IMAGE: ARCHI BANAL

During lockdown, religion goes online. Can it stay there?

Faith leaders in Aotearoa are experimenting with online services and prayer during the pandemic. In the latest instalment of IRL, Shanti Mathias explores the potential – and challenges – of the digital divine.

The temple is emptier than it should be. The idols are alone. The country is in lockdown to manage the delta outbreak, and all the worshippers at Sri Venkateswara, a Hindu temple in Wainuiomata, Lower Hutt, are at home. Online, though, the bells are ringing. A priest chants prayers on the Facebook livestream, and for a moment, the screen doesn’t seem to matter: this is just another day of worship.

“When you are seeing the holy shrine via a digital channel, it’s a different experience,” says BMK Lakshminarayanan, the chair of the temple, who oversees the temple activities and performs ceremonies. But “it can still feel like you’re there”.

I do not share his faith, but as I watch the video, I can nearly smell the ghee and incense, familiar to me from a childhood visiting temples in India. A click away, though, is the rest of my Facebook feed: promoted MasterClasses, people making bread, and American Chopper memes. Is there any space for the sacred among the endless scroll of the mundane?

It’s not just Hinduism. More than half of New Zealanders say they are religious, and in lockdown, these millions try to replace their physical communities of faith with online equivalents. Around Aotearoa, faith leaders are learning to use laptops, not altars; WhatsApp, not home visits. Circumstances of necessity like the pandemic encourage technological uptake, but what challenges does online worship pose? And will it last?

Online worship requires faith leaders to work on a practical level: microphones, links, cameras. Often, the results are unsatisfactory. “Some churches are better at it than others, but unless they were good at it already, digital churches will have low production values,” says Michael Toy, a PhD student studying digital religious expressions at Victoria University of Wellington.

This is particularly true of Zoom services. Even within the uses it was designed for – business meetings where one person speaks at a time – it can easily glitch. The problems multiply when elements of worship, such as singing, praying out loud, and sharing different screens are added: people freeze in the middle of songs, the wrong person gets pinned to the main screen, and there’s an explosion of noise as people try to greet each other.

Dave Moskovitz is a shamash at Temple Sinai, a progressive Jewish congregation in Wellington. In person, a shamash (the Hebrew word for a synagogue attendant) will open the temple, arrange chairs, and organise music. When the congregation meets on Zoom, he becomes an “e-shamash”, organising a link to the meeting, and welcoming people as they arrive on screen.

The platform can be limiting. “Our members are older and not as technically literate,” Moskovitz says. “Some have trouble operating Zoom, or staying muted.”

Technical knowledge is essential for online services at the Wellington Anglican Diocese, where assistant bishop Ellie Sanderson preaches on YouTube each week; off screen, someone with a soundboard and lots of monitors can flick between her, musicians, and people giving announcements. “We are really thankful that we had people with the technical know-how to create digital services for us,” she says.

ELEANOR SANDERSON, ASSISTANT BISHOP AT THE WELLINGTON ANGLICAN DIOCESE (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

The practical facilitation of online worship has positive sides. Digital services can be vital for people who cannot come to physical services – those who live far from their places of worship, and those who are ill or have disabilities. “Would-be worshippers can’t always be present in person, for varied reasons, and there is greater recognition of the ways technology can helpfully connect people in these circumstances,” says Geoff Troughton, assistant professor of religious studies at Victoria University of Wellington, who studies contemporary religion in Aotearoa. “This will drive ongoing innovations.”

Sanderson, the Anglican bishop, knows this first hand: last year, after surgery on her neck, she couldn’t leave the house for weeks. But she still had Zoom church. “My vehicle for worship was the online service,” she says, “and I really felt that God broke my heart in fresh ways, encouraged me, spoke to my grief.”

Online prayer and teachings has also meant faith communities can expand their reach, including people who would never come to in-person gatherings on their own. “It might help for people who are new to our religion,” says Tahir Nawaz, a Muslim chaplain involved with mosques across Wellington. “They used to hesitate to come and ask questions… but now there’s an entry to online [interactions]. It definitely will help bring us together.”

Despite the tedium of muting microphones or the hilarious irreverence of accidental Zoom filters, those with a faith find that digital worlds can be a place of genuine spiritual encounter. Attesting to this is Elisa Choi, who organises “Rally” meetings with the Rice movement, an evangelical organisation focused on young Asians. She was praying with a friend before a Rally gathering, with people across Aotearoa linked via Zoom. A pastor started praying for someone with a bad ankle, asking God for healing. The prayer ended, and Choi’s friend jumped up; the pain in her ankle, which had been sprained for weeks, was gone, says Choi.

According to Choi, it’s not a one-off. “There’s so many more stories and testimonies of people who have mental health prayed over [online], finding healing and release.”

That online prayers can be answered is encouraging, because creating digital space that is both sacred and communal is a difficult task. For a start, there’s the well-documented phenomenon of screen fatigue, meaning online faith content can simply be tiring. Many religious groups choose not to offer anything at all, and encourage their communities to spend time in individual prayer and worship instead. Digital services may be poorly attended.

There’s also the problem of focus. “What digital life does well is distract us,” says Toy, the PhD student in Wellington. “In a physical space with no screens around it’s easier to direct your attention to God or the sacred. If your phone is on the table, part of your brain is having to work to ignore it.” I’m interviewing Toy in a sterile study room at the university, my laptop on the table and my phone recording. I try to disregard the devices, and pay even more attention.

