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April 3, 2020

How religions around the world are keeping the faith during COVID-19

COVID-19 has rocked everyday life for people around the world, requiring religious communities to shift worship at a time that many consider the most holiest of the year.

Daily and weekly services at churches, synagogues, mosques and temples have transitioned to take place in the home with family members as many places of prayer are closed for the first time in their history.

Experts from Michigan State University’s Department of Religious Studies discuss how different religions have adapted centuries-long traditions to adhere to social distancing, and how they’ve adopted technology to allow people to continue worshipping.

Mohammad Khalil, professor of religious studies and director of MSU’s Muslim Studies program:
“Friday prayers have been canceled at mosques throughout the United States and the world; and this is the first time that many mosques have canceled Friday prayer services.

“Mosques are typically open for five daily prayers and now that many are closed, people who are used to praying daily congregational prayers are now praying individually or with their families.

“As an alternative, some mosques are streaming devotional lectures/lessons during the time of Friday prayer, but most are careful not to call it Friday, or Jum'ah, prayer since the assumption is that people will come together physically to perform this particular weekly prayer.

"Beyond virtual lectures, Muslim communities are utilizing online technology in other ways. Some, for instance, are using social media to raise funds and provide services for those in need."

Laura Yares, assistant professor of religious studies:

“American Jews have been adapting to the current health crisis by taking different kinds of religious practice and community gathering online, from song sessions for young children to Talmud learning for adults.

“Traditional Jewish law requires 10 adult males to be physically present in a room for daily prayer services. This health crisis has compelled a unique reframing of Jewish law to think about technology as a new modality of physical presence. This has enabled prayer services to be conducted by counting 10 people in a ‘Zoom room’ as a reinterpretation of Jewish laws about physical presence. 

“Passover begins on April 8, which typically is marked by gathering together with friends and family for the Passover Seder. Traditional Jews maintain strict prohibitions around technology on Jewish holidays, but this current crisis has led rabbis to reconsider the Jewish law in this area too. The highest value in Judaism is the value of preserving human life, and recognizing that being alone for this holiday could pose a threat to both physical and mental health, many Jews are choosing to adapt their typical practice and conduct virtual Seders using technology like Zoom and Google hangouts.”

Arthur Versluis, professor and chair, Department of Religious Studies:

“American Buddhism tended to already be highly technologically savvy before the novel coronavirus, so many groups or organizations transitioned swiftly to online meditation workshops and seminars.

“Group or organizational events that in the past would have been hosted in a particular Buddhist center sometimes were both in-person and streamed online before the current health crisis, hence the swift transition was not that surprising. There is a Tibetan Buddhist center in Ann Arbor, for instance, whose events were shifted to online almost immediately after the virus became an issue. While early to be certain, this shift may well have longer-term implications for American Buddhist practitioners.”

David Stowe, professor of religious studies: 

"As you would expect, given their longstanding tendency to use innovative technology to reach their members and potential members, Christian churches have been proactive and creative in devising virtual worship services. In fact, many churches already had streaming services for people not in the sanctuary, so it was not a difficult shift to make. I have been contributing Lansing-area samples to the American Religious Soundscape Project described by my colleague Amy DeRogatis (see below).

"I’ve noticed how the virtual services evolved from the very beginning of the pandemic shutdown, when a few key people met in the sanctuary — typically the minister, organist, camera operator and in some cases, a small choir or soloist — to produce a streamed synchronous service in real-time while maintaining some social distance. Within a week, the approach shifted to individuals recording segments of the service at home, which would then be spliced together. Such services would stream “live” at the regular Sunday morning time but then become available on YouTube to watch at any time. Ministers have made an effort to include lay members as scripture readers or deliverers of children’s sermons. I’ve also seen more sophisticated use of virtual choirs, where members record their individual vocal tracks and then share them via, where they’re mixed to create a multi-part anthem.

"On the other hand, surprisingly, one church I’ve been monitoring still conducts a live skeleton service at the regular time on Sunday morning which includes two pastors, organist and soloist — maintaining social distance of course — but operating from their usual positions in the narthex. And the local Greek Orthodox church has simply canceled all services “until further notice,” directing members to other churches which do stream worship.

"I expect there is a broad continuum among churches ranging from maintaining a 'live' feel in a familiar setting to the perhaps more risk-free approach of mixing segments recorded in isolation at home or possibly suspending worship altogether."

Amy DeRogatis, professor of religion and American culture:
In partnership with The Ohio State University, Derogatis is leading the American Religious Sounds Project. The ARSP educates the public on American religious diversity by listening to its sounds. It includes hundreds of recordings of formal and informal sounds of religious institutions, including prayer, chanting and hymns sourced from places of all kinds – from churches to mosques, interfaith chapels to college football games.

“We are currently crowd-sourcing religious sounds of COVID-19 and expect to hear innovative ways that religious communities are responding to the health crisis – especially with major holidays coming up soon. We would love to have contributions from anyone who is participating in a religious community virtually or would like to share reflections on how the pandemic has impacted their religious or spiritual practices.”


By: Caroline Brooks

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