Princeton area houses of worship embrace virtual religious services

virtual seder 2020
Rabbi Adena Blum of Beth Chaim in West Windsor led a seder dinner Thursday night on the synagogue’s YouTube channel.

By contributor Marc Monseau

Churches, synagogues and other houses of worship are embracing digital tools to connect with and support their congregations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Shelter in the Lord” reads the sign in front of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Princeton.

Using Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and teleconferencing services, religious leaders are providing formal religious services, words of inspiration, meditation sessions, and interactive religious instruction. The result has not only been an outpouring of creativity, but also a flood of participants to their new online resources.

“I’ve been impressed by the wonderful sense of creativity and possibility that has emerged in response to this situation,” said Rev. Paul Jeanes III, rector of Trinity Church in Princeton. “Once this is over, we’re going to have to continue to do something like this online because people really like it.”

After shelter-in-place rules were announced in March, Trinity, an Episcopal church, rapidly ramped up its online activities. The church now offers a variety of content through its Faith@Home tab on its website, including a live stream of its Sunday services, a talk show hosted by its associate rector and fellow for spiritual care, and evening prayer via Zoom.

While on most Sunday mornings about 300 to 400 people attend services, Rev. Jeanes said Trinity’s latest Facebook Live stream of Sunday worship surpassed 1,000 views. Rev. Jeanes accredits the success to the availability of Trinity’s content on-demand.

“It allows people to engage with worship on their own terms,” said Jeanes. “People are looking for a place to be fed right now, and we’re making sure we provide those touchpoints.”

The Rev. Laura Steele of Hopewell United Methodist Church addresses church members via video on Palm Sunday.

The state’s shelter-in-place rules present particular challenges in April, given the month includes some of the holiest days for the world’s biggest religions, including Passover, Easter and Ramadan. Through online content, religious leaders are striving to provide a sense continuity with more traditional religious services and celebrations.

Passover seder is traditionally a meal spent with loved ones and friends recounting the story in Exodus of how the Jewish people escaped Egypt. In light of social distancing, however, synagogues have been encouraging families to celebrate the seder dinner using videoconferencing services so that distant family members can still connect, albeit remotely.

Rabbi Adena Blum of West Windsor’s Beth Chaim congregation led a seder dinner Thursday night on the synagogue’s YouTube channel. Beth Chaim even uploaded a short video providing guidance regarding how to run a seder dinner at home.

“We’ve tried to recreate as much as we were doing as possible on Zoom,” said Blum.

For the Jewish Center of Princeton, the move to online services wasn’t a completely new experience. For the past year, the congregation has provided live streaming to better serve congregants who are housebound or otherwise unable to attend services. During the pandemic, the center has been streaming Shabbat services featuring both the rabbi and cantor leading services from the sanctuary.

“It has truly allowed us to keep our congregation together and it has been particularly meaningful for those who have been shut in,” said Randy Brett, President of The Jewish Center.

Area faith leaders say the use of digital communications is providing an opportunity for many religious organizations to expand their outreach.

“We’re getting people who are not formal members” joining our Zoom calls, said Blum. “It’s been incredible and, thanks to Zoom, we can keep track of who attends and who does not.” Blum said that if regular Shabbat attendees fail to join Zoom services, they may be contacted to ensure they are doing well.

For Rev. Marshall Shelly, Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Spotswood, shifting religious services and pastoral duties online represents an opportunity to strengthen his connection to his church members in their time of need.

“As a pastoral leader, you have to be with people as they go through their response,” Shelly said. “Through morning and evening prayer, we’re giving people a framework for their day to help them focus while providing the kind of support and fellowship they’re looking for.”

Shelly, who navigated St. Peter’s in the aftermath of flood damage caused by Hurricane Irene, said the response to COVID-19 reminded him that spiritual guidance doesn’t require a building. “Our online worship services not only preserve continuity in our community but create more opportunities for gratitude,” he said. “The spirit still flows and doesn’t require a physical space.”

For many, the use of online communications to supplement their religious mission is likely to continue after the pandemic is over.

Trinity’s Rev. Jeanes anticipates that once church services resume in person, the church will continue its online offerings to better serve congregants who can’t attend services or other activities in person. “Now that this genie is out of the bottle, we can’t put it back in,” he said. “We cannot go back to where we were prior to this crisis.”

The Rev. Lukata Mjumbe of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton leads prayers and holds worship services via video.