Keeping the Masks on: Worship Services during and after COVID-19 in Japan

Dunja Sharbat Dar, PhD candidate, Center for Religious Studies at Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Japanese Christians went digital as quickly as possible, following the example of many other religious groups all over the world. But Japanese Christians only went into a full lockdown for a few months, quickly wanting to reunite in person. Continuing streaming online even up until today, Christians started to meet up wearing masks, keeping distance, and following newly established hygiene concepts. When I was in Japan for my fieldwork in 2022 and 2023, I visited a couple of churches for my research on religious atmospheres, which allowed me to also assess their situation during COVID-19.

The number of Christians in Japan is relatively low (only about 1-2% of Japanese people are officially registered as Christians[1]). Most Christian congregations consist of elderly people who were particularly at risk of getting infected with the new virus. So, many churches such as the Sekiguchi Catholic Church in Tokyo tried to protect their congregants by introducing registry and membership passes. Members and visitors of the church had to register for a pass with their contact information in order to enter the church at the Sunday mass.

When I first came to the Sekiguchi Catholic Church, I was asked to write down all relevant data to receive the entrance pass with my name on it. It is not unusual that you are asked to write down your name upon entering a church in Japan, a practice which many churches continue in order to count and archive the numbers of visitors each week. But the fact that I could not enter the church without a visitor’s pass made me understand how seriously the Sekiguchi Catholic Church was taking the protection of their members in 2022. In many places around the world, many restrictions had already been dropped in 2022 due to the success of vaccines. However, all of the Japanese churches I visited in 2022 (6 in total) still required wearing a mask and registering as visitor in some way or another.

Sekiguchi Catholic Church uses a big cathedral, the St. Mary’s Cathedral that also serves as the seat of the archdiocese of Tokyo. The steel construction with bare concrete walls on the inside — an internationally acclaimed architectural design by Japanese architect Tange Kenzo[2] — can fit about 800 participants on Sundays, but during the pandemic, only a small number of people from the congregation (that counts over 2000 registered members as a whole) dared to come to the Sunday masses. The 80 to 150 people that visited the 8am and 10am masses in these times had their temperatures checked upon entering the church, used disinfectant regularly, wore FFP2 masks and took their seats far from each other on the benches in the worship hall.

During my interviews at Sekiguchi Catholic Church, the priest told me that many members hadn’t come to church for a long time because of the pandemic. They fear the risk, and so they rather watch the livestreams posted to YouTube regularly from the safety of their homes. I often wondered if these members would ever be able to feel comfortable and protected enough to attend the masses in person again. Considering that most livestreams of the church mainly focus on presenting the liturgy, the feeling of active community only transpired marginally. At the same time, one sees what’s going on more closely due to the camera setting filming the altar.[3]

Even now in late 2023, the church regularly streams their masses. The acolytes, choir leader and many members still wear masks, the exception being the priest when performing the liturgy. Other churches like the young congregation of the Evangelical Friends Church in Tokyo have long said good-bye to masks, happily celebrating their “back to normal” services with the benefits of freely singing, eating and finally seeing each other’s faces again.[4] But the Sekiguchi Catholic Church seems to be keeping the masks on in order to protect the others. It remains a question if and when the church might go back to celebrating the masses without the protection of masks.


[1] Roemer, Michael K. 2009. ‘Religious Affiliation in Contemporary Japan: Untangling the Enigma’. Review of Religious Research 50 (3): 298–320.; Roemer, Michael K. 2012. ‘Japanese Survey Data on Religious Attitudes, Beliefs, and Practices in the Twenty-First Century’. In Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions, edited by Inken Prohl and John K. Nelson, 23–58. Leiden: BRILL.
[2] Löffler, Beate. 2011. Fremd und Eigen. Christlicher Sakralbau in Japan seit 1853. Berlin: Frank & Timme, p. 191.
[3] See Sekiguchi Catholic Church livestreams on Youtube:
[4] The Friends Church is another case study that I visited in 2022. They still stream their Sunday services online, but made it a priority to gather and eat together in person as soon as possible in 2021.

