Can you find God in a Zoom call? Communities of faith get religion on tech in COVID-19 crisis


Faithlife, the Bellingham, Wash.-based church technology company, has seen big demand from in churches using its platform to stream services amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Faithlife Photo)

On a recent Friday afternoon, Sheikh Abdirahman Kaariye, Imam and religious director of the Islamic Center of Bothell, Wash., pulled up a chair in a large, empty room that would normally be full of people gathering for prayers.

He peered into his phone to address those watching on Facebook Live, calling it “a heartache for all of us” to know that thousands of mosques and centers around the world were similarly empty on the most sacred day of the week for Muslims.

“It is very difficult for me, as an Imam, to come to my masjid on a Friday, the day when I meet the entire community, to not be able to see my congregation,” he said on the live stream, using the Arabic word for mosque. “I feel the pain of every single Muslim brother and sister who is at home today.”

It’s a shared experience across religions. As social distancing and bans on large gatherings kept members of his congregation at home, Pastor Dan Peterson of Queen Anne Lutheran Church in Seattle was struck by the symbolism as he recorded his weekly sermon late one night in a dark, empty sanctuary.

“It was a fascinating experience, actually,” he recalled in a recent podcast discussion. “I kept thinking, it’s really suggestive for the time that we’re in.”

“How do you celebrate Easter in a season that still feels like Lent?” he explained. “To celebrate life when life is still up for grabs, being taken by this virus, is problematic to say the least.”

Pastor Dan Peterson of Queen Anne Lutheran Church in Seattle, recording Easter services in an empty sanctuary, as captured on video.

Preaching to the choir? Not even. In the age of COVID-19, the old cliché would be a step up for many religious leaders, who find themselves speaking to empty churches, temples and mosques, recording or live-streaming their sermons, prayers and services to congregations and communities watching at home.

The spread of the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the economy, but the implications are especially profound in this peak season for people of faith: Ramadan for Muslims, Passover for Jews, and Easter for Christians.

Technology is an important stopgap. From services on Facebook Live to coffee hours on Zoom, creative solutions are keeping many communities of faith connected. The new approaches promise to influence how they congregate and interact even after the current crisis is over. But in many cases, technology is not a substitute for the in-person gatherings that form the basis for some of their most meaningful traditions.

A ‘renegotiation of what it means to form Jewish community’

I’ve been witnessing and learning about some of these challenges first-hand.

Dr. Beatrice Lawrence

Pastor Dan Peterson is a lifelong friend of mine, and I volunteer behind the scenes on podcasts and other tech projects for him and Queen Anne Lutheran. On a recent episode of their “God for Grownups” podcast, Dan and his friend, Dr. Beatrice Lawrence of Seattle University, an expert in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Hermeneutics, were discussing the limitations of technology in overcoming the challenges of social distancing.

Listening in to produce the show, I jumped in to make the case that they were underestimating the power of technology. After all, how many times have you been enlightened by a podcast, or inspired by a phone conversation with a friend, or felt something akin to a religious experience when listening to a soaring piece of music on a great pair of headphones?

Of course, my naive interjection overlooked some of the fundamental tenets of religious traditions. In the Jewish faith, ten adults are required to form a minyan, the quorum required for public prayers and other traditions. According to Jewish law, you need to be in the same physical space. A video call technically doesn’t work.

Some are hoping to relax these traditions, asking for clearance to use Zoom, for example, to create virtual minyans.

“When faced with the challenge of not being able to be in the presence of other Jews, which is so central to what it means to live a Jewish life, people are having to get creative,” Lawrence explained. What’s happening, she added, is “a complete renegotiation of what it means to form Jewish community.”

‘We’ve had to adapt to our new circumstances’

Physical presence is also critical for Muslims, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder for group prayer.

Adam Jamal, director of education and assistant Imam at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound

“A big part of our religion and religious practice includes that kind of physical presence together, where we are praying together,” said Adam Jamal, director of education and assistant Imam at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, the largest mosque in the Pacific Northwest and one of the largest on the West Coast. “That’s missing now. We’ve had to adapt to our new circumstances.”

