Lessons from Zurch

“Zurch” = an affectionate nickname for online church meetings, a mashup of “zoom” and “church,” despite the fact that most of us didn’t use Zoom for church meetings. (My ward used YouTube Live, which I guess would make it “yurch” or maybe “yute-lurch,” but I like zurch better.)

I’m not going to lie to you, kids. I did not miss getting up early, putting on uncomfortable clothes, and going to church every Sunday. From March 2020 to August 2020, our ward didn’t even have an online version of sacrament meeting, which was just fine with me. No offense to sacrament meeting, but I just didn’t miss it. Of course, I had the privilege of being able to take the sacrament at home, which made most of, if not all, the difference. Our ward began limited in-person sacrament meetings shortly after it started broadcasting them. Due to the size of our ward, we started out in six groups, which meant you were able to attend sacrament meeting every six weeks. As state restrictions lifted, our groups got bigger and individual sacrament attendance more frequent, but when we weren’t attending in-person, my husband and I woke up to watch the 9:00 a.m. broadcast. Well, my husband woke up at 9:00 a.m. I usually woke up around 9:12-9:14 a.m. The kids never woke up for any of it, but we had our home-sacrament in the afternoon. It was not a hardship, by any stretch of the imagination.

As of this month, everyone is invited to attend sacrament meeting in-person each week. There is no social distancing; you can sit in any pew you like. If you’ve been vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask (although you’re asked to send a copy of your vax card to the ward clerk). Sacrament meeting is still being broadcast for now, so it’s still short, and the sacrament is administered at the end, after the broadcast ends. Those administering the sacrament are still following COVID hygiene protocols, most of which would make good regular hygiene protocols, not that anyone cares what I think.

We’ve also started an abbreviated version of second-hour meetings (different auxiliaries/quorums alternating weeks for logistical purposes). In Primary—which, for the record, I actually did miss—because the kids aren’t vaccinated, everyone wears masks. I think officially there is three-feet social distancing, but in practice it doesn’t necessarily work that way. There are no individual classes, but junior Primary and senior Primary meet in separate rooms for a thirty-minute singing/sharing time. We weren’t a full house last Sunday, but seven of my twelve assigned kids were there. It was fun, despite the fact that singing with a mask is suboptimal.

All things considered, I am happy to be back. I mean, more or less. As I said, I did not miss getting up early and having to shower before noon, but it’s hard to maintain a sense of community remotely, so I am glad we are meeting in person again. I will even be glad to teach one of those crappy Come, Follow Me lessons as soon as it’s logistically feasible.

That said, there were some changes made during the pandemic that I wouldn’t mind becoming permanent. Certainly, it’s hard to argue for fewer hygienic measures when it comes to the sacrament. (If washing their hands prior to handling food was a new thing for most priesthood holders, I think we should we should continue emphasizing it for the foreseeable future.) But wait, there’s more:

Shorter sacrament meetings. Yes, I know President Nelson already gave us back ten minutes of our lives when he introduced the two-hour block, but let’s be adults: nothing good ever happens in the last ten minutes of sacrament meeting. (This goes double if you have small children.) Fifty minutes is a perfectly round number, giving us a ten-minute passing period before starting the second hour, which could easily go another ten minutes if it had to. (But who says it has to?)

Ending with the sacrament. A million years ago (when I blogged more than once per year) I said sacrament meeting would be better if it culminated in the ordinance that is allegedly the meeting’s raison d’etre. To me, putting the sacrament in the middle of the meeting has always made it seem like part of the business we have to get out of the way before we get to the real purpose of the meeting, which is listening to our fellow congregants pontificate on gospel topics (or not) for 25-30 minutes. One might argue that partaking of the sacrament invites the spirit, the better to hear these talks with, but my personal rebuttal to this is, “Nah.” One might also ask, if one were using my own arguments against me, “What happened to nothing good ever happening in the last ten minutes of sacrament meeting?” Well, that’s why we made sacrament meeting shorter, amigo, so something good could happen in the last ten minutes.

Actually, I don’t know if it will be any easier or harder to keep your young children happy during the sacrament if it’s at the end than if it’s in the middle, but my instinct tells me that it’s easier to wait through the sacrament, which a) is at least somewhat interactive and b) can last only so long, than it is to sit through an overlong talk by a ward member who should have shut up five minutes ago and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down yet. YMMV. But if nothing else, having the sacrament at the end means that chronically late people will be less likely to miss it.