Image: St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo, church building of the Sekiguchi Catholic Church. (c) Dunja Sharbat Dar

National and local discourses of digitalization in an Evangelical Lutheran parish in Finland during the pandemic

A summary of my Master’s thesis conducted as part of ReCoViRa in Finland
Ossian Klingstedt, Åbo Akademi University

The aim of my thesis was to analyze the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s (ELCF) discourses on digital media during the COVID-19 pandemic. By applying the theoretical perspectives of mediatization, vicarious religion, and religious-social shaping of technology, I identified the specific discursive formations that were fundamental to the ELCF’s way of understanding and talking about digital media. In this light, I analyzed the ELCF’s adoption of digital tools during the spring of 2020 with a focus on its communication on both a national and a local level. The data analyzed consisted of a set of publications and information notices published by the ELCF both before and during the spring of 2020 (national level) as well as a group-interview conducted in 2023 with employees of the Swedish-speaking parish in Turku, Åbo svenska församling (local level).

My thesis shows how, at the national level, the ELCF’s communication regarding digital media was governed by specific discursive formations that depicted the church as a public utility and essential part of Finnish society – a “folk church” – while internally reproducing a notion of the church as being in a certain kind of existential crisis, due to e.g. membership loss and general disinterest in its activities and provisions. The ELCF drew on these discursive formations when justifying its use of digital media, arguing that, in a media-saturated society, it is necessary to extend activities and services to digital environments. In this, the ELCF’s official discourse includes clear elements of technological determinism, as the church sees adaptation to societal processes of digitalization as inevitable.

The COVID-19 pandemic accentuated this discourse of forced adaptation once it became clear for the ELCF that certain technical solutions would be a necessity for it to be able to have an active role in society during the crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, the central task of the ELCF became to maintain its services, but in a way that prioritized safety and health. Thus, technological solutions, such as streamed church services and pastoral care through video calls, came into the picture, and were put into use with the aim of maintaining the ELCF’s self-identified mission as a “folk church”: even in exceptional circumstances, the argument went, the church must be available for those who need it. At the local level, it was felt that digital media provide good opportunities for expanding the church’s communicative reach and for participation even in restricting conditions, as attendance numbers in online church services surprisingly exceeded those of in-person services before the pandemic. The administration of the “virtual church”, however, also greatly increased the workload for specific employees instead of functioning as a well-integrated supplement to established offline practices. Furthermore, some ritual acts, such as the Eucharist in particular, were perceived as impossible to fully realize through current digital mediums. Local parish employees therefore made a clear qualitative distinction between the “online” and the “offline” church, although further integration of digital elements into everyday parish activities and services is to be expected in the near future.

Image credit – Heikki Raisanen: Turku Cathedral Bell Tower

Practices During the Pandemic as a Glimpse of the Future

Hybrid Worship Gathering: Create an image of a congregation in a church building with some members physically present while others join remotely through digital means, representing the potential future of blended worship experiences.
Lena Roos, Professor, Study of Religions, Södertörn University

Did the covid 19 pandemic accelerate already existing processes of change within religious communities in Europe? Can a study of changes during the pandemic thus be used as a tool to look into the future? This article will address those questions based upon a series of studies done the Church of Sweden.

Sweden did not have hard lockdowns during the pandemic. Rather, the main strategy was to issue “recommendations” such as working from home when possible, avoiding travel during peak hours and when possible conducting meetings and other gathering online. Some restrictions were however imposed. From March 12th, 2020, gatherings of more than 500 people were forbidden. A little more than two weeks later, on March 29th, the maximum number was lowered to 50. November 24th the maximum was further lowered to eight. Funerals were excepted and allowed 20 participants. As an increasing number of the population had been vaccinated, and the pandemic seemed to have started to abate, the restrictions were gradually loosened, the final being removed on September 29th, 2021.[1]

The restrictions affected the religious communities of Sweden, even if less so than in many other countries. Less, because the restrictions were less strict, but also because in reality, many congregations, especially outside larger cities, rarely gathered more than 50 worshipers at the same time. When the maximum number was lowered to eight, however, all congregations were forced to seek alternative strategies for their activities.

