The pandemic altered the way many people come together to worship, but according to some church leaders, that change is here to stay. When lock-downs hit Australia at the height of the pandemic last year, and services were either closed to the public or had limited capacity, churches of all denominations began connecting with people remotely. From March, churches used online platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Zoom, or their own website, to stream their services live or stream pre-recorded services and meetings. In Sydney, the Catholic Archdiocese live-streamed masses from St Mary’s Cathedral. Anglican churches, such as St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane, used YouTube to stream service recordings. And the Uniting Church in South Australia live-streamed services, and facilitated bible study groups on Zoom.
“We’ve been able to connect in ways that we would never have imagined,” Deidre Palmer, the president of the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly, said. “Some services are live-streamed, some are pre-recorded.” Even now, many people are still preferring to go online, the general secretary at the National Council of Churches in Australia Liz Stone said. “Every time there’s a suggestion of community transmission it affects who’s going to be physically at a service,” Ms Stone said. In states that have no community transmission, people are still not physically attending church for a variety of reasons. “There are people waiting for vaccinations,” she said. “But there are people connected globally, so you’ve got a different offering online. It’s not just your local community anymore.”
The Uniting Church in South Australia now has a wider reach through its streaming services. “It’s a really wonderful way of continuing to grow communities,” Ms Palmer said. “I think you will find churches are wondering about keeping both online and face-to-face services,” Ms Stone said. “Because we’re reaching some people that wouldn’t necessarily go to church. We had people who found it easier to go online to find out about different churches and different Christian communities and different forms of worship. So we would never want to exclude that opportunity for people.” For the Catholic Church in Sydney, the Archdiocese hopes to see more physical attendance as restrictions ease. “We’re trying to encourage as many Catholics back to attending Mass in person as possible,” a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said.
“I think it’s been a gift what we’ve been able to offer to the wider community,” said Deidre Palmer, president of the Uniting Church in Australia. Deidre Palmer says that online services are valuable not just for the elderly who are worried about illness, or people who are unable to physically attend church. The services are also for those who want to reconnect with their faith, or who have never practiced worship. “They may be seeking meaning in their life, exploring their spirituality and they’re connecting into the online services,” she said. “I think it’s been a gift what we’ve been able to offer to the wider community.” A community that is more connected than ever. “We’ve found other ways to express our faith,” Liz Stone said. “So, in a way that has been a blessing as well.”