Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Churchgoers find spiritual growth through virtual services 

Joo Lee dancing during a virtual Sunday church service while quarantined.

Lachlan Warrell had always enjoyed church. He’d hold hands with his friends during prayer, hug them after service and share bites of vinegary salad during church dinners. But ever since the coronavirus pandemic, those interactions are now distant memories.

“The church made the call to put everything online last month,” said 22-year-old Warell, a member of his church, C3 NYC, in Downtown Manhattan. “Even for dinners, we had thought at the time that gathering 10-12 people was safe, but even that’s too many people to have in one place.”

In a time where social distancing is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, Lachlan and many other Christian churchgoers must now kindle spiritual community over a computer.

For Lachlan, this means attending C3’s pre-recorded digital Sunday services on his laptop. Running hourly from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., the stream lets members like Lachlan follow his pastor with a pop-up digital Bible and send text messages with his friends using the stream’s chatroom.

The pre-recorded services still remain C3 in flavor, using hip music, diverse speakers and aesthetically pleasing lighting to convey their Christian messages. 

But for more intimate C3 gatherings like dinner parties that are now done over  Zoom, the transition hasn’t been as smooth.“Before corona, we’d usually meet every Wednesday to have dinner, catch-up with one another, pray, and talk about the last service,” said Warell, adding that he misses the social setting. “It’s kind of awkward trying to single out a conversation in a 15-person Zoom call.”

For other C3 members who attend more than one church like 23-year-old Joo Lee, the switch to online has made the transition between communities easier.

Lee typically starts her Sunday with a morning prayer at her Korean church IN2 in Koreatown, and follows it with a C3 service ten blocks away.

“I now don’t have to go all the way uptown and switch between the two,” she said. “It’s been easier to be a regular in both communities.”

Even so, Lee says the impersonal live streams could dampen a sense of community for older church members.

“For our generation, we’re used to this, we’ve been online all the time,” she said. “But for my parents, they’re really sad about it, they see it as a whole different reality.”

For other Christian organizations that depend on group gatherings like Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU), an organization dedicated towards engaging college students with faith, remote gathering has brought together new perspectives.

“I try to tell everyone that we want to do our best to honor what the government says,” said Sam Gryzwa, a CRU campus staff member. “But we also have to recognize that we share a bond as Christians that goes beyond this idea that we only need to meet in person.”

Prior to the pandemic, Gryzwa set up Bible studies and other CRU events on New York University’s campus. But now, FaceTime and Zoom are the only ways to reach students.
“I keep myself as available and open for discussion as I did on campus,” said Gryzwa. “We just have to get a little more creative to get to God now.”

While groups like C3, IN2 and CRU have postponed in-person gatherings to prevent the virus from spreading, other religious groups across the country have come under fire for ignoring social distancing precautions.
In the last two months, a Virginia pastor died from COVID-19 after defying social distancing, while a church conference in Kansas City sparked 44 new COVID-19 cases and five deaths.

“It’s important to be able to connect with God now more than ever,” said Warrell. “It’s important to do it safely though.”

“We do have the ability as Christians to have hope in all of this,” said Gryzwa. “We’ve just now got to focus on how to share that hope at home and through computers.”

Harrison Tsui is an NYU undergraduate journalism student.



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