A few studies have already been published on the effect of the covid 19 pandemic on a selection of religious communities, mostly Christian, in Sweden. Most data have been gathered concerning the largest denomination, the Church of Sweden whose members comprised 52,8 per cent of the population in 2022.[2] These studies generally indicate that most congregations preferred to find alternative forms for their gatherings, rather that cancelling activities altogether. This is also similar to what has been found in most international studies.[3] I most cases, the Swedish congregations adopted what Heidi Campbell calls a ‘transfer strategy’, meaning that they simply transfer their regular format to a digital format, for instance by setting up a camera in the church and filming the service or streaming it online. In some cases a ‘transform strategy’ was employed, meaning that the analogue format was abandoned and a completely digital format adopted, for instance through online meeting rooms.[4] Some studies seem to indicate that congregations in the Church of Sweden have been less creative than churches in other countries when it comes to finding alternative forms for their activities, possibly due to less restrictions.[5]

Two sets of questionnaires were sent to vicars in the Church of Sweden in 2020.[6] One was part of periodically gathered statistics by the Church of Sweden research unit; one was part of the international research project CONTOC, Churches Online in Times of Corona.[7]

Many of the vicars describe that the most difficult members to reach during the pandemic were those belonging to risk groups, e.g. elderly or/and living in different kinds of assisted living facilities. Although Swedes by international comparison have good internet access, it is estimated that about one million Swedes rarely or never use the internet.[8]

Generally the vicars report on three different types of strategies: 1. Activities were cancelled. This was often the case for activities for senior members, for instance sewing gatherings and Bible study groups, as well as activities for new immigrants. 2. Activities were postponed. This was mainly the case for baptisms and weddings, that were postponed until the restrictions were lifted. 3. Activities were continued in a different form. This was usually the case for the main service of the week, that was often digitized, but 4 out of 10 congregations also report having transferred their youth groups or confirmation classes to a different format, often online.[9] The reason is obvious: since the younger members are more comfortable with and generally have access to digital meeting forms, it is easier to digitize those activities, even if the need may be greater for other groups, such as the elderly, who were more isolated during the pandemic, and generally also more active members of the church. A contributing factor may also be that Church of Sweden staff working with youth had an online presence already before the pandemic, e.g. through the so called ‘net wanderers’ (nätvandrare), who are present on various social fora where young people might risk bullying and other forms of abusive treatment.[10]

One part of the work of the Church of Sweden that was greatly reduced was that done by volunteers. In some cases, less volunteers were needed because activities were cancelled, in other cases, it was because the volunteers themselves belonged to risk groups.[11] This seems to strengthen a trend that was visible already before the pandemic, that the number of volunteers decreases.[12]

There is an interesting difference between female and male vicars concerning pastoral counselling during the pandemic. Whereas many male vicars report that they have reduced the time dedicated to pastoral counselling due to restrictions during the pandemic, many female vicars report the opposite, that they have increased this time, by using digital forms like WhatsApp, Skype, Messenger or regular phone calls. This difference can be linked to differences in their use of social media before the pandemic. Previous research has shown that women use social media more, and in a different manner from men, in order to maintain and deepen already existing relationships.[13] It can also be related to differences between female and male clergy that has been shown in a recent study of young clergy in the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. In this study the participants were asked to evaluate what aspects of their profession they thought most important. Women ranked being a listener, a companion and an enabler as their most important roles, whereas men gave priority to skills in preaching and liturgy.[14]

There is also an interesting difference between younger and older vicars. Younger vicars as a group state that the worship service in the local church, especially the communion, has become more important for them after having experienced the Covid restrictions. They stress the centrality of the service, whereas they believe that other gatherings, such as meetings with coffee whose main purpose is social will be less important for them in the future. Older vicars, however, say almost the opposite, that the physical church building has become less important for them during the pandemic, and that they hope to continue some of the activities that replaced regular services in the church during the pandemic, for instance meetings in smaller groups and outdoor activities such as communal walks.[15]

There have also been gains in the move to digital formats. Out of those congregations who have used different kinds of digital formats, more than half (54 percent) report reaching new people. This was especially true for those congregations who had digital activities several times per week. 70 percent of these congregations also report that they want to continue with activities in alternative forms, digital and others, after the pandemic as well. [16]

So, if we try to use the developments during the Covid 19 pandemic as a lens to look into the future, what are some possible developments?