Sacrament meeting broadcasts. This is controversial because there are a lot of people—a lot—who would rather watch church in their pajamas than get up and shower before noon, etc. As long as we continue to broadcast sacrament meeting and authorize sacrament meeting at home, I reckon there will be a non-zero percentage of church members who will opt for what’s more convenient. (A neighboring stake has stopped their broadcasts for this very reason, and I know that some local leaders are putting pressure on healthy people to return, even though the remote option is still available.) This could become a real obstacle to returning to a full two-hour block schedule, if only because of the sheer number of warm bodies you need to staff Primary and youth classes.

However, I’ve heard from several people from different wards in different parts of the country that people who never came to in-person church before the pandemic did watch sacrament meeting broadcasts. Obviously, it was a Godsend for people who couldn’t attend because of health reasons, but it was also good for people who, because of work/sleep schedules or new babies or depression or whatever, simply couldn’t drag themselves out of bed in time to get ready. Or people who felt awkward about returning after a long absence and couldn’t overcome their social anxiety or weren’t prepared to deal with other people’s expectations.

Regardless of their reasons, isn’t it better for people to have the opportunity to engage remotely than for them not to engage at all? After all these months off, certainly some folks will take this opportunity to quietly slip away from church activity, but in those cases, don’t we have a bigger problem, one that can’t be solved merely by increasing the inconvenience factor?

Depending on where you live, it may be some time before everyone feels safe returning to in-person church, but assuming that the blessed day finally arrives when COVID-19 is no longer a factor in your decision, what will ultimately draw you back to attending regular old real-life church? Community? Guilt? Spiritual sustenance? (All of the above?) What do you think about keeping a remote option? What changes were made during the pandemic that you’d like made permanent?

Comments

  1. Remote church opens a new realm of possibility until it’s derailed by in-person attendance assuming the dimensions of a faithfulness test, which is inevitable. Too bad. The Brethren should keep in mind the explosion of genealogy work home computers engendered.

  2. I returned to in-person sacrament meeting the very first week it was available to me. Community was part of it, but the real driving factor is that I welcomed the opportunity to take the sacrament again.

    Single women were treated as expendable during the pandemic. I went for weeks at a time without the opportunity to take the sacrament. The only other group of people who are routinely denied the sacrament in the church are those guilty of grievous sins. So basically the church showed by their actions that they view it as a sin for a woman to be single and living alone. (It reeks of the same argument that certain hardcore Evangelicals use – that a woman should live with her father until she marries.)

    If the church really cared about singles (and unordained men, and women married to non-members, and the children of any of these people), they would have found a way to bless the sacrament remotely. If the sacrament can be blessed over the chapel microphone and reach someone in the foyer, why can’t it be blessed over the phone or Zoom to reach someone across town?

    As far as changes that I hope are made permanent:
    Priests wearing gloves to break the sacrament bread.
    Sacrament bread in individual cups.
    Normalizing people staying home when sick.

  3. Kaylynn says:

    I have health problems, and part of me wishes people would keep wearing masks forever. I didn’t go back when in-person church restarted because only part of my family could be vaccinated. And then my ward completely stopped having people mask or social distance.

    All of my family is vaccinated now, but I’m worried about going back. My sister is vaccinated but still got covid. We interact with a niece and nephew that are too young to be vaccinated and whose family also has concerns about going back to church.

    I feel like my ward is careless, and I don’t know what to do about it.

    Also, even before the pandemic I had difficulty sitting through sacrament meeting because I have chronic pain, and there is no such thing as comfortable pews. That is probably also influencing my desire to return.

  4. I haven’t returned yet, partly because I’m a germophobe in the best of times, but mostly because I’m staying with my elderly mom who has dementia and health problems, and I am able to get her onto her computer to Zoom her ward, and then can go in the other room and YouTube my ward. She can’t go alone, so either I’d have to get her to her ward, and skip mine, or vice versa.

    Zoom has been the biggest blessing EVER!

    Meanwhile, while I’ve always loved the church, the Lord, and had a testimony, actually getting to church physically has been my biggest issue – I Hate getting up, dressed, and out on Sundays. It’s truly agony for me. I love remote church.

    The downside is not being able to partake in the sacrament, but what I have done is read the sacrament prayers each week, meditate upon them, and reflect on the words and the symbolism. Since I don’t believe in transubstantiation, the bread and water are symbols and I don’t need the physical representation of them to feel I’ve renewed my covenants.

