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On Sunday mornings, Anne Ngai wishes she could step inside her church in Mong Kok and worship with fellow congregants. Instead, she sings along to a livestreamed service that she watches from a tablet in her living room.
Many Christians in Hong Kong are like Ngai, watching livestreamed or pre-recorded messages online as most churches have suspended onsite services during the coronavirus pandemic. After officials declared it an emergency on Jan. 25, the outbreak has now led to 134 confirmed cases and four deaths in the city. Among the infected patients is a preacher of Jubilant Grace Methodist Church and a member of Sai Wan Ho Christian Gospel Disciples Church.
Church services have moved to Facebook and YouTube. Small groups have also switched to Skype and the video conferencing platform Zoom. To Ngai, 41, the experience of gathering in person is “irreplaceable.” She feels worship should be done in a community, not alone. While her church members do leave real-time comments during the YouTube livestream, the remarks are few and mostly revolve around audiovisual issues.
On Facebook, participants in Flow Church’s broadcast reacted with strings of thumbs up, hearts, and laughing face emojis. More than 500 viewers joined the 1.5-hour livestream on March 7. They also left comments, expressing appreciation for the rap segment by the praise band, responding to a sermon about equipping oneself in faith, and echoing “Amen” after prayers for the society strained by the epidemic.
To do online church well, “the biggest challenge is the interactive mood with the congregation and different communication methods,” said Poon Chi Kong, pastor of Flow Church. It’s figuring out “how we can let them feel that we are worshipping together and it’s not one-sided.”
To enhance fellowship online, Flow Church holds a live music session where praise team members respond to viewers who type in comments and song requests. Across screens, musicians and viewers chat and joke around. Flow Church also conducted communion during its Feb. 15 broadcast. Participants partook of the elements in their homes at the same time and responded with “Thanks be to God for His grace” in the comments.
Since moving the church service online, about the same number of people watch the livestream as attend the brick-and-mortar Flow Church service. Yet other churches have seen a drop in attendance: One 300-member church in Sha Tin saw a 30 percent decrease since turning to livestream. Offerings have also dropped by 50 percent in the past few weeks.
In a sanctuary in Tsuen Wan that used to seat 400 congregants, Ho Yee Lai now worships among 40 people. This church is one of the few still holding onsite services, though it livestreams them as well. “Sitting in church, I can concentrate a lot more in a spiritual atmosphere, looking at the cross,” the 49-year-old social worker said. “It’s peaceful and quiet.”
Members attending in person have to take extra precautionary steps. Wearing a mask is a must. Before entering the sanctuary, Ho needs to wash her hands, have her temperature checked, and register her name and contact information.
Worshippers sit farther apart. The church photographs the congregation in case someone contracts COVID-19 and they need to trace where everyone sat. To minimize contamination, there are no Bibles, hymnals, or bulletins now. Leaders have suspended communion and children’s worship, while small groups can book a room with the church or meet in a park.
The big question for churches is when to resume regular onsite services. Schools plan to reopen on April 20, and some churches look to that date as their gauge. Still, each church also must decide what coronavirus precautions to take and whether it can effectively implement them in time to resume services.
While many may feel anxious or uneasy during the epidemic, Wilson Lam, a deacon at the Sha Tin church, feels an urgency to act. Lam and his fellow church members have prepared hand sanitizer to distribute to the community this week. “I feel a sense of responsibility,” Lam said. “Given this situation in society and because the church represents our faith, I want to help those in need.”