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Interfaith Voices: How COVID changed religious services

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It’s no secret that the churches in our community have taken pretty different approaches to COVID-19. Some mostly kept worshipping in person through the pandemic. Some, like ours, last worshipped in person in March 2020. Most, I suspect, have fallen somewhere in between.

While our church has been worshipping on Zoom, I read a comment on Facebook that seemed to be an indictment of a local congregation that has also been worshipping exclusively online. I don’t remember everything written in the comment, but I remember a line that went something like this: “Mark my words: Because of what you’re doing, you’ll be changed forever.”

At first, the line made me angry. My immediate temptation was to comment back with something along the lines of: “You know what can change people forever? Suffering potentially long-term damage from COVID. Becoming a COVID long hauler. Dying. Forever knowing that someone you love died because you didn’t take science-based precautions.” Not very pastoral, I know. But wherever we fall on the spectrum of how we respond to COVID, I think we’ve all had big feelings about those we disagree with. I can’t pretend that being a pastor has made me some kind of superhuman exception.

But as I (fortunately) thought more about how I wanted to respond, I actually came to be grateful for that comment. I still don’t feel grateful for what seems to have been its intention, but I know that if I’d never read it, I might never have asked myself: At our church, have we been changed forever by how we responded to COVID?

Because as anyone who has been coming regularly to our Zoom services would probably tell you, the answer is a pretty resounding “Yes!” Yes, we have been changed by our response to COVID.

As we started Zoom church, we worried, “How will we continue to stay close with one another when we’re all on a screen?” Now, miraculously, we’re asking, “How can we make sure that we’ll still pray so personally with one another when we go back to in-person church?” As we started Zoom church, we worried, “How can we possibly engage our kids in worship through a screen?” Now, miraculously, we’re asking, “How can we transport our favorite part of the service — when the kids all share their various artistic creations—back to in-person church?” As we started Zoom church, we asked, “How will God renew us when we’ve just had to cancel the in-person renewal workshop we were about to hold?” Now, miraculously, we’re asking, “How can we make sure that all the renewal we’ve been experiencing in the past year and a half will stick?”

In other words, we’re saying, “Yes! We have been changed!” And then we’re praying, “God, please help us to figure out how to make sure that we have, indeed, been changed forever!”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Zoom church has always been easy for all of us. It doesn’t mean that I think our response has been perfect. In fact, those who argue we’ve been excessively careful could be right. And it also doesn’t mean that I’m in a position to tell every other church in town that they should’ve done exactly what we did. I don’t know all the details of each church’s situation.

But it does mean that the testimony God has given me to share is this: That in choosing to respect what COVID could do to us and our neighbors, we were, indeed, changed. And now, we’re praying that God will help us to make sure those changes last forever.

Peter J. H. Epp is the pastor of Albany Mennonite Church. He, his partner Shanda, and their oldest two children, Oliver (6) and Ruthie (4), have been changed forever by a year of homeschool lessons about beans, countless FaceTime bedtime stories from Mimi and Papa in Canada, and the arrival of their very own COVID baby, Sophia Lucille (4 months).


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