New face of worship: Rise of the hybrid physical and digital church for Christians

Mosques, churches and temples have shifted many aspects of religious worship online, from the booking of prayers to teaching, support systems and community building. Eddino Abdul Hadi, Chantal Sajan, Jan Lee and Lee Siew Hua report

Heart of God Church is now running both online and on-site services, with up to 50 physical worshippers allowed at a time.
Heart of God Church is now running both online and on-site services, with up to 50 physical worshippers allowed at a time. PHOTO: HEART OF GOD CHURCH
Cornerstone Community Church’s remote worship team at online service. The 5,000-strong church streams weekend services for its stay-home congregation.
Cornerstone Community Church’s remote worship team at online service. The 5,000-strong church streams weekend services for its stay-home congregation. PHOTO: CORNERSTONE COMMUNITY CHURCH/YOUTUBE
Archbishop William Goh in live-stream mass on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore’s YouTube channel.
Archbishop William Goh in live-stream mass on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore’s YouTube channel. PHOTO: ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHDIOCESE OF SINGAPORE/YOUTUBE

Cornerstone Community Church is now a physical and digital hybrid that reaches an audience in Singapore and beyond.

The 5,000-strong church streams weekend services for its stay-home congregation. This month, it also joined the nation in the phase two reopening, with groups of 50 regathering at its Katong and Bugis premises, the pastors preaching behind face shields.

On a visit to the Katong auditorium on July 11, chairs were spaced more than the mandatory metre apart in the once-packed hall where 950 people would sing to contemporary music.

Now, 50 people worshipped silently, while a remote worship team, fragmented into Zoom rectangles, was beamed onto the jumbotron screen.

A sense of the pandemic was prevalent. KYMO - Keep Your Mask On - flashed on-screen. Service time was halved to 45 minutes for surfaces to be sanitised, while worshippers exited promptly without cross-mingling with the next congregation.

Although it is easier for the independent church to stick to online-only services, its leaders want to prepare for the step-by-step lifting of capacity limits. Also, collective worship is ingrained in Christian life, its pastors say.

Teacher Lee Chin Sin, 50, has been setting an alarm every Friday at noon to make sure she gets seats for Cornerstone's on-site service.

"I was very moved, even on the way to church. We have been going to church for 30 years, and it's very much part of our life," she says. "Of course, there was a tinge of sadness because the auditorium was so empty."

Changes like the no-singing rule do not bother her. "Worship is really the mind focusing on God," she reasons.

Watching an online service on a computer at home can be "a bit impersonal" - although there is an interactive live chat, plus apps aplenty, say, for sermon notes.

While not all churches are new hybrids like Cornerstone, most have online services. Most of their leaders are contemplating the rise of the e-church, with its possibilities and perils.

The upside is that virtual churches can go global. Online cell groups and prayer meetings at churches big and small - including the Presbyterian denomination with 37 congregations - are well attended because time-crunched parishioners simply click on a link at home.

The flip side is some find it novel to church-hop when browsing a never-ending menu of Sunday services here or globally.

As such, pastors are seeking new ways to connect with their scattered flock, whether through online prayer, prizes mailed to Sunday school kids who nail Bible quizzes, or even homespun cooking tutorials.

As needs escalate, churches are supporting the jobless in their midst. The more tech-savvy churches also pitch in to help less-resourced ones set up virtual churches.

While these larger forces are at play, over at the Church of the Holy Family, a Roman Catholic parish down the road from Cornerstone in Katong, retired accountant Sylvia Khoo savoured the intimacy of on-site mass when the doors opened again to circles of 50 earlier this month.

"It was joyful to hear the pealing of the bells again," says the 60something Ms Khoo. After getting used to online mass for five months, she felt a "sudden wow" seeing the altar and the pews again - even if many were cordoned off. Other pews had hand sanitisers and QR codes for contact tracing.

"Worshipping together as a community is so important," adds Ms Khoo, who can now take part in rituals like communion at the church of 8,000, albeit by slot booking.

As Catholic churches progressively reopen this month, parishioners are limited to one mass a month at a church they select, with routine church-hopping now disallowed.

During the first weekend, close to 2,000 Catholics celebrated mass in eight churches. There are 360,000 Catholics spread across 32 churches.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore still urges the vulnerable, such as senior citizens above age 60 and those with medical conditions, to stick with mass online.

Meanwhile, some smaller Protestant parishes with fewer than 500 members, such as Sembawang Presbyterian Church, are also circling back to physical services, while megachurches like City Harvest and New Creation are staying online for now.

The desire for on-site services was borne out in an online survey of Christians conducted from May 11 to 18, in the middle of the circuit breaker.

Over 1,600 responses were logged for this burning question: "If/when things return to a state of normalcy, are you likely to attend online church services?"


Mr Edric Sng, chief executive officer of Thirst Collective, a digital Christian news platform which includes the and Salt&Light websites and pushed out the straw poll, says of the overall result: "Almost 95 per cent said they would continue to do on-site church."

