The coronavirus is forcing religious communities apart. Can technology hold them together?

In South Carolina, a Baptist pastor wonders how to solicit donations during a Facebook Live stream of his Sunday service without alienating his viewers. In Connecticut, a rabbi fields perturbed emails about worshippers with bad singing voices belting out prayers in the Shabbat Zoom room.

In San Francisco, an Episcopalian rector encourages his congregants to leave thoughts on Scripture in the chat window of his virtual liturgy. In Northern Virginia, an imam questions whether or not he can read social signals well enough through a screen to give good spiritual counseling. And in Brooklyn, a Catholic priest takes confession across the room from a parishioner, at a distance safer than the booth that has fallen, like his pews, into disuse.

Around the nation, houses of worship have largely (though not wholly) closed their doors, afraid of spreading the deadly coronavirus. Yet in the middle of the crises, religiosity skyrockets — and this one is no exception.

A recent study from the University of Copenhagen found that for every 80,000 new cases of COVID-19 found in a country, online searches for prayer doubled. To address this wrenching irony, faith leaders across the United States have turned to virtual tools, through which they stream services, homilies, and text studies and offer individual counseling.

This distanced worship has allowed clergy to maintain a semblance of community during a despairing and isolated time. But distance has also left religious leaders with an impossible circle to square.

So many aspects of religious practice and community depend on physical presence, and technology can’t replace all of them. Houses of worship have for years offered online versions of their services, often to reach homebound congregants. But the elimination of physical gatherings has changed those dynamics, faith leaders said