The Greek word for church is ekklesia, which means “assembly.” For 2,000 years, Christians have been assembling for worship. But in this age of pandemic, it’s dangerous to be the church.

In my novel City of Peace, pastor Harley Camden is assigned to a small riverside church in Occoquan, Virginia. When he first enters the old church building, he sees rows of oak pews on either side of a center aisle covered with worn red carpet. The front of the church has a pulpit on the left and a lectern on the right, with a Communion table in the center, under a stained glass of a black Jesus. Harley walks down the aisle, trying to imagine himself leading worship in these dank quarters after years of presiding over services in a sleek modern building.

Running his fingers along the backs of the wooden pews, he imagines that the space has been the site of countless milestones over the course of a century and a quarter—dedications, baptisms, weddings, funerals. Anguished prayers have been said, rousing sermons have been preached, lives have been changed. Generations of African Americans, in particular, have looked up at the Jesus in the stained glass and found strength to live with faith and dignity in a segregated society.

Lives have been changed because people have assembled.

But now, because of the pandemic, it’s dangerous to be the church. As of April 30, 2020, only 3 percent of all U.S. adults were gathering in person for religious services. Some churches began to reopen in May and June, but then new outbreaks of the coronavirus began to surge. According to The New York Times, more than 650 coronavirus cases have been linked to nearly 40 churches and religious events across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic. Many outbreaks have occurred as Americans resumed their pre-pandemic activities. Many churches that were anxious to reopen their buildings are now being forced to close their facilities again.

Online ministry and mission

When the coronavirus arrived, most churches quickly shut down their in-person worship services and moved entirely to the online space. Pew Research reports that 82 percent of U.S. adults say that their place of worship is streaming or recording its services so that people can watch them online or on TV. The churchgoing Christians who say their church offers streaming or recorded services online or on TV includes evangelicals (92 percent) and mainline Protestants (86 percent). Most Catholics (79 percent) and Protestants in the African-American tradition (73 percent) say their churches are making services available remotely.

Despite the shutdown of church buildings, 24 percent of U.S. adults say their faith has become stronger because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many say their faith hasn’t changed much (47 percent). A few say their faith has become weaker (2 percent). Christians in African-American Protestant churches and those who describe themselves as “very religious” are particularly likely to say that their faith has become stronger.

What the future will look like

So what will happen when assembling resumes? African-American Baptist pastor Joseph Warren Walker says to Religion News Service that he will continue to offer robust ministry through digital platforms. The key to success, he believes, “is to accept that this transformation will be permanent and make the most of it.”

For the past ten years, Walker’s church has offered online ministry and the strategy has worked well. “Our congregation has grown into the tens of thousands,” he reports, “not only inside our buildings but outside — and, in the latter case, significantly on college and university campuses. Our youth-focused ministries, many of them online, are among our strongest and most popular.”

Fast Company reports that some faith communities have found that moving online has helped them to attract new visitors or win back lapsed members. They are now reaching people who couldn’t get to houses of worship because of distance, schedule conflicts or disability. While online worship is a challenge for some communities of faith, others report that it is making religion more accessible than ever.

Walker believes that “COVID-19 has merely hastened the arrival of a new world of worship that has been coming our way for decades.” In his view, virtual worship is not a sign that the doors of the church will be closed forever. Rather, “it can open them wider.”

How important is it to you to assemble physically with a religious community? How has online ministry worked for you in this time of pandemic? Join the conversation through a comment below.