It came around the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in January of last year. His church had canceled in-person worship, but staffers had gathered inside the sanctuary to record a live online service.
About 10 minutes before going live, a worship team member arrived and instinctively reached out to hug a man wearing a face mask who was setting up microphones. The masked man, in trying to keep at least six feet away from others, reluctantly backed away.
“I haven’t touched or hugged anybody anyone in a year,” the man in the mask said, his voice weighed down by sorrow. He said that he was unmarried and had lived much of the pandemic alone — unlike the other staffers, who had family and spouses at home.
Expect more tears in churches today as Christians celebrate Easter Sunday, which marks the death and resurrection of Christ. But many of those tears may come from relief and joy because of something that’s unique to this Easter.
People aren’t just celebrating the risen Christ this year. Some are giving thanks for the resurrection of hope in their own lives, because the worst of the pandemic may finally be over.
But many people returning to church this Easter will never be the same, and neither will many churches, some pastors and religious scholars say.
They say the pandemic has inspired lasting changes in people’s faith and the way they approach church.
And in least two ways, these changes parallel central elements of the Easter story.
After two years of death and uncertainty, many Americans are finding new life
The Easter story isn’t just about faith; it’s about a psychological shift. The New Testament depicts Jesus’ crucifixion by Roman authorities. His disciples go into hiding. Their hopes are crushed. Their leader, Peter, even denies knowing Jesus.
Yet something happens on Easter morning. Jesus’ disciples are transformed.
What the disciples saw is a matter of faith. But what is undeniable today is that many people have experienced a spiritual transformation because of the pandemic.
They, too, discovered surprising reservoirs of spiritual strength and fervor.
“Until they got to the time when they really couldn’t attend church, they didn’t realize the beauty of just being around the same person every Sunday, affirming our faith and taking the sacraments together,” Vile says. “That’s become more important again.”
Many churches have already returned to in-person worship. There are anecdotal stories of parishioners greeting one another with more joy, choirs singing with more fervor and preaching becoming more passionate.
In some ways, churchgoers are not unlike Jesus’ disciples on Easter morning — they’re finding unexpected joy after living so long with fear, Vile says.
“Celebrating what we hope is largely the aftermath of a pandemic is not unlike the experience that the early disciples of Jesus had in proclaiming a risen Jesus just days after they had been hiding in fear behind closed doors,” he says.
Tragedy forced them to try something new
Part of the power of the Easter story is in what happened after the crucifixion. Jesus’ disciples not only become new people, but they embraced new ways of worship and spreading their message.
Several millennia later, the pandemic has also emboldened churches to try something new.
Churches have stepped up their online presence. They’ve hired more staff to stream services, held digital prayer meetings and Bible studies, and improved members’ ability to give tithings online.
Many churches have discovered the power of Zoom calls. They have made it easier to people to meet and reduced the length of services, some pastors say.
Robinson, the pastor, alluded to the Apostle Paul’s practice of sending letters, or epistles, to the first churches scattered across the Roman empire.
“Paul sent letters to the churches because he couldn’t be everywhere at once,” says Robinson, who is now senior pastor at Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. “But we got it better than Paul because he couldn’t connect via Zoom.”
She says more churches will look for chances to have outdoor services now.
“My church is going to do a bunch of activities over the summer, like meeting up for a hike, having a Bible study and prayer time before going fly-fishing together,” Cope says. “For a long time, churches have said Christians should be where people live, and ministry should be done there. If anything, the pandemic has helped us get out of our church buildings more.”
He envisions a post-pandemic future where churches continue to blend online and physical worship.
“We have hybrid cars; now we can have hybrid worship,” Robinson says.
The purpose behind churches trying something new during the pandemic, though, was deeper than adopting fancy new technology, he says.
It was survival.
“They would not allow this thing [the pandemic] to win,” Robinson says. “It [the pandemic] taught us that the church was about the community, less about the building.”
Where the story of Easter and the pandemic meet
There are, of course, many challenges ahead for Christian churches on this Easter morning. The pandemic revealed deep divisions in churches over everything from in-person worship to vaccines and how to confront racial injustice.
And, as pastors like Robinson will tell you, nothing replaces in-person touch. There are many people who suffered and died alone during the pandemic because they could not receive visitors.
But even for those who have been lost, the symbol of the empty tomb on Easter morning is more powerful than the story of the pandemic, Robinson says. “Easter reminds us that death doesn’t get the last word.”
And neither does the pandemic.
People can take even more joy from Easter this morning when they look back at how they and their congregations survived, Robinson says.
“We got through it,” he says. “Life isn’t over. We’re here.”
And when pastors preach this morning about Jesus’ disciples finding new life after experiencing grief, those who have lost so much during the past two years can say:
“And so have we. So have we…”