Reimagining Religion: How the Pandemic Changed Worship
All images by Isaiah Chua for Rice Media

When the apostle Peter spoke of a “fire” refining the Christian faith in his first epistle, no one could have ever imagined that it would take on the form of a constantly mutating virus pervading our population. But here we are. 

As we see 2021 come to a bittersweet close, many believers from a plethora of religions have undoubtedly had their faiths tested to varying extents. In the face of a pandemic, religious practices have inevitably changed—for better or for worse. Due to this, a myriad of new changes in worship has emerged from the depths of strife that now may appear to stay for good.

The harsh reality

Singaporeans are no strangers to restrictions that seem to change every other week. In-person dining of five people reduced to two, permanent mask-wearing, and the inability to congregate in places of worship have become everyday news to us. 

No thanks to this, people have turned to online means to worship and experience fellowship with one another. Most Christian Masses and Communions are now conducted virtually, with the elements (sacramental bread and wine) delivered to your home or collected from the place of worship after they’ve been blessed.

To explore how worship has evolved in a pandemic, we conducted a survey with Millieu Insight and found that a staggering 95.3% of 1020 respondents across various religions–such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism–felt that their faith actually strengthened or did not change.

The data is based on a sample size of 1020 Singaporeans aged 16 years old or older that represent the Singapore resident population by age and gender.

With COVID-19 rearing its snotty head across the globe, one might expect people’s faith to be shaken in the face of death and sickness. Still, people,such as myself, whose faith has been weakened by the pandemic only fall within the meagre 4.6% minority.

As someone who labels himself as a somewhat devout Christian, the announcement in 2020 of the departure of in-person services and fellowship exacerbated my already weakening faith. My parents’ enthusiasm to start attending online services didn’t assuage my feelings of loss towards the religious community I once heavily depended on.

How could live worship be replaced?

The point of view of the pastor.

All of the services that my church conducts now are recorded and published online on YouTube, whether it be for the English, Chinese, or Hokkien congregation. I attended one of the live sessions and witnessed a pastor deliver his sermon to an almost vacant chapel. 

It was a jarring and ironic sight, to say the least: a pastor preaching to an empty congregation, like a shepherd feeding invisible sheep.

Out of a smaller subgroup of 517 respondents who experienced change in religious worship practices due to the pandemic, 64.2% of respondents have to perform worship services at home and 54.4% have to attend religious services online due to the restrictions. From personal experience, this exact arrangement has been present for almost two years. 

A new normal

After looking at how the pandemic changed the practices of Christianity, I started looking outwardly at how other religious communities were being affected by the virus. 

One of the lesser-known religious communities in Singapore is the Baha’i. Built on the idea of interreligious harmony, the Baha’i faith welcomes anyone, regardless of their religion, with open arms.

Jes, a member of the Baha’i community, explained that the community activities, such as devotional gatherings, weren’t extremely affected by the pandemic . This is because the Baha’i, unlike other religions, do not have any designated places of worship. They were only affected by the limitations on household visits. 

Unlike congregational worship at churches, these collective forms of devotion are held at homes where they invite their friends and neighbours to meditate and pray together. 

Due to the physical restrictions, the community adapted quickly to have their community-building activities conducted through online meetings, granting access and allowing more participation.

Even in a world where COVID-19 is not a concern, 78.4% of respondents said they would adopt and incorporate these new changes into their worship practices, including Zoom calls and online YouTube services.

However, for special occasions like the Ascension of ‘Abdu’l Bahá, the Baha’i community assembles to commemorate the death of the man they uphold as the golden standard of Baha’i faith. He passed away in 1921, so this year marks the 100th anniversary of his death.

The opportunity to celebrate this event was a Godsend, as many religious events were previously cancelled due to the strict restrictions implemented at the height of the pandemic. In fact, 41.5% of the respondents felt that they missed celebrations of religious festivals or events due to the pandemic.

