People pray during an Easter mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on April 4, 2021. Some pastors say they sense more joy among their congregation this year.
CNN  — 

The Rev. Fred Robinson was about to start Sunday morning worship with his church staff when he heard a stunning public confession.

It came around the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in January of last year. His church had canceled in-person worship, but staffers had gathered inside the sanctuary to record a live online service.

About 10 minutes before going live, a worship team member arrived and instinctively reached out to hug a man wearing a face mask who was setting up microphones. The masked man, in trying to keep at least six feet away from others, reluctantly backed away.

“I haven’t touched or hugged anybody anyone in a year,” the man in the mask said, his voice weighed down by sorrow. He said that he was unmarried and had lived much of the pandemic alone – unlike the other staffers, who had family and spouses at home.

“It broke our hearts. There were tears,” says Robinson, who was then leading a United Church of Christ congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina. “All of us were crushed because our brother had gone through this pandemic in a way that we hadn’t considered.”

Expect more tears in churches today as Christians celebrate Easter Sunday, which marks the death and resurrection of Christ. But many of those tears may come from relief and joy because of something that’s unique to this Easter.

People aren’t just celebrating the risen Christ this year. Some are giving thanks for the resurrection of hope in their own lives, because the worst of the pandemic may finally be over.

The signs of this hope are as palpable as the pink and white magnolia flowers that bloom in spring. Covid testing sites are shutting down because of waning demand. Covid hospital admissions are decreasing. Most Americans no longer consider Covid a crisis.

A nearly empty Covid-19 testing location in Arlington, Virginia, on March 16, 2022.

Despite a recent uptick in cases in the US, there’s a cautious optimism that a pandemic that has killed almost a million Americans may sputtering to some kind of end.

But many people returning to church this Easter will never be the same, and neither will many churches, some pastors and religious scholars say.

They say the pandemic has inspired lasting changes in people’s faith and the way they approach church.

And in least two ways, these changes parallel central elements of the Easter story.

After two years of death and uncertainty, many Americans are finding new life

The Easter story isn’t just about faith; it’s about a psychological shift. The New Testament depicts Jesus’ crucifixion by Roman authorities. His disciples go into hiding. Their hopes are crushed. Their leader, Peter, even denies knowing Jesus.

Yet something happens on Easter morning. Jesus’ disciples are transformed.

“When you see the disciples moving from a position of fear and even denial of Christ and within 50 days they’re out in the public schools proclaiming that Jesus has been resurrected and they have seen him and they are willing to go to their death for that belief – that’s pretty strong evidence that they saw something,” says Pastor John Vile of Beech Grove Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Beechgrove, Tennessee.

People attend Easter Sunday Mass while adhering to social distancing guidelines at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on April 4, 2021.

What the disciples saw is a matter of faith. But what is undeniable today is that many people have experienced a spiritual transformation because of the pandemic.

They, too, discovered surprising reservoirs of spiritual strength and fervor.

A Pew Research Center survey in 2020 revealed that 3 in 10 Americans said that the pandemic had increased their faith – a level higher than any other advanced country. During one particularly frightening part of the pandemic, Google searches for prayer surged to the highest level ever recorded.

“For many people, the sustained isolation of the pandemic heightened their desire for connection and spiritual community,” said Christianity Today magazine in an article this January.

There are now people returning to church this Easter who appreciate rituals of faith in a way they didn’t before the pandemic, says Vile, who is also a dean and an authority on constitutional law at Middle Tennessee State University.

“Until they got to the time when they really couldn’t attend church, they didn’t realize the beauty of just being around the same person every Sunday, affirming our faith and taking the sacraments together,” Vile says. “That’s become more important again.”

A church member raises his hands in worship during an Easter Sunday service at New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday, April 4, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Many churches have already returned to in-person worship. There are anecdotal stories of parishioners greeting one another with more joy, choirs singing with more fervor and preaching becoming more passionate.

In some ways, churchgoers are not unlike Jesus’ disciples on Easter morning – they’re finding unexpected joy after living so long with fear, Vile says.

