With COVID restrictions lifting for many of our social gatherings, places like churches wonder, will people return? We go to the source to pose that very question
By: Russell Bowers
Over the last two years, the pandemic has disrupted daily lives and rituals that many never thought possible. Most have been deprived – sometimes by mandate, sometimes by choice – the simple act of gathering together as neighbours, friends and families.
One institution that has seen restrictions affect its practices is the Church. Regardless of faith or denomination, places of worship have seen a diminished ability to comfort others and provide solitude for reflection.
However, as restrictions created obstacles, for some congregations, it has opened their eyes to new possibilities.
Reverend Amanda Taylor at St. Mark’s Anglican Church has noticed changes in how some demographics want to interact with her worship group.
‘Connection to Church’
“I don’t want to be too exclusive when I say this,” she begins, “but in a general sense, for our younger population, online is where it is for them. For my generation, we’re sort of in between and most times, there is no replacement for ‘in person.’ However, I spoke with one young person, probably 30-ish, and she made the comment, (COVID restrictions) ‘have been awesome for me because online is where I want to live.’”
Captain Sheldon Bungay of the Salvation Army has also noticed changes for his congregants.
“People’s entire connection to church, in general, has been impacted and changed,” he notes.
“What COVID has done is speed up the inevitable. We were already moving away from thinking that church only happens within the four walls of a building. That we need to get outside and make an impact on our community, and be participants in the fight for justice and all those things. (The Pandemic) really pushed us ahead. So for me, that is putting volunteers and staff in place so we can increase our online presence. We’ve moved significantly to online at the St. John’s Temple.”
For many churches, online has meant broadcasting services via Facebook and other social platforms, as well as ecclesial websites. Yet, in the case of Reverend Oliver Dingwell, the timing has been serendipitous. His congregation at Cowan Heights United is his first since his ordination as a minister.
“The Seminary did not train me for this at all!” he laughs. “I graduated with my Master of Divinity, and the last three weeks of my degree studies were completely online.
“I think an advantage I had was that I wasn’t bogged down by things having to be done a certain way. So when it came to working together and troubleshooting to find creative solutions, I didn’t have too much baggage. Cowan Heights had been without a minister for two years, so they were willing to think outside the box as we navigated the initial stages of the pandemic. We were all open to trying new things, see what was going to work, and I was so grateful for them to take those kinds of risks.”
Reverends Taylor and Dingwell, as well as Capt Bungay are all relatively new in their roles at their respective churches. None knew what their parishioners were like or expected in the days before COVID. When restrictions in the province lifted on March 14, all noticed a tentative nature to the first Sunday that followed.
“We have vulnerable people in our community; seniors, the immunocompromised, we have children, and we wanted to make sure that everyone could feel safe,” remembers Rev. Dingwall.
“We still encourage physical distancing. We’re still asking people to wear masks as they move around the building. They can remove their masks if they are comfortable once they’re seated, but this past Sunday, of the 70 people in church, only two people took their masks off.”
At the Salvation Army Temple, Capt. Bungay noticed simple acts that were once commonplace took on new meaning for the 140 people attending services on March 20.
“People were no longer offering their hand for a handshake, they were still keeping their distance a little bit,” he concedes. “In my pastoral role, showing up for people at their time of need is one of the most significant things we can do. Before, we would very quickly show up at a hospital bedside or in a person’s home. We no longer have that luxury and so a lot of our pastoral services have pivoted to online or through phone calls, distanced visits on a patio or front lawn.
“But,” he adds, “that’s key. Still showing up.”
For most Christian denominations, Good Friday and Easter Sunday occupies a special place in the liturgical calendar and as those services come closer, all three officiants anticipate the possibility of different experiences. For Rev. Taylor, Easter Sunday will be her first sermon at St. Mark’s. Plus, it will be broadcast on NTV.
“When you’re in front of a congregation, you can read the body language to know when you’re resonating with people. But if they’re reading the bulletin or counting the tiles, then you can pivot. You say to yourself, ‘I got to shake it up.’ But when you’re looking at a webcam, you don’t get that, so it’s very humbling, because all you can do is go on to Facebook and we’d look up the numbers and say, ‘Oh, look, we’ve reached, a thousand people.’”
“COVID has forced us to rethink what should the Church be doing in 2022,” adds Capt. Bungay of the Salvation Army.
“I think the days of sitting in a church expecting people to show up on our doorstep are very quickly moving beyond us. Now we need to be asking what does the Church do beyond its walls?
“And it’s not necessarily standing on a street corner with a bullhorn telling people about Christian values and what they should be doing with their lives. It’s simply coming alongside people, offering them help and hope. We need to get into the community, to remind people that they are loved – that they have their own gifts and talents and all those things are valued and loved and supported.” Ultimately, when it comes to the symbolism of Easter, much of what the world has been through is not lost on Rev. Dingwell.
See the Hope
“The Gospel of John says while it was still dark, Mary went to the tomb. That’s kind of where we are – entering this season of joy, while it’s still dark. Just because the restrictions are gone, there is still this cold around us, a heaviness, an anxiety,” Rev. Dingwell explains.
“But we can see the light before us. And we can see the hope. In theological terms, we can see the hope in resurrection, of new life, new possibilities.
“Mary in the Gospel of John, doesn’t recognize Jesus after his resurrection and so, the Church is different coming out of COVID. Unless something like the pandemic happened to force us to think in new and creative ways, we just wouldn’t be doing them. There’s some real hope here for the kind of possibilities that lie ahead.”
For more visit: ntv.ca/category/programs/sunday-services/