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Amid the pandemic, are Americans virtually church-hopping out of ease or envy?

New findings from Pew Research Center say that around 60% of those attending virtual services have viewed those of another congregation

Pastor Nicolas Sanchez is seen on his iPhone used to live-stream in celebration of Easter Vigil Mass at St. Patrick Church in North Hollywood, Calif., on Saturday, April 11, 2020.
Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Born to Jamaican parents in Queens, New York City, and raised in a Black church, Navine Griffiths never imagined herself attending religious services in the Deep South — in Alabama, of all places. But when life went virtual in March, her worship did, too.

Griffiths, a middle school science teacher who today lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, with her husband and their two children, now uses Friday nights to catch up on the Sunday services of the congregation she attended before the pandemic, Family Church, a nondenominational megachurch just up the road.

On Saturdays, she Zooms into The Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York, her childhood church in Queens, a borough that was hard-hit by COVID-19.

Sundays are special. She saves them for Alabama’s Transformation Church, where preachers offer sermons Griffiths describes as “different” and “a free-for-all.”

New findings from Pew Research Center suggest that Griffiths isn’t alone in her church hopping habits.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival in the U.S. and widespread restrictions on in-person religious gatherings, 72% of those who attended services at least once a month prior to the outbreak say they have watched them online in the last month. And of those worshipping virtually, a whopping 59% are peeking in at the live streams or videos of congregations other than their own.

Griffiths and other worshippers say they’ve learned a lot from the spiritual exploration made possible by the pandemic. But some religious leaders worry about the lasting impact church hopping will have on their congregations.

“Crazy Faith”

Griffiths explains that she was drawn to Alabama’s Transformation Church because of its “Crazy Faith” YouTube series.

In “Crazy Faith,” Pastor Michael Todd and guest preachers “talk about everything,” Griffiths says, including things “some people don’t want to talk about” like relationships and sex and homosexuality. The moving and often humorous sermons help reframe familiar biblical stories and concepts.

“What’s crazy in one season will be counted as faith in another,” the Rev. Todd explains in one video, discussing the story of Noah. “Nobody thought Noah had any sense until it started raining.”

That Griffiths could tune in via YouTube was also part of the draw. And now the broadcasts of the sermons are making a real difference in her daily life.

As she watches the recorded services on Sundays from the comfort of her home, she’s taken to jotting down the pastor’s words on index cards — something she wouldn’t do if she was physically in the church and trying to care for her second grader and toddler.

Laid back and soft-spoken, Griffiths is preternaturally calm and cool; her broad smile comes easy and often. But even this unflappable woman finds herself overwhelmed during the week when her husband is at work and she’s home alone with the kids while trying to prepare for the upcoming school year. When Griffiths is on the verge, she immediately stops what she’s doing and turns to the index cards, which she has tacked up in neat columns on a bulletin board.

For Griffiths, sheltering in place has spurred a period of profound self-growth. “Now that we have this pandemic and you’re stuck at home all the time, you’re thinking more about yourself and you want to be better,” she says.

Congregating while cooking

Bekki Verdin, a therapist by training who is now a stay-at-home mom to two young children, is attending virtual services at multiple churches because it’s convenient to do so.

“I can’t say I’ve sat there and watched a whole sermon,” says Verdin, whose children are ages 4 and 1. “I have it on in the background while I’m making breakfast.”

Verdin says she and her family are “going back to the word” in these difficult times. Many of the services she’s found online “are definitely encouraging,” she reflects, as are those of her home church.

But Verdin is quick to add that her curiosity isn’t unique to the pandemic. Even before the coronavirus hit, Verdin and her family did occasionally spend a Sunday at a second church. Though she’s dabbling more now that she did before, when life returns to normal Verdin anticipates returning to Christ Fellowship, largely because of the community she’s found there.

Pew’s research bears this out. Most respondents indicated they would return to their home church when the pandemic is over.

But, for Verdin, that return might be virtual, at least in part. “We kind of have the routine now that while the kids are in bed, we’re doing the virtual (services),” she says.

‘Spiritual envy’

While Griffiths and Verdin aren’t the only believers praying and worshipping more often these days, Pew’s survey found that a tremendous majority of Christians, white and African American alike, are turning first and foremost to TV and movies for comfort.

Ninety percent of Christians overall say they’re turning to the tube for solace, 85% are going outdoors and 74% are praying, the survey showed.

When the numbers are broken down by denomination, prayer wins out over nature in some groups. For example, respondents affiliated with historically Black churches are praying more than any other group at 88%. African Americans also reported meditating in the largest numbers, with 43% of respondents saying that they have done so at least weekly.

Jewish Americans are slightly more likely to turn to the outdoors (91%) than to screens (87%) for comfort. Jews also had the highest proportion of respondents say they’re exercising to deal with the stress (76%). And while a majority of Christian respondents are praying in these times, only 36% of Jews report that they are praying, Pew found.

Eli Cohn-Wein, a Dallas-based Jewish chef, defies some of these trends. Cohn-Wein told the Deseret News he has stepped up his religious practice since COVID-19 hit. He started an online Talmud study group for 20- and 30-somethings. Albeit virtually, Cohn-Wein is also going to more services than he did before March, mostly because he’s seeing more in his social media feeds.

“The ease of access has multiplied out my ability” to attend synagogue, Cohn-Wein explains. “I don’t have to seek it out.”

It’s a fairly simple decision, he adds, “I could watch ‘The Office’ again or I could listen to a sound I find very relaxing.”

Cohn-Wein points out another benefit of virtual services: “I don’t have to worry about seeing someone I don’t want to talk to.”

