Many online faith services in B.C. reporting surge in worshippers during COVID church closures
Number of new worshippers flocking to online worship has "doubled or tripled," bishop says
A B.C. bishop says the number of people now following Anglican church services online is often "double or triple" the number of worshippers who used to fill pews before the pandemic.
Bishop Lincoln McKoen oversees 17 Anglican parishes in B.C. from Merritt to Prince George.
McKoen says coming together in person is definitely a source of strength for the faith community.
However, speaking three weeks after public health officials suspended in-person faith gatherings, the Kamloops-based church leader says new worshippers are now flocking online.
"We are seeing, on the whole, a lot more people engaging through Facebook than were attending in person, and some parishes are even getting visitors from overseas," the bishop said. "These are people who may not ever engage [with a church] in person."
McKoen, 44, says he is from the "early edge of the internet generation, which is definitely much more likely to engage online.
Inside St Michael's and All Angels Church in Prince George, Anglican minister Alexis Saunders pre-records a church service to be posted on Facebook and YouTube on Sunday morning.
Saunders used to minister in Vancouver's inner city, the Downtown Eastside. She's also the priest for a tiny country church in Woodpecker, south of Prince George, where parishioners call her the Vicar of Woodpecker.
Now, she's leading worshippers online from a church in downtown Prince George.
"I have found this a bit odd," said Saunders, as a masked parishioner with a cellphone prepared to film the service, the tripod set up four metres from the pulpit.
The Prince George church used to average about 40 in-person Sunday worshippers, before the pandemic.
Now, said Saunders, "we could have maybe up to 200 additional people watching our services online, a lot more people joining us online than there were sitting in the pews.
"During this pandemic, there's a lot of people realizing that faith is important and so they're joining us," she said.
Philomena Hughes plays a vital role in broadcasting the minister's words beyond the church walls. The church parishioner volunteered to film the sermons and prayers that are growing in popularity.
"I'm nervous because if something goes wrong, I feel like everybody's watching," said Hughes. "Once we had no audio for the entire service and didn't know until it was posted online. Another time, my cellphone conked out."
But Hughes said her work is important. Watching another church's online service, Hughes said she was delighted to see the minister's familiar face.
"I feel assured I can get through this, with just this calm connection," said Hughes.
Across town at Trinity United Church, Rev. Dr. Bob Fillier is seeing the same connections and a surge in followers.
His church streams prayer sessions and sermons on five different platforms. Listeners with landlines can also call in to listen.
Fillier says about 110 people used to fill his church before the pandemic.
"Now, we have a growing congregation, 300 to 400 people connecting, literally from across Canada," he said.
"Digital ministry is one of the growing edges of religion," he said. "When the printing press came out, all of a sudden the churches started printing pamphlets. Now that there's live-streaming, we stream."
All three religious leaders agree that some form of online worship will likely continue after the pandemic.
Bishop McKeon says personal engagement, congregation and community are vital to Christian theology.
"Still, I suspect that once we're allowed to gather again fully and vaccines are totally distributed, I believe that there will still be a virtual component," he said. "I believe people will attend church and churches will continue to live-stream their services."
At a Sikh temple in Prince George, Guru Nanak Durbar secretary Pal Bassi is eager to reopen. For now, Bassi said, several hundred members are following Sunday services from home on Facebook.
"It's a very tough time…. Everyone knows it's hard," said Bassi.