– That the use of alternative forms, digital and others, will be greater than before the pandemic.
– That the number of volunteers will remain on a lower level than before, and possibly continue to decrease.
– That as older vicars retire and those who belonged to the younger group of vicars during the pandemic remain, there will be an increased emphasis on liturgical services, mainly communion services, possibly with a decrease of other types of activities in the congregations.

Lena Roos, Professor, Study of Religions
Södertörn University


Campbell, Heidi 2020a. ”What Religious Groups Need to Consider When Trying to Do Church Online”. I Campbell, Heidi (red). The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online. Digital Religion Publications.

Chow, Alexander & Kurlberg, Jonas 2020. ”Two or Three Gathered Online: Asian and European Responses to covid-19 and the Digital Church”. Studies in World Christianity 26:3.

CONTOC, Churches Online in Times of Corona:

Fransson, Sara; Gelfgren, Stefan; Jonsson, Pernilla. 2021. Svenska kyrkan online. Att ställa om, ställa in eller fortsätta som vanligt under coronapandemin.

Fransson, Sara. 2022. ”Församlingslivet under coronapandemin. Svenska kyrkan”, Josefson, Ulrik, Wahlström, Magnus (eds.). 2022. Svensk frikyrklighet i pandemin. En studie av församlingen i corona och corona i församlingen. Forskningsrapporter från institutet för pentekostala studier 9, 196-214.

Ganiel, G. (2020). People still need us: A report on a survey of faith leaders on the Island of Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hagman, Patrik & Kejonen, Eetu 2019. ”Kön, kyrka och kyrkligt ledarskap. En teologisk studie av unga prästers uppfattningar i Finland och Sverige”. Scandinavian Journal for Leadership & Theology, vol 6.

Kühle, L., & Larsen, T. L. (2021). ‘Forced’ Online Religion: Religious Minority and Majority Communities’ Media Usage during the COVID-19 Lockdown. Religions, 12(7), 496.

Larsen, T. L., Mauritsen, A. L., Sothilingam, S. A., Kühle, L., Borup, J., & Fibiger, M. Q. (2021). Religiøs forandring i en krisetid-Et case-studium af aarhusianske religionsgruppers håndtering af COVID-19-pandemien i efteråret 2020. Religion i Danmark, 10, 92-113.

Lundgren, Linnea. 2022. Trossamfunden och Covid 19. En undersökning om hur pandemin påverkat lokala församlingar i Sverige. Myndigheten för stöd till trossamfund.

[1] Lundgren, 2022, 6-7.

[2] Medlemmar i Svenska kyrkan 1972-2022.pdf

[3] E.g. Ganiel, 2020; Kühle & Larsen, 2021; Larsen et al., 2021.

[4] Campbell 2020.

[5] Chow & Kurlberg 2020.

[6] Fransson et al, 2021.


[8] Fransson et al, 2021, 32.

[9] Fransson et al, 2021, 32.

[10] Fransson et al, 2021, 37.

[11] Fransson et al, 2021, 38-39.

[12] Fransson, 2022, 209.

[13] Fransson et al, 2021, 62-64.

[14] Hagman and Kejonen, 2019.

[15] Fransson, 2022, 201.

[16] Fransson et al, 2021, 73-74.

Image credit – Generated by using the prompt “Hybrid Worship Gathering: Create an image of a congregation in a church building with some members physically present while others join remotely through digital means, representing the potential future of blended worship experiences.

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