  5. John Charity Spring says:

    Mark my words, zoom church will devastate church membership numbers if someone does not put a stop to it soon. It destroys a sense of community and takes away the ability of members to engage in that friendly talk between meetings that is so essential for building togetherness.

    There are some who have genuine health concerns, but the majority who promote zoom church do so because they want to sit around in sweatpants and crocs munching on Irish nachos during sacrament meeting. That is clearly an insufficient reason for avoiding in-person church.

  6. Chadwick says:

    At the risk of presenting a slightly cynical view of things, I personally think pre-pandemic people showed up mainly to take the sacrament (which makes sense as it was emphasized a lot). Want them there on time? Put the ordinance first.

    But in the pandemic, as Trudy rightfully acknowledges, we treated those without male priesthood authority in their home rather badly. I asked repeatedly if I could administer the sacrament to several ward members over the phone or on their front porch but was repeatedly told no. The unintended consequence? If they didn’t need the sacrament each week, then perhaps none of us do.

    Perhaps going forward we will be late to church if the ordinance is at the end of the meeting, or not as frequently if the ordinance isn’t seen as important any more.

    My ward is NOT verifying vaccination status. Several members told me they did not get vaccinated and are no longer wearing masks at church. So much for being honest in your dealings with your fellow man.

    I would love to see the Zoom feature continue indefinitely; but my guess is it won’t.

  7. Kristine says:

    “ability of members to engage in that friendly talk between meetings that is so essential for building togetherness.”

    John, have you not read any of the comments by people who were never included in that togetherness, and have felt at least somewhat more included when they could participate via Zoom? Your comment seems to perform exactly the kind of judgment and ableism that makes people feel excluded–isn’t there a way we could learn from the pandemic experience to be more mindful of people for whom that physical togetherness is difficult or impossible? It’s easier, of course, to just judge them and call them lazy and go back to the status quo which excludes them, but I’m not sure that is the best use of the recent adversity…

  8. Michinita says:

    It’s hard for me to feel a sense of community with people who accuse dear friends of sitting around in sweatpants and crocs munching Irish nachos. I’ve never heard of Irish nachos, but if my friends are to be judged for eating them I’d like a plate myself.

    I’d like to keep zoom appointments as an option. I never had one myself, but it sure was nice when people cancelled them with my Bishop husband and he got to hang out with us instead of sitting at the church waiting for the next appointment while I put the kids to bed alone again. I hope they were also helpful for brothers and sisters for whom transportation is an issue, or whose health issues made zoom appointments a prefferable option. I would have loved a virtual option rather than bring multiple toddlers into my temple reccomend interviews. They’d also be handy for people in geographically large stakes. No more driving 3 hours to the stake center to accept a call as the ward clerk. Of course some appointments should be held in person whenever possible. I’d just like to keep the option.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    We started with the sacrament last but it didn’t feel natural to the Bishop, so he returned it to the front end. And so now for 15 minutes there is a picture that reminds me of a technical difficulties screen, which makes me smile.

    We have a ton of people watch the broadcast who never darkened the door of the church. I think it would be foolish to end the broadcasts for that reason.

  10. I do agree that the church is rarely, if ever, sensitive to the needs of single members, and it was particularly dismissive of single women’s desire to partake of the sacrament regularly during the pandemic. As usual, our leaders end up sending mixed messages when they insist that a certain ordinance (sealing, baptism, sacrament) is extremely important and worth every sacrifice–unless there’s a reason, through no fault of your own, that you can’t have that ordinance, in which case it’s not that important and you shouldn’t worry about it.

    I imagine we will have more absenteeism if we keep the remote option, but considering how long we went with no one going to church at all, and how many will continue to stay home for health reasons for the foreseeable future, I think we are bound for a slow recovery, numbers-wise, in any case. I’m not convinced that withholding the remote option will get that many more people back to church sooner. People like me, who clearly see personal benefits of in-person church, are going to come back. People who have discovered over the last year that in-person church doesn’t have the same benefits for them, are probably not coming back even if we try to shame them into it. There’s usually something else at the root of being “too lazy” to go to church. It could be depression or social anxiety. It could be sheer exhaustion or a difficult work schedule. It could be a lot of different things, but even if it really is laziness, so what? Rather than making it an all or nothing proposition, isn’t it better to be able to offer an in-between option for church activity?

    And I 100% agree that zoom appointments should stay a thing. LONG LIVE ZAPPOINTMENTS.

