Religious groups make the jump to remote worship during coronavirus

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Lady contemplating her faith
Faith

Religion is perhaps one of the most important sources of social interaction for many Americans.

For some people, it’s the only chance for socializing they get during the week.

It provides a sense of community. Churches, mosques, synagogues and houses of worship from the myriad religions that are practiced in the United States are often a place for people to turn to when times are tough, when they need something to give them hope and when they need someone to reassure them.

A time like right now.

But with bans on large groups of people issued two weeks ago, and now with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of a statewide stay-at-home order, religious organizations have had to scramble to find ways to accommodate worshippers while canceling in-person services.

Many have turned to the internet for solutions.

Scott Treadway, lead pastor at Rancho Community Church in Temecula, said his church moved services online for the first time Sunday, March 15.

“It changes a little bit every week depending on the current circumstances. We do livestreaming. We do it live from our stage to try to give people a sense of normalcy in their lives,” Treadway said. “We also have online youth ministries, children’s ministries.”

Rancho Community Church was already doing some streaming of services, so making the switch to online-only was not a difficult jump to make, the pastor said.

“We just immediately purchased one piece of equipment to extend (streaming) to multiple platforms,” Treadway said.

He said as much as the sudden hiatus on in-person services has disappointed everyone, members of the congregation have been understanding of the transition.

“Big picture, our goal is just to connect people as meaningfully as we can knowing people are cooped up in their homes and needing that personal sense of community,” Treadway said, “And we want to provide that for our church and our students.”

Mahmoud Zubaidi, chairman of Islamic Center of Temecula Valley’s board of directors, said the Temecula mosque has begun trying to implement “virtual masjid” by having the mosque’s imam tape small sessions and send them out via email, WhatsApp or Facebook.

But the mosque’s biggest problem is that Friday prayers must take place in person.

“For the Friday prayer, we have a recorded message, recorded lesson and we broadcast it,” Zubaidi said. “But there is a Friday prayer that has to happen in person. It cannot happen virtually.”

Zubaidi said the mosque’s direction is that households lead their own individual Friday prayers.

“What the direction is is that you need three people or more to carry it on, so we gave instructions that every family would carry on the Friday prayer,” he said. “It’s either the head of the family, or training their kids to lead the prayer and give ceremony, this way it will be an experience for each family to form their own Friday prayer.”

Friday, March 13, was the first day the in-person Friday prayers did not take place at the mosque.

Zubaidi said he and the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley were trying to look at the silver lining in the situation.

“We closed one prayer hall, but we opened maybe 500 prayer halls,” he said.

But he acknowledged that the pandemic has created a scary, trying situation for many people.

“It’s very emotional,” he said. “There are people who come to the mosque twice, or sometimes three times a day, and all of a sudden they’re telling them you can’t come.”

But Zubaidi said the current pandemic is a situation the Quran has specifically prepared Muslims for.

“The pandemics or diseases like this have happened previously in history, and the Prophet Muhammad 1,300 years ago has mentioned that if you hear of an outbreak or plague in a land, do not enter it,” Zubaidi said. “But if the plague breaks out in a place where you are, do not leave that place.”

In other words, Muhammad was warning people to quarantine themselves when sick, centuries before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made that same recommendation.

John Hansen, lead pastor at Centerpoint Church in Murrieta, said his church also moved online Sunday, March 15. The decision to suspend in-person services and do online-only services was made a few days before, March 12, even though at the time groups of 250 people or less were still allowed to meet.

“The motivation really is love, because we love our community and we want to do our part to protect our community, and that means protecting those who would be vulnerable,” Hansen said. “Even though the order initially was 250 or less could still meet and we could have found a way to try to swing that, we decided, no.”

Hansen said the first Sunday after that decision was made, services were broadcast on livestream.com, with the services still including about 50 people.

The next week, the decision was made to limit services to a much smaller gathering, including Hansen and just a handful of musicians, he said.

The church also decided to stream the Sunday, March 22, services on a platform designed specifically for churches called online.church.

Online.church was first developed by a church in Oklahoma to livestream its own worship services before the platform was expanded for use by other congregations, according to Hansen.

He said Centerpoint decided to use online.church because it has functions that are useful and specific for church services, including things like “a button for ask for prayer and for pastoral care and for making a spiritual commitment.”

So far, livestreaming Sunday services has been very successful, Hansen said, with the church registering even more viewers than the number of congregants it typically has in attendance at in-person services.

“Our normal church gathering is something like 2,500 people,” Hansen said. “Last week, we had 3,500 unique views.”

The next week, he said, there were more than 6,000 viewers.

“We’ve never had that many people watch anything we’ve done. Anyone who’s even been remotely a part of Centerpoint, the once-a-year type of person, is participating,” Hansen said.

In fact, so many congregants tried to view the March 22 services, the pastor said, that the stream crashed.

That was a hiccup Hansen attributed to the fact that many churches across the country have turned to the exact same service that his church has.

But despite that mishap, Hansen said he was happy to fulfill what he sees as his duty during a crisis.

“The church has a unique voice, and it is a voice of help and hope and support and love and care and I think people are very hungry for that,” Hansen said. “We see ourselves as spiritual first responders, and in a time when people are feeling desperate and isolated and alone, this is part of what we are supposed to do.”

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.