email.
He said he’s optimistic the church’s membership will continue to grow, and that the best is still ahead for the church.
“I believe now more than ever; people need a message of hope,” he wrote. “The Gospel message is exactly that; a message of light in the darkness.”