Peering into the glowing screen of your laptop, you can't smell the incense from a thurible. But in the face of pandemic, communities of faith around the world are now ramping up the online infrastructure they've been slowly building toward for years. Online offerings are becoming crucial as churches look for ways to bolster digital tithes, minister to the isolated, and manage the flock from afar.
More broadly, global coronavirus quarantines have meant staking out parcels of online space to define a new, more mutable sense of congregation. Discordant hymns, fragmented by sagging stretches of utility wire, bounce their blessings across servers in dark rooms to gather in a unified electronic stream. Prayers in ones and zeroes -- the alphas and omegas -- merge, as believers look for something holy, or at least wholly human, in that shared pool of data.
There are always charlatans waiting to exploit the spiritually thirsty, and a healthy scrutiny is warranted for every digital space, but here's where some of the faithful are finding each other online right now.
Read more: How to stay healthy and entertained at home during the COVID-19 pandemic
When it comes to broadcasting, it's almost impossible to get any easier than Facebook Live. Already a favorite of the faithful and secular alike, the single-tap streaming option allows live feedback and commenting, along with emoji reactions. Just like its main competitor, YouTube Live, Facebook Live comes in at the modest price of $0.
If you're a church looking to stay connected to your flock, Facebook Live may be a great option for you. And if you're a churchgoer looking for a sermon to stream, you can search for those of other churches on the social media platform.
A free service located in a web space where congregants already gather is hard to beat, but church-focused SermonCast has carved out a space for itself as a service built for larger scale groups. Equipped with a suite of digital media management tools and HD video, plans start at $29 per month for video-on-demand, and $49 per month for live streaming. By comparison, Vimeo's Livestream starts at $75 per month for its Premium service.
As in-person donations become a dwindling possibility, a few apps have become a critical pipeline for tithes and offerings. Along with the familiar Venmo and Paypal apps, church-focused recurring donation apps are offering more platform flexibility.
Tithe.ly is among the more widely recommended among online church groups. Available on both Google Play Store and the App Store, it functions as a donation management endpoint with minimal administrative cost. Praised for its ease of use, the app is free to install with a transaction fee of 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction (which donors can opt to cover on behalf of the recipient). It accepts credit and debit cards, and offers both manual entry and automatically recurring bank transfers. A "text to give" feature can be added for additional cost.
Meetings and management
Zoom seems to have become the internet's go-to video conference room during the coronavirus pandemic, spurred on by the company's decision to give users unlimited access to the free version of its service, stopping its normal 40-minute time limit. In the long-term, paid Zoom plans normally start at $15 per month with up to 100 participants.
By comparison, competitor GoToMeeting offers a 14-day free trial with paid plans starting at $19 per month (currently discounted to $16 per month) and ranging up to $49 per month.
Read more: 7 free video chat apps to use if you're social distancing
Suffer the little children
For religious parents looking for a reprieve during pandemic lockdown, there are plenty of popular apps offering you some free time by keeping the kids occupied with pious pursuits.
The Bible App for Kids, available for both Android and iOS, is a free YouVersion product that offers illustrated and interactive games for children ages four and older. Touch-activated animations geared toward educational study via kid-friendly navigation features could buy parents a few precious hours of silent bliss when escaping the house seems otherwise impossible.
The bigger picture
No, it's not going to be the same using Facebook Live for a sermon, Venmo for a collection plate, and Zoom for Sunday school. But it's going to be something.
The limitations of a ritual service conducted online are fleshed out in greater degree, along with some sound ministerial advice for adapting to the new medium-message balance, in a recent article from Christianity Today. Author David Taylor, an assistant professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, also strikes an important note in all of this: how we approach the pastoral care of a quarantined flock illuminates how we might better use the tools of the day for those who've already been struggling.
"I've discovered recently that my prejudices against media technology reflect an embarrassing ignorance about how such technologies might serve the deaf, the elderly, the homebound," writes Taylor.
"Consider, then, not how this season of experimentation will make people woefully dependent on disembodied technologies, but rather how it may bring to your attention the people in your community who will be blessed long-term by adjustments that you make."
An apt consideration, indeed. And one that enjoins a position of faith to a long-held position among leading technologists: when advocating for greater accessibility for all people, a coldly disembodied medium takes on the warmth of a larger light.