Most Friday nights, he tunes into his home synagogue’s virtual services or those led by a friend of his in Chicago. On Saturday mornings, Cohn-Wein says, if he happens on a service as he’s scrolling through Facebook, “I’m like, ‘Why not?’ and I put it on in the background.’”

While Cohn-Wein hasn’t checked out the services of other faiths, he would be open to it: “We should have a healthy amount of spiritual envy. We should find the ways other religions connect to God and figure out how we can better connect to God through their example.”

Cohn-Wein adds that his virtual exploration of other synagogues isn’t new. When Cohn-Wein and his wife moved to Texas from New York, they joined a local reform synagogue for the High Holidays. “We weren’t thrilled. … They had a choir in the balcony that was singing down from up on high and the cantors were singing in an octave we couldn’t reach. I was being prayed at and not prayed with.”

Since then, he’s been Zooming in to High Holiday services in Chicago. “I sat at home on my laptop and followed along with that service and found it very meaningful,” Cohn-Wein recalls.

“Listen closely. Does it promote life?”

The Deseret News spoke to Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and nondenominational pastors in Florida, Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma, as well as a Catholic priest in Utah, about the pandemic-fueled surge in church hopping.

All agreed that, in this time of crisis, tending to the soul is, ultimately, a good thing. Nonetheless, they all had some concerns.

The Rev. Lisa Hunt, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, says she understands why some pastors fear competition right now. More progressive churches like hers sometimes feel like they’re behind in the game of using technology to reach out to worshippers since they didn’t embrace this approach as early as evangelical groups.

Viewers, she adds, expect high quality productions, similar to the media that they already consume online. Creating such content in the midst of a global pandemic is a challenge. And mistakes can be costly, especially in light of Pew’s finding that 18% of those who attend services report donating less money to their religious institutions than they did prior to the outbreak.

Still, she wants her congregants to explore. “Curiosity is one of our core values,” the Rev. Hunt says. “We’re not afraid to encourage our parishioners to see what else is out there. It will enrich our parish because we’ll come to know each other.” From a theological perspective, she reflects, engaging “across differences breaks down siloing.”

The Rev. Hunt adds that attending other virtual services “doesn’t diminish (congregants’) commitment” to their home church. “Going to a different community is a way of broadening and deepening awareness of each other and, in terms of unity, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Similarly, Pastor Steve Winsor of Nativity Lutheran Church in West Palm Beach, Florida, supports parishioners’ efforts to shore themselves up spiritually even if that means attending another church’s virtual services. But, at the same time, he’s concerned about the financial implications.

“As the pastor of a community of faith that seeks and does good in the community, I hope their financial resources don’t trail off with their attention,” the Rev. Winsor admits “Love is not finite. But money, that other thing that has so much power in this world, can influence the flow of love.”

“Selfishly, I want people to only hear what’s going on here because I want them invested here,” he adds. “But, if their faith leads them elsewhere, then that’s where they should go. I’m not territorial. I can’t hold somebody hostage for wanting to listen to the Baptists.”

However, the Rev. Winsor warns that church-hoppers should be careful about what sort of teachings they consume.

“I had a seminary professor that said anytime you draw a line in the sand between yourself and another, you have placed Jesus on the other side of that line with them,” he says. Preachings need “to be scrutinized closely, put through the line in the sand test.”

The Rev. Winsor adds, “Unless it’s bringing light into somebody’s life, it’s stoking fires of destructiveness. Listen closely. Does it promote life?”

Very Rev. Martin Diaz celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
The Very Rev. Martin Diaz celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Father Martin Diaz from Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine says he’s less troubled by church members checking out other places or even denominations —“Catholic identity tends to be very strong,” he remarks — and more concerned about those who aren’t participating in any sort of virtual services these days.

“I would like them to Zoom in and do something,” he says.

But Father Diaz doesn’t want people to get so comfortable with virtual worship that they never return. “I think the worry for all of us ministers is that people will get used to being online,” he says.

Similarly, Pastor Nathan Rose of Liberty Baptist Church in Liberty, Missouri, argues that attending virtual worship should only be a temporary habit.

Referring to the Greek word for church “ecclesia,” which means assembly, the Rev. Rose explains that a church is “a group of people who gather together. That’s the fundamental nature of a church. If you can’t physically gather, you can’t do church.”

“I’ve heard people use the language, ‘I’m going to church online’ and I cringe,” he adds. “I don’t want people to think you can not meet with people and turn on your computer.”

At the same time, because the pandemic is a “unique situation,” the Rev. Rose says, Liberty Baptist is offering recorded devotionals as well as a livestream. “We want to provide some accommodations for people but we also recognize that this is not what God intends. God doesn’t intend for Christians to be alone and isolated and substitute an online service for an actual church service.”

Father Diaz is quick to point out, however, that not everyone has broadband or even computers. And this leads him to interrogate studies like the one conducted by Pew.

Speaking generally, he says, “A lot of the research focuses on white folks who have access. (Some) Spanish-speaking people don’t have computers. They have phones. Have you ever watched mass on a phone? It’s not very interesting.”

Those people will return to brick and mortar churches after the pandemic, Father Diaz is certain. Pew’s research says the same. According to the survey, most Americans plan to resume their pre-pandemic religious practice, and people were more likely to say they’ll attend services “more often” than “less often.” Those who attend historically Black churches came in particularly high on this measure, with 23% saying they’ll go to church “more often” and only 8% answering “less often.”

“The first time that we reopen we have to have brass, we have to have trumpets,” Father Diaz says. It will be a “huge celebration of ‘welcome back.’”

When the pandemic is over, Griffiths intends to return to her local congregation. “I do miss going to church and being around people,” she reflects. But she’s quick to add that she’ll keep up with “Crazy Faith,” too.