When sociologist Ben Brenneman and I went through the final stages of writing Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, COVID-19 was just starting to spread widely in the United States. We did not have a chance to consider the role of religious buildings within a pandemic. And there is a lot that could be said – and that others have already said well. Thus, just a few thoughts on studying religious buildings amid COVID-19:
One reason we started this project was because sociologists of religion, other observers, and religious participants themselves often paid little attention to the influence of religious buildings. Instead of focusing on the physical structure, people emphasized clergy, the congregation, the surrounding community, the religious tradition, the service, and other social dimensions of religious life.
All of these are important – yet, COVID-19 helped expose the importance of buildings. With people not able to worship in religious buildings for weeks and months, it highlights the role of the physical structure. In today’s networked world, religious services and interaction can still go on through Zoom, social media, email, and smartphones. Some might even say that the “essential” activity continued.
Our book focuses more on the construction and/or adaptation of religious buildings. While one chapter emphasizes how congregations present aged religious buildings, we do not consider what happens when congregations cannot meet in their regular building (which could happen for a variety of reasons). COVID-19 provides an opportunity to consider what happens religious groups cannot utilize their buildings as they wish for an extended period. While people need to stay away, the building does not go away: congregations will still need to preform maintenance, pay mortgages, and think about how their physical grounds can best serve their needs. And all of this while giving might be down and congregants cannot experience the benefits of the building.
The lack of gathering together and/or regularly in religious spaces has consequences. The experience of worshiping near others, singing together, talking in person, experiencing the collective effervescence of the congregation or the experience of the divine are essential parts of religiosity. Religious activity is embodied, enacted by people in physical settings. Worshipers and congregants are not “brains on sticks” but creatures who breathe and move and fidget and more. Many religious traditions emphasize collective activity and worship and this takes place within
Once COVID-19 abates, this could lead to more appreciation for religious buildings. Being away so long might make congregations more fond of the actual structures in which they gather. When they return to the places they know so well – and maybe are so familiar with that they do not recognize much – they may appreciate it more fully. Or, the time spent away from a religious building and experiencing religion from afar might prove alluring. Some religious people may have found alternative sacred spaces of their own and without the constrictions of having others around. With technology enabling dropping in to religious gatherings, the temptation might be to stay away from religious buildings.
Religious buildings have affected millions of people around the world and will continue to do so after COVID-19. How they shape religious experiences and groups will continue to matter and provide ongoing opportunities for scholars to explore further.