The COVID pandemic disrupted life for the religious communities in Oak Park and River Forest as well as for the rest of society, especially when meeting in person became impossible, but many area churches and synagogues responded to the crisis with digital creativity.
Emily Gage, one of the ministers at Unity Temple, summed the past two years by saying, “It’s been a series of seemingly endless pivots around how we do pretty much everything.” Fr. Carl Morello, Pastor of the combined St. Giles and St. Catherine/St. Lucy Parish, reported, “One of the biggest changes since covid is the number of folks attending mass. We were at 1,100 and now see about half that on a good Sunday since the mask wearing was lifted or made optional.”
All of the congregations in town stopped holding in person worship for a time. Regarding Gage’s “pretty much everything,” Rev. Marti Scott, pastor of Euclid Ave. United Methodist Church in Oak Park, put at the top of her list of losses during the lockdown the “inability to embrace one another, especially in times of sorrow and loss.”
Rev. David Lyle, senior pastor of Grace Lutheran in River Forest, said that attendance dropped before and after the complete lock down, but he said that the virus was not the only cause. Worship attendance in many if not most congregations had been declining for decades. He explained, “The pandemic did not single-handedly lower attendance and participation in worship services and related ministries; it exacerbated trends that have long been tracking downward.
One major pivot for every faith community which responded to questions for this article was to increase their use of online services. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church spent just short of $20,000 on equipment, including two cameras, three computers, two monitors and switchboxes. Rabbi Yitzchok Bergstein at the Chabad Center said that from a traditional Jewish perspective, “we don’t turn on any electronics on the Sabbath or on holidays” but that they have used zoom for meetings.
Glass half full/half empty. Local clergy reported that many good things have happened because they’ve gone online. Rev. Gerald Hiestand, the pastor of Calvary Memorial Church said, “We began streaming for the first time during the pandemic, and we are grateful for how it allowed our congregation to stay connected during a difficult season. The quality of our stream has improved considerably since that time, and our elderly shut ins, who are no longer able to attend church, are very grateful to have a way of connecting to our church.”
Rev. Gage said that at Unity Temple “we’ve made a commitment to provide multi-platform engagement whenever possible–for worship and for other gatherings. We’ve had people be able to engage from afar and enabled participation from people who find it challenging to be on-site or at the actual time of worship. Live-streaming and posting the recording has expanded engagement in a new way.”
“At first,” said Good Shepherd’s pastor Kathy Nolte, “it was just to connect people who were part of the congregation. We now understand that it’s moved us to a whole different place, that the live stream was a way to connect people who were already connected, and it’s now become a window into who we are for people who are looking for a church. We’re trying to move it to the next level of how do we engage a community that is digital and might remain digital. We all looked down at the TV evangelists, saying that’s not real ministry and now suddenly there are echoes of that here at Good Shepherd.”
Rev. Hiestand’s reaction to online worship was more negative, saying that zoom was fine as a temporary measure “but not as a long-term solution. Polls show that many regular church attenders during the pandemic have given up on attending church all together. Prolonged physical isolation from the gathered body of Christ will ultimately lead to isolation from Christ. Ultimately, Christianity is not just an ideology, or a religion of morals; it is a religion of experience—an experience of God, of his people, and of his sacraments.”
Rev. Lyle agree with his colleague saying, “Streaming services are here to stay, at least for now, but remote connections are not the same as in-person connections. Christians worship Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the in-person God. In his name, we are called to be together as the body of Christ. To be sure, this body transcends space and time, but we also incarnate Christ’s body in real time, in real places. We cannot fully live out our faith only in remote or virtual spaces.”
Mati Scott, Pastor at Euclid Methodist Church answered the question, can we successfully do religion without gathering physically together, by saying, “We will. We need to. It will be different.”
Pastor Nolte talked about Good Shepherd becoming a hybrid church which is presently 80-90 in person and 20 online every Sunday. She is more encouraged about online worship than some of her colleagues but added, “We can we do religion successfully without being together but there needs to be intentionality. Christianity has always had a communal aspect to it. You can build community through digital means but you have to do it with intentionality.”