There are also potential ethical snags: in choosing to use giant digital platforms to offer worship, religious leaders expose their congregants to the extractive practices of offshore corporations. Google and Facebook are international companies that offer social functionality as a way to gather data to sell to advertisers; partaking in a worship service using their platforms creates privacy implications that aren’t at issue when attending a local place of worship. On these websites, the intimacy of religious expression is subject to the same profiteering as tagging a friend in a giveaway or liking a video.

But more fundamentally, online worship raises thorny theological questions about what makes rituals real and meaningful. “Slick performances and high production values only carry so far, and it is hard to reproduce the communal feel and emotional energy of ‘main show’ event religion online,” says Troughton, the religious studies professor. “Rituals are about affect, emotion, and experience as much as they are about ideas. Most are embedded in community and community relationships, and simply don’t translate in a satisfying way online.”

DAVE MOSKOVITZ, A SHAMASH AT TEMPLE SINAI IN WELLINGTON, SAYS ONLINE PLATFORMS CAN BE LIMITING (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

As grateful as he is that his temple can run online prayers, Lakshminarayanan, from the Hindu temple in Wainuiomata, is feeling the limitations of screen-mediated worship. Temples are meant to be interactive: he’s used to walking clockwise around the space, saying prayers; it means something for his body, his whole self, to be present there. Online, that is lost. “You can only see what the camera is capturing,” he says regretfully.

Meditation, which is core to Buddhist practice, can be done with others online. Attendees sit before the screen, settle in the silence, and reach for the mystery of spiritual life. “You still have some sense of connection with the people you’re meditating with,” says Suvarnadhi, chairperson of the Auckland Buddhist Centre. “There’s something in it – something mysterious.”

Still, Suvarnadhi says the online format is much lonelier. “The screen becomes an invisible barrier between yourself and other people,” she continues, then sighs. “I feel a total difference in a room filled with other people meditating as well, energy that gets generated and shared.”

Religious buildings are often blessed, consecrated in a way that digital spaces cannot be. To enter a cathedral or temple is a sign you’ve left the humdrum rhythm of your ordinary life and turned towards the divine. The importance of physical presence is illustrated by the sacrament of communion, a core Christian practice: the Anglican tradition doesn’t allow congregants to receive communion unless it has been blessed, in person, by a priest. “We feel that absence of not being able to share Eucharist [communion] together,” says Sanderson, the bishop. “It’s a loss of tradition in how we gather.”

‘WHAT DIGITAL LIFE DOES WELL IS DISTRACT US,’ SAYS MICHAEL TOY, A VICTORIA PHD STUDENT STUDYING DIGITAL RELIGIOUS EXPRESSIONS (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

An experience of sacredness may be partially created by physical objects, too. “The person who had to blow the ram’s horn this year [for Yom Kippur] didn’t have one,” says Moskovitz, the Jewish shamash. He had to take his ram’s horn across town so it could be blown at the appropriate time at their service. He says that clicking a Zoom link, from the quotidian space that is your own home, doesn’t create the same transition from ordinary life to spiritual experience as entering a religious building.

Moskovitz says he tries to focus on the silver linings, like how digital technology allows a sacred space to be brought into your own home. “If I was the guy chanting at the front of the service you might not feel like you know much about me, but now you’re in my house.” He gestures to his action figures, lined up on a shelf behind him; opens a drawer to find a prayer shawl to show me. I feel guilty that I’ve chosen to sit in front of a plain wall for our call, revealing only my landlord’s choice of paint colour.

But it’s undeniable that something is lost online. “Wouldn’t you rather have this conversation face to face?” Moskovitz asks me. “It would be easier to connect as humans without the artificial resolution between us.” Moskovitz is animated, expressive – as his voice is warped by my tinny laptop speakers, I find myself agreeing that our conversation would be much richer kanohi ki te kanohi.

For all these drawbacks, it bears remembering that religions have endured through thousands of years of human history. The life of a Muslim in the eighth century Umayyad Caliphate looks almost unimaginably different compared to contemporary Aotearoa, and yet the core beliefs have persisted as the faithful adapt to technological and social change.

“Proselytising religions have been energetic explorers of technological innovation – from mass print, to radio, film, and television, and more recently digital technology and social media,” says Troughton, the religious studies professor, and Suvarnadhi, Nawaz, Moskovitz and Lakshminarayanan all agree that the wealth of digital resources available to them represents a continuation of their faith’s long traditions of learning and sharing.

“All things can be used for God’s glory,” adds Sanderson, the Anglican bishop. Whenever human creativity creates new technologies, she says, churches will find a way to use it for God.

But what about post-pandemic? Are the boundless stretches of the secular internet the future frontier for religions?

All the faith leaders spoken to for this story agree there’s a place for hybrid digital and in-person offerings at their place of worship – if not for services or communal prayers, then at least for study groups and teaching. New and younger adherents may have to be reached online, Suvarnadhi says, but the preference is for IRL connection where possible.

Choi, from the evangelical Rice movement, is the most enthusiastic about digital formats. “Online is now plan A,” she says. “There’s huge space in the digital world at the moment; we’re able and equipped to jump into that.”

Toy, the PhD student in Wellington, agrees that online worship offers an opportunity to connect, but warns faith leaders to be cautious. “The digital space is so vast,” he says. “We have to pause and think intentionally about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, to see who the players are and what possibilities are emerging.”

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