“Celebrating what we hope is largely the aftermath of a pandemic is not unlike the experience that the early disciples of Jesus had in proclaiming a risen Jesus just days after they had been hiding in fear behind closed doors,” he says.

Tragedy forced them to try something new

Part of the power of the Easter story is in what happened after the crucifixion. Jesus’ disciples not only become new people, but they embraced new ways of worship and spreading their message.

Much of this change was forced by a crisis. Many early Christians were persecuted and executed by Roman authorities. They lived under constant threat of death.

A series of crises, though, forced them to become more creative. To avoid persecution they met in the catacombs of Rome and used the symbol of a fish to mark secret meeting places and to distinguish friend from foe.

The apostle Paul, seen here, wrote letters to many churches as a way of spreading his Christian message.

They spread their message not just through traditional means but by using the latest technological marvel of their day: the famed Roman road system, which some have called the internet of the ancient world. The Apostle Paul’s ability to travel widely on Roman roads during his missionary journeys was crucial to the rapid spread of the gospel.

Several millennia later, the pandemic has also emboldened churches to try something new.

Churches have stepped up their online presence. They’ve hired more staff to stream services, held digital prayer meetings and Bible studies, and improved members’ ability to give tithings online.

They discarded old practices that now may never return: in-person offerings, the “passing of the peace” ritual where members greet one another with kisses and hugs at the beginning of worship, and – in a trend that could inspire almost as much joy as Easter morning – incessant, in-person church meetings.

Many churches have discovered the power of Zoom calls. They have made it easier to people to meet and reduced the length of services, some pastors say.

Robinson, the pastor, alluded to the Apostle Paul’s practice of sending letters, or epistles, to the first churches scattered across the Roman empire.

“Paul sent letters to the churches because he couldn’t be everywhere at once,” says Robinson, who is now senior pastor at Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. “But we got it better than Paul because he couldn’t connect via Zoom.”

Church leaders have long said that the true church is wherever Christians gather, but the pandemic has forced them to live by those words, says Emily Murphy Cope, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at York College in Pennsylvania who specializes in religion.

She says more churches will look for chances to have outdoor services now.

“My church is going to do a bunch of activities over the summer, like meeting up for a hike, having a Bible study and prayer time before going fly-fishing together,” Cope says. “For a long time, churches have said Christians should be where people live, and ministry should be done there. If anything, the pandemic has helped us get out of our church buildings more.”

Rev. Brian X. Needles delivers Easter Sunday Mass via livestream on April 12, 2020, at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in South Orange, New Jersey. Many churches have been forced to adapt during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Robinson says his church found creative ways to show concern for people during the pandemic: placing meals on front doorsteps, setting up a phone system to check in on people who might be isolated, giving “virtual hugs” to one another when physical contact was too risky.

He envisions a post-pandemic future where churches continue to blend online and physical worship.

“We have hybrid cars; now we can have hybrid worship,” Robinson says.

The purpose behind churches trying something new during the pandemic, though, was deeper than adopting fancy new technology, he says.

It was survival.

“They would not allow this thing [the pandemic] to win,” Robinson says. “It [the pandemic] taught us that the church was about the community, less about the building.”

Where the story of Easter and the pandemic meet

There are, of course, many challenges ahead for Christian churches on this Easter morning. The pandemic revealed deep divisions in churches over everything from in-person worship to vaccines and how to confront racial injustice.

And, as pastors like Robinson will tell you, nothing replaces in-person touch. There are many people who suffered and died alone during the pandemic because they could not receive visitors.

But even for those who have been lost, the symbol of the empty tomb on Easter morning is more powerful than the story of the pandemic, Robinson says. “Easter reminds us that death doesn’t get the last word.”

And neither does the pandemic.

People can take even more joy from Easter this morning when they look back at how they and their congregations survived, Robinson says.

“We got through it,” he says. “Life isn’t over. We’re here.”

And when pastors preach this morning about Jesus’ disciples finding new life after experiencing grief, those who have lost so much during the past two years can say:

“And so have we. So have we…”