  11. John, it’s worth noting that many churches have decided to keep an online option for their services even as they fully reopen. My close friends’ Catholic parish has explicitly said that Zoom (or Facebook Live or YouTube or whatever) has drawn in more worshippers. And it allows those who regularly attend to still participate when they’re out of town, when they’re sick, or when they can’t make it for whatever other reason.

    In fact, your characterization of people preferring to stay home in sweatpants and whatever else you said is deeply uncharitable. And your apparent belief that (a) everybody who participates in person is able to participate in the community and (b) community is impossible in online venues is deeply wrong.

    I think that wards could do worse than continuing their online streaming long after the pandemic is gone. Most people who participate in person will, I suspect, continue to participate in person most of the time. But the ability to participate even when they can’t be there in person will increase the sense of community and increase the people who participate. But most importantly, it allows the church to minister to members where they are, not where we want them to be.

  12. It would be lovely if ideas could be discussed here without accusing people of being deeply wrong and deeply uncharitable. While we do need to do better for people who struggle for health reasons to attend in-person, we can also acknowledge that in-person attendance fosters benefits that virtual attendance does not.

    I’d like to see zoom continue for those who can’t or struggle to attend. But it’s nice to see and be physically among friends again.

  13. J. Stapley says:

    I think you should run things. Just saying.

  14. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I have been attending in person church for as long as there have been meetings. I am the guy running the zoom. It was pretty lonely when there was only the Bishopric, organist, and me. (and my daughter and the speakers).

    My own mental health really needs the in person community. Who can say what the motivations are for people to zoom instead of attend? I know of many who are ill/older and feel safer at home.

    In our area we are asked to wear a mask if not vaccinated, but we are using the honor system. The area authorities, I believe, have explicitly said the we will not be asking for vax status, or accepting evidence of status. I think that is the right way to go.

    But it is good to be back with a congregation where we can sing without masks, and shake hands/hug, etc. I hope there are technical solutions to make longer term zoom meetings a little easier to manage on the technicians end.

  15. I think it’s fine to accuse people of being wrong and uncharitable when they are, indeed, wrong and uncharitable.

  16. nobody, really says:

    Rebecca, I love that hymnbook.

    “Want[ing] to sit around in sweatpants and crocs munching on Irish nachos during sacrament meeting” isn’t going to prevent anyone in our unit from doing exactly that in-person. Church here is a time to bust out the good jammies, to hawk cheap MLM costume jewelry, to swear at leadership, and to find someone to watch your kids for an hour or two.

  17. Justagirl says:

    J “Charity” (really?) Springs.
    I prefer streaming from home in a t-shirt dress, flip flops and a cup of dry Cheerios.
    It’s the same dress standard in my chapel so I can change locations at a moments notice.
    You in?

  18. Sheila Johnston says:

    Hello I enjoyed this article. Would you be able to provide sources when you stated primary kids will be wearing masks? I support masks but my ward isn’t doing this. Do you have some official statement from the church? I know I can reach out to my brother who is a stake president but I wanted to check here with you first as you seemed to have spent time researching this. Thank you

  19. N Brown says:

    What a great article! I missed it the first time around but saw it being discussed in the SLT. I’m struck by the variety of precautions wards are or are not taking. We are currently watching via zoom because our children are unvaccinated and masks are no longer required in our ward. I’ve learned in the 1.5 years in which they haven’t been able to have Primary either in-person or via zoom that Primary is by far the most important organization to me at this life stage. I wish there would be more outreach to children whose parents don’t feel comfortable with them attending in-person yet. It’s been so hard to both remote school them and teach home Primary for the past year. I also sympathize so much now with the many people who could not attend church for health or other reasons in the past. Surely it’s worth continuing zoom broadcasts in order to include them.

    I have few hopes of this happening, but I would like to see higher hygiene standards continue. People with colds should stay home. We should of course wash hands and sanitize before taking the sacrament. I may even consider wearing a mask in winter since I was constantly getting sick while my kids were attending nursery or Primary.

    I’ve also realized that I would like more practical support from the church in raising my kids. While we always hear that motherhood matters, I felt very abandoned by the church as a parent this year. I want a community that provides activities and helps teach my kids.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Jensen, a longtime blogger with By Common Consent, wrote recently about those questions and more. On this week’s show, she talks about post-pandemic […]

  2. […] Jensen, a longtime blogger with By Common Consent, wrote recently about those questions and more. On this week’s show, she talks about post-pandemic […]

  3. […] Jensen, a longtime blogger with By Common Consent, wrote recently about those questions and more. On this week’s show, she talks about post-pandemic […]

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