Of this 95 per cent majority, more than half said they much prefer physically attending church. The rest were happy with a hybrid, saying they would likely go to both physical and online churches.

"Only 5.38 per cent said they would default to online only," he says.

Mindful of the real need for community, churches are tending to their charges afresh - and from afar.

At City Harvest, a megachurch of 16,000, kids aged three to 12 join Zoom services. Those who submit correct answers to Bible quizzes get prizes in the mail.

The dialect-speaking elderly can view video sermons in Cantonese and Hokkien on YouTube, or receive calls and care packs that include masks and Bible verses from staff. Visits in phase two are now possible.

More hyper staff meet for Zoom workouts before work or join cooking tutorials by the hospitality pastor, whose repertoire includes Hakka bak chor mee.

Such personal touches are also important for Cornerstone. Its staff made 4,300 phone calls to church members during the circuit breaker.

Among its online moves are 8am devotionals where spiritual leaders share wisdom in bite-sized videos. There are conversations with pastors to keep everyone in the loop or ask questions, for example, about Senior Pastor Yang Tuck Yoong's book-writing plans.

With the fallout from Covid-19, Cornerstone is among many churches now boosting support systems for their members and the local community.

Some years back, the Cornerstone leadership presciently created a special fund for the congregation ahead of tough times. "Well, the time did come and in April, we officially launched the Cornerstone Cares Fund," says Pastor Yang.

The church set aside a $1-million seed fund. It also pledged to match donations dollar for dollar, up to a total of $3 million of co-funding. The total target is $4 million.

"More than 100 families have applied for the fund successfully since the launch in April, and near to $250,000 has been disbursed."

The youthful Heart of God Church has since April given $170,100 in financial aid to 144 members. One hundred recipients are students, in the church of 5,000-plus where the average age is 22.

To replenish national blood stocks sapped by the pandemic, the church teamed up with Khalid Mosque and two clan associations for a blood donation drive last month.

New Creation Church, which has over 30,000 members, also had a blood donation drive. It has distributed food-court gift cards to cleaners at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and sent more than 600 personalised cards to cheer up the elderly.

Elsewhere, the Hope Church, aware that the pandemic can cause marital rifts, invited any affected members to seek support at its family life ministry. Beyond Singapore, many churches like The Bible Church are supporting overseas missions work, and have stepped up this role.

In an e-church scenario, doing good, or preaching good news, can have a wider reach here or overseas. So churches are thinking hard about the emergence of the online church.

Reverend Keith Lai, the Synod moderator or honorary head of the Prebysterian denomination here, says: "We are forced by the pandemic to reconsider and rethink the Church strategically."

The denomination is holding "new norms" webinars among its pastors. One intriguing issue is the reorganising of the churches.

"It is not just about making a few cosmetic changes or alterations here and there, but also to build according to New Testament patterns, which are more organic and spontaneous," says Rev Lai, who is also president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore.

"Recently in a conversation, I heard a helpful description of 'organic', which is defined as something that starts from 'everywhere to everywhere'. It is neither top down nor bottom up."

This may well be the trajectory of the post-Covid-19 church.

Pastors interviewed cite the work of Christian blogger and Canadian church founder Carey Nieuwhof, who wrote: "Growing churches in the future will become digital organisations with physical expressions, not physical organisations with a digital presence."

This trend is a window for churches to "break out of the four walls of a building and enter into the living rooms of members and potential parishioners alike", Cornerstone's Pastor Yang believes.

While this is exciting, he counsels: "Church is very much still a physical gathering of believers who must continue to meet in person to build community and do life together."

He is not over-perturbed that people will virtually church-hop. "Church attendance metrics for online church are quite tricky to measure as compared with physical services. You don't know how many are watching from behind the screen, or how engaged they are," he says.

At the onset of the circuit breaker, he reckons people probably did a bit of e-church hopping because of the novelty. "Many churches saw an initial surge in online attendance, possibly through many who e-church hopped.

"And we're talking about a worldwide phenomenon caused by a global pandemic, not just a localised one. So you'd probably have people tuning in from all over the world, across boundaries and time zones."

But his guess is, after the "fizz" settles, most would hop back to their home church.

Senior Pastor Kenny Chee of the World Revival Prayer Fellowship, who has blogged about how churches are transforming, says most of them will keep a stronger presence online than they had before. "This augurs well for the 'new normal' church."

Also alert to the positives, Senior Pastor Tan Seow How from Heart of God Church says: "While this pandemic is horrible, there are also possibilities. We don't see it as a disruptor, but a driver."

The church is now running both online and on-site services. "Our online services are run by and for young people with unique and interactive content."

Grateful for phase two, which allows in-person services, he says: "This offers attendees nondownloadable experiences such as personalised pastoral care, training and a sense of community, with safe management measures in place."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2020, with the headline New face of worship: Rise of the hybrid physical and digital church for Christians. Subscribe