In the midst of a global pandemic, many have turned to religion as a way to alleviate the worst effects of social isolation and seek hope. With temples and churches closed around the world, priests and pastors have successfully moved their services online, with their streams reaching thousands of believers and potentially revitalizing their faith during dark times.
In Brazil, as well as in other parts of the world, religious leaders are noting a growth in the audiences of their services, while singing priests, a very noticeable Brazilian phenomenon, have been successful in holding the faithful together.
Religious leaders have been investing in technology for quite some time, much of it centered on facial recognition—especially as a way to keep tabs on the faithful inside places of worship and ensure attendance and the paying of tithes—which has been instrumental in keeping the work of religious leaders alive during recent times of social isolation.
Not only do religious leaders notice a growth in the audience at religious services, but also those who now can attend multiple religious services and choose which ones their prefer the most.
In other parts of the world, such as U.S., online religious services also became an alternative during manded lockdowns. “I remember Bishop Barron articulating in no uncertain terms the necessity of evangelizing online,” says Rev. John LoCoco, from the Holy Family Catholic Community in Wisconsin. “The public square has moved almost entirely to the digital sphere and, as such, we have been tasked with bringing the Gospel to where the people are meeting.”
The phenomenon is also not restricted to a single religious denomination.
Latino Rebels spoke with priests, pastors, and a leader of Umbanda, a Brazilian religion that synthesizes various elements of Christianity and African religions, to understand the changes brought about by the immediate need to conduct services online.
“Several churches already used different platforms such as YouTube and Instagram, including live services and celebrations,” says Ricardo Gondim, pastor of the Bethesta Church in Brazil. “The task of broadcasting, editing, etc., was usually delegated to people in the community who were more familiar with the use of these platforms (but) COVID-19 forced the leaders themselves to learn how to use apps such as Zoom.”
Father Elias Cagnoni, leader of the Umbanda temple Aldeia da Mata in São Paulo, is one of such leaders who had to learn new skills in order to reach his flock. “It was never my intention to be a YouTuber, but because of the temple and the present situation, I must,” he explains. I’m a layman in technology, but I’ve learned that we really need these tools.”
Father Elias has performed spiritual works that are streamed on the internet every week, both through YouTube and Zoom, where he also attends to the faithful and can even talk to those who have never physically attended his temple. No wonder he claims he will continue to use the internet and the tools he has learned to handle in the future—despite the obvious shortcomings, such as the lack of contact and the modification of rituals.
“While people who were not consistently attending Sunday Mass found themselves tuning in weekly for the streamed version, I am not wholly convinced that will translate to in-person participation after the pandemic,” says Rev. LoCoco.
But if low attendance ends up being a problem in the future, in the specific case of Brazil and other poor countries, “the biggest difficulties in using apps like Zoom is that many low-income people in religious communities do not have access to the tools, because they either have never used them before or simply do not even have an internet connection,” says Gondim.
Lutheran pastor Armin Andrea Hollas agrees with Gondim, noting that the pandemic revealed the unpreparedness of some communities and parishes for the complete migration to an online environment. “To worship online, many parishes do not have access to quality internet, let alone adequate equipment. The ministers are just beginning the path of (becoming) bloggers,” he says.
Some religious leaders are no strangers to technology. Father Cleiton Silva of Mogi das Cruzes in São Paulo has always invested internet services across his almost 15 years in the Church. Silva makes his WhatsApp available to all parishioners, and when the pandemic came, he says he “didn’t have this difficulty of not having contact with the people.” But he soon felt the burden of dwindling attendance and started promoting online courses, performing masses and praying the rosary on YouTube. The good thing, he says, is that through the social media, “some people in the neighborhood who hadn’t be seen in the church before began to reconnect.”
Despite the difficulties, it is not surprising that the faithful hope their pastors keep using online platforms. And many religious leaders say they intend to continue even after the end of the pandemic.
“Perhaps there will be a reduction in the use, but the virtual service is here to stay,” Hollas says.
Silva agrees, adding that “if people don’t understand the gain that the internet brings, we will go back to prehistory. There are things that we need, such as personal relationships, but that can be much more optimized if we know how to use these new technologies.”
LoCoco also adds his voice, saying that he’s “most interested in trying to join the virtual with the physical experience so that the needs of multiple generations might be met.”
They all agree that, during the worst periods of the pandemic, the great challenge is to keep the offline and online worlds functioning in parallel. A lot of time is spent preparing online activities, many parishes have difficulties with technical issues and sometimes lack money to invest in basic infrastructure. Besides, there is a generational issue, the older faithful having greater difficulty in understanding how the internet works.
But the benefits brought by migration to the online world are visible and leave many religion leaders excited about the possibilities for the future.