MAPS, as it’s known, typically draws about 1,000 people to its weekly services on Friday afternoons has shifted to virtual services, and while traditional group prayer isn’t possible in that setting, there are benefits, such as the ability to invite a variety of guest speakers from across the country and around the world. More than 300 people and families were on the Zoom call for services this Friday afternoon.

But the lack of physical gatherings will be especially noticeable starting April 23, during Ramadan, the month of spiritual discipline when Muslims come together for nightly meals to break their fast. MAPS typically holds its annual fundraising event around the start of Ramadan, creating the additional challenge this year of raising funds without an in-person gathering.

MAPS has also taken its educational programs online during the outbreak, and is considering shifting to a hybrid approach, in person and online, even if restrictions on public gatherings are lifted by the fall.

“We adapt,” Jamal said, “and we’re trying to make the most of the situation that we’re in.”

Church technology startups meet the demand

The current circumstances have also created a flurry of activity for startups and other companies that specialize in technology for churches and religious organizations.

Subsplash, a 170-person Seattle-based company that provides custom mobile apps, websites, donation features, and other technology for churches, recently acquired StreamSpot, a Cincinatti-based provider of video streaming services, expanding its video offerings beyond on-demand programming and into live streaming. It was Subsplash’s second acquisition in recent months.

Subsplash CEO Tim Turner. (Subsplash Photo)

The company accelerated its plans to integrate the StreamSpot technology after recognizing the increase in demand that would result from social distancing and bans on large gatherings.

“I do feel like it’s very providential that God opened the door for us to meet them, merge them in with us, and then within a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic started happening,” said Subsplash founder and CEO Tim Turner. “In a matter of weeks, we got a huge amount of that integration done because we pivoted so many people on our team to make that happen really quickly.”

Turner expects the current situation to cause churches to adopt technology more, well, religiously. While they may feel like they have no choice right now, once they start using technology more widely, they will see it makes a difference, and helps to accelerate everything that they’re doing, he said.

Faithlife CEO Bob Pritchett

Bellingham, Wash.-based Faithlife has seen a slight decline in sales of its core Bible software, due to the cancellation of in-person conferences where it typically makes a large number of sales. But interest in the 400-person company’s digital offerings for churches — including website hosting, messaging, and video tools — has been “through the roof,” said Faithlife CEO Bob Pritchett.

“We’ve been cross-training salespeople, moving people from one team to another,” he said. “We’ve had people working extra hours on the weekend. It’s been crazy on church products.”

As the crisis unfolded, Faithlife also accelerated its efforts to build a native live-streaming platform to meet demand from churches, expanding beyond its previous support for live streaming through third-party services such as Facebook and YouTube.

Pritchett also foresees a long-term impact on churches as a result of the current crisis.

“We’re all going to go back. We’re not going to stay in our homes forever,” he said. “This has really helped me understand that. I’m just craving being out with people and out in the world. But I think digital can complement that. And what digital can do is fill in the gaps of that communication to keep relationships up.”

Pritchett pointed to research from the Barna Group showing that giving is down overall during the crisis, but online participation is up, and more than half of pastors expect church attendance to rise after the crisis compared to the periods prior to COVID-19.

‘An amazing, amazing, blessing from God’

Sheikh Abdirahman Kaariye

Sheikh Abdirahman Kaariye, the Imam in Bothell, Wash., who holds regular discussions and sermons on Facebook Live, says he’s thankful that the technology infrastructure is at a stage of its evolution to support live streaming and other forms of digital communication during the crisis.

“Imagine if we were in 2005, where we didn’t have live streaming, we didn’t have this amazing broadband,” he said. “It’s just an amazing, amazing, blessing from God.”

At the same time, he hopes we’ll all be less-tempted to look at our smartphones when we have the opportunity to talk with people in person again. “This situation has taught us to value the time that we’re going to be together and the gatherings that we have, the moments that we have together.”

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