When the pandemic shut down most of the world’s churches in March, pastor Dave Rohrer knew he couldn’t just sit there and stew in his darkened Bothell sanctuary.
So like a lot of church leaders — and people across all walks of life — he turned himself overnight into an internet broadcaster.
“People told me my first sermon had the feel and quality of one of those al-Qaida hostage videos,” says Rohrer, of Emmanuel Presbyterian in Bothell.
Ditto Seattle’s St. James Cathedral, which, despite being the signature Catholic parish for the Northwest, had not live streamed its Sunday masses before. On their first try after closing the church, the video starts out with the entire frame tilted 90 degrees on its side.
“At the beginning it brought out the Irish fatalist worst in me,” says Father Michael Ryan, of St. James. “I was thinking: if we can’t meet, how will we possibly keep this community together?”
But a curious thing happened on the pandemic path to disaster. Some churches have sued, insisting they can’t worship and so their constitutional rights are being violated. “Gov Inslee: ‘Let our people go to church!’” reads a release from the conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington, which supports the lawsuit.
At the same time, though, others are reporting that interest and attendance at their churches has actually gone … up?
“It’s been a pretty wild ride,” Rohrer says. “This crisis forced us into new areas that — I can’t believe I’m saying this — have turned out to be wonderful.”
That first rickety sideways video of Mass at St. James, shot on a staffer’s iPhone, drew 23,000 views and more than 1,000 approving comments. The cathedral seats about 1,200.
“I started getting emails from around the country, from around the world,” Ryan says. “They said things like ‘I feel more closely connected to the Mass online,’ ” he said. “Or: ‘I feel as if you’re speaking directly to me.’ ”
St. James, which before coronavirus hosted about 2,500 people per weekend at five Masses, has cut that to two livestreamed Sunday services during the pandemic, still shot on just an iPhone. These Masses draw about 10,000 views online across two video platforms, with more than 35,000 for the Easter weekend Masses.
“Hello Seattle from Texas, thank you for the privilege of hearing Mass,” reads a typical comment.
Translating video views to in-person attendance is tricky, because on some platforms, a view can be as little as three seconds of watching. But combined with other metrics, they suggest to Ryan that attendance has at minimum been sustained and is likely higher during one of the longest closures in church history.
Rohrer says his little church has actually gained new members, even as the physical church has been shuttered.
After the “hostage video” misfire of his first online attempt, Rohrer decided to try more of a Zoom conference call prayer meeting. These have been a hit because of their intimacy, and now draw equal or more attendees than the old in-person Sunday services, including new members Zooming in from seven states.
“People are sharing on Zoom at a level that is far deeper than when we were all together in the same sanctuary room,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll go back when this is over, not entirely. It’s become clear to us that these were things we needed to be trying anyway.”
More than half of protestant pastors in a survey said their attendance counter intuitively went up after their churches were shuttered, with one-quarter saying attendance was “much higher,” according to Religion News. Giving, though, was down. It’s kind of like the newspaper industry: more readers, less money.
St. James already has held one in-person Mass, limited to 100 and convened outside, as allowed under Gov. Jay Inslee’s newer rules for reopening. But the first comment left on the video instructions for that gathering was telling: “You’re going to keep streaming Mass, aren’t you?”
“I do get the feeling that people feel very personally connected to these online liturgies,” Ryan said. “It’s been surprising to me. I suppose we’ve found a new calling.”
He added that his experience during the coronavirus shutdown has been the opposite of that expressed in the religious-freedom lawsuits.
“I’ve never felt any resentment about a restriction on our freedom,” he said. “What ended up happening is that you lose one thing, yes. But you gain another.”
We focus mostly on the bad in this space, and lately, let’s face it, the news has been apocalyptically bad. I’m not religious, but it’s heartening to me that these churches not only didn’t curl up in a ball, or well up with grievance to the point of suing, but somehow found ways to turn the coronavirus lockdown into a sort of gift.
St. James has been through this before, it turns out, as the cathedral was also shuttered by order of the government for about two months back in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. A history of that period on its website hits close to home today.
“We have come through a trying time with some losses, losses of life and losses of wealth,” it reads. “But we have found out something about ourselves that is worth knowing.”