On top of celebrating the life of ‘Abdu’l Bahá, the program delved into the concept of the oneness of mankind, a concept which he espoused for all his life, where unity is achieved despite differences in beliefs and the diversity of humankind is embraced. 

The Song Presentation.

The attendees were split and capped at five attendees per table. The setting imitated that of a formal meeting, but the atmosphere had a serious undertone.

The program also included an ebullient song presentation by one of the female members of the Baha’i community and a dramatic poetry reading from a group of Baha’i teenagers.

The Poetry Reading.

For a community that mostly worships in cell groups at home, Zoom calls may even be the new normal for the Baha’i as the prospect of in-person gatherings becomes more and more unnecessary. What is irreplaceable, however, is fellowship. As I sat there engaging with other members of the interreligious community, I couldn’t fathom the prospect of conducting such an event online to the same degree of quality. 

In the survey, many respondents labelled their religious communities as their ‘support systems’, and fellowship seems to provide an answer to the sense of loneliness stemming from the pandemic. Believers hold firmly to their communities, relying on the tight-knit bonds that have been formed to tide them through the waves of infections.

What matters lies within

I then visited the mosque near my home, Masjid Khadijah. I was apprehensive because I hadn’t entered a mosque before, but Madam Rahilah warmly welcomed me.

Madam Rahilah, 45, who has been working there for two years as an admin staff, shared three main restrictions implemented in that particular mosque due to the pandemic. 

First, worshippers have to bring their personal prayer paraphernalia. I observed that most of them brought small, personalized mats for prayer, each with different designs. Madam Rahilah told me that worshippers prayed directly on the mosque’s carpet before the pandemic. 

Previously, Muslim women who visited would wear the shared telekung (a garment worn for prayer) provided by the mosque. However, due to the pandemic, they are no longer able to do so.

Second, worshippers are required to maintain a one-metre gap between each other. The distance is marked out by boxes using yellow tape. She mentioned that worshippers used to be able to kneel shoulder to shoulder for prayer. In fact, normally, it’s mandatory for worshippers to leave as little gap as possible between each other. 

Lastly, there is a capacity of 50 worshippers per floor. While the mosque has two floors, it usually reaches capacity during Friday prayers. Mosque goers now have to be more conscious of the time they’re going to pray because of the limited capacity.

They also have to be more mindful if they want to pray outside their homes due to the various Safe Management Measures (SMM) in place. For instance, they have to make a conscious effort to bring their paraphernalia and mat with them when going out because forgetting to do so may prevent them from entering the mosques.

Worshippers are to have their masks on at all times. 

When asked whether the restrictions affect the quality of worship for Muslims, Madam Rahilah explained that it’s mainly dependent on the individual and their personal relationship with God. Muslims, by right, have the freedom to pray anywhere, whether in the comfort of their own homes or in the sanctity of a mosque. 

In a way, the pandemic has made worship more personalized, decentralizing it from the concept of community for Muslims. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as believers now have more time to discover and develop their connection with God. This could explain why more respondents feel like their faith was strengthened, not weakened during this pandemic.

Ever evolving

The resilience and tenacity of religion cannot be underestimated. Even as a global pandemic rages around us, believers will find a way to adapt to harsh circumstances.

And if anything, these obstacles might have given believers an opportunity to strengthen their relationship with a higher power. 

Worship and fellowship in themselves are bound to evolve, whether we’re ready for it or not. Among the different religious practices implemented due to the pandemic, 40.4% of 517 respondents agreed that virtual services and worship would stay, even after COVID-19 isn’t a concern. 

In an uncertain world where everything is bound to change, religion appears to be the only constant. The dawn of a new normal is upon us, where believers can worship based on their preferences and pick the most conducive option for them. More and more people are choosing to worship and fellowship online and in the comfort of their own homes than in person.

Nevertheless, fellowship remains an integral part of religion, and for the minority of us, nothing can trump in person interactions. The question of when it can return to our daily routines remains unanswered.

“We wait for the day that we can come together again with our brothers and sisters,” said Madam Rahilah. “Hopefully, that day comes soon.”

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