American worship in the time of pandemic

The number of people searching for "prayer" on Google in March was higher than at any time in the last five years. As deaths from COVID-19 mounted and places of worship closed across the globe, the intensity of searches grew right along with the fear.

The findings from a Danish researcher are a poignant reminder that the social distancing required to keep people alive during a pandemic is anathema for religion in a time of crisis. Saudi Arabia has closed the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners. Pope Francis has preached to an empty St. Peter's Square in Rome. In India, Hindus were told to avoid an annual pilgrimage.

This weekend, Christians celebrate Easter, which along with Good Friday is the most holy time of year for adherents. Jews are also marking Passover, and the holy month of Ramadan arrives for Muslims just two weeks later. But with most of the 350,000 churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and shrines across America shuttered to visitors, the faithful and religious leaders have been forced to find other ways to worship.

Not unexpectedly, many are turning to social media and the internet - YouTube, Facebook - as well as old-fashioned media such as television and radio. There are even drive-up services akin to drive-in movies to try and fill the spiritual void created by the virus. Some Catholic churches are allowing drive-up confession as well.

A small number of congregations are continuing to meet in person, despite the deadly risk to worshipers and in defiance of state orders. But even those numbers are dwindling as the seriousness of the pandemic becomes clear even to those who have resisted warnings, said Brad Fulton, an assistant professor at Indiana State University who studies the management of religious organizations.

"Part of the reason why people are hungering for worship services right now is because they're in the midst of a crisis, just like right after 9/11," he said. But this time, the reality is different - and worse - for those turning to religion for comfort.

"This particular crisis inhibits people from actually congregating or coming together," Fulton said. As a result, religious leaders have been coming "up with an innovative, creative way to honor the social distancing edicts, but also maintain the religious rituals that are important to a faith community."

The hiatus from group worship comes as religion in America, particularly the Christian faiths, is already struggling. Some 43% of U.S. adults identify as Protestant, down from 51% in 2009, and the number of self-identifying Catholics has dipped to 20% from 23% in the same period, according to the Pew Research Center. Those who consider themselves atheist or agnostic now make up about 9% of the population, double that of a decade ago. And a majority of adults who attend religious services say they only do so a few times a year or less, while 45% say they go at least monthly.

The question remains whether the shutdown of religious institutions across the country will create a resurgence in faith or hasten its decline, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the prominent Baptist minister and civil rights activist. Sharpton convened a call with the heads of the largest black churches earlier this month to urge them not to conduct holy week services in person. He said that exposing congregants to the danger of infection flies in the face of Christian values. A pastor in Louisiana and another in Florida were recently arrested for holding services in defiance of coronavirus-based shutdown orders.

"If we are who we say we are, how do we not stand up and not say, 'this is the sacrifice we have to make'?" Sharpton said in an interview. "They are having virtual services. People can give online. You've got the possibility of growth from the people assessing the things that are important, that they took for granted."

Donations to African American congregations are likely to be most affected by the cessation of in-person worship services, said Fulton. He is also co-director of the National Study of Congregations' Economic Practices, which analyzes how religious congregations receive, manage and spend their financial resources. On average, congregations receive 78 percent of their donations at worship services, while black churches, at 88 percent, are even more dependent on giving. Only about 46 percent of congregations have some form of online donation, he said.

"The fact that only 46 percent of congregations have an online portal for giving is a significant and particularly problematic right now," Fulton said.