As restrictions lift, people get vaccinated, and concerns about the pandemic ease, life gradually starts to return to ‘normal’. It’s not too soon for some, who have longed for more physical contact and more opportunity for social interaction after church. Many were relieved when they no longer had to pre-register to go to church, and could simply show up and register at the door. Others were counting down the days until the province reached Reopening Stage 2, and they could dance again. Plenty of people couldn’t wait until masks were no longer required in public.
But no one has said ‘I can’t wait until the pandemic is over and I don’t have to wash my hands again,’ or ‘I can’t wait until the pandemic is over and I don’t have to stay home from work when I’m sick.’ We know that there have been many social developments that have been definite improvements and ought to be kept long after the crisis is over. Some people have found innovative ways to be flexible and work from home. Others have realized that sometimes travel for meetings wasn’t really necessary, when video or even teleconferences will suffice. The convenience of ordering online for curbside pickup can be an improvement in many contexts. And church online is not about to go away any time soon.
Did you know that as a search term, ‘Church Online’ is more popular in Newfoundland than in almost any other province? There are plenty of reasons why people will continue to need their church to be online long after mask mandates end and social distancing dies away. Some people will continue to be wary about going out in public. Many will still wear their masks, even when they are not required. As a church, we need to care for everyone, not just those who have the same comfort level we do. If people still wear masks to church, they need to feel welcome to do that, and not be dismissed as alarmists. If they aren’t yet comfortable worshiping in person, we need to continue to give them opportunities to do so.
Sometimes, it’s not a question of whether they feel safe in public. As life returns to normal, the risk of regular, non-COVID sickness will rise again. Some people will want to go to church on Sunday, but will stay home because of the head cold they’ve caught, and which they quite rightly don’t want to spread. Others will stay home due to bad weather or road conditions (especially as winter sets in). Still others will stay home because of age or mobility issues. For some parishioners, the emphasis on online worship during pandemic has been a blessing. They could never go to church before, and now their worshiping community has had to take the effort to be accessible online. Having given them the opportunity to worship from home, are we now going to take that away from them, just because we think going back to ‘normal’ has to mean going back to ‘the way we used to do it’?
In case we start to think that church online just means broadcasting Sunday services online, we need to remember that church in-person means so much more than that as well. Parishioners have taken great strength from a sense of community that has developed in online ‘coffee hours’, and have grown in their faith from online Bible Study groups. While these opportunities to be a part of the life of the church can never be the same as the in-person versions, they are still important ways for people to remain connected to their faith communities when they can’t physically be present, whether because of age, sickness, infirmity, being uncomfortable driving at night, or having moved away.