Military chaplains see increased turnout as services go virtual amidst coronavirus pandemic

The tech tactics may continue long after the coronavirus crisis comes to an end.

As the country adapts to social distancing guidelines and "stay at home" orders, these chaplains are utilizing social media and live streaming technology to stay connected with service members and their families -- tactics the military may continue to use long after the coronavirus crisis comes to an end.

Maj. Gen. Steven Schaick, the Air Force Chief of Chaplains, told ABC News that online participation is "considerably higher" than in-person worship services.

He said that the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic is likely contributing to the increased turnout but that the "anonymity" of attending an online service is attractive for someone interested in learning more about religion without fully committing.

"They enjoy the safety that comes with anonymity, and they can kind of test the waters," Schaick said.

Army Chief of Chaplains Maj. Gen. Thomas Solhjem, who called the turnout "unprecedented," pointed to people's need to connect in isolation but said there are also now more chances for individuals to connect around religion online, as chaplains rush to serve their communities in a new way.

"So there's a lot more activity, so it's not just more people looking at what you might be doing, but there's more opportunities than say there were find things that fit their particular spiritual or religious need or requirement," he said.

Solhjem told ABC News that in some cases the virtual services are seeing "hundreds" and "even thousands" more viewers than the in-person format. It also helps that April is an important month for every major world religion with Passover, Easter, the start of Ramadan, and Buddhist New Year -- so there's no shortage of religious services, he said.

Another contributor to the record-breaking attendance? Civil society, Solhjem added, which can now hear from military chaplains in a way that was inaccessible before.

All of these factors have converged as countries grapple with a pandemic that has now claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people worldwide.

"As people are at this time going through collective if you will, global suffering, it's causing-- what we're seeing is people are much more spiritually aware of their mortality, of how fragile life is. And what I'm hearing from the chaplains across the chaplain corps is people are really desirous, hungry. They're looking for hope. They're looking for reassurance," he said.

The online participation has been so positive that the military is looking at retaining some of their virtual strategies even when social distancing becomes a thing of the past.

Schaick said the Air Force is trying to learn more about this new method of engagement and leverage it, adding, "It's about 'How do we reach our airmen? How do we provide soul care for airmen and their families? That's the goal."

"There's going to be an element of our activities after this that will not change," Solhjem said, adding, "You're going to see live streaming in Army chapels."

"We're reaching soldiers and families in our population in ways using this that frankly before we were not. So it's opened up some doors of possibilities, but it will never replace the need for people to meet together," he said.

"It's going to be incumbent upon us to bridge it right so that it just doesn't become a response to an event or to a pandemic but that we're doing things that would cause people to bring this into their lives, and it's sustainable in the future."

Both Schaick and Solhjem said their chaplains are operating nearly 100 percent in the virtual realm but there are circumstances where people are brought together physically, if socially distanced.

For example, on Sunday, Kentucky's Fort Knox is offering a drive-in style service where individuals will pull their vehicle into a parking lot to hear the Easter message on the radio. Other installations have similar plans or have instituted drive-through communions and even drive-in Catholic confessions with chaplains wearing gloves and face masks for protection.

In all cases, chaplains are directed to adhere to Defense Department and Center for Disease Control guidance with exceptions approved by local commanders, they said.

"We have delved into kind of an exploration of virtual religiosity, and it's been an absolute blast to watch and to see experimentation happening," Schaick said, adding, "My hope and my prayer is that this is an Easter to remember, a Passover to remember."

Solhjem expressed a similar sentiment, saying, "This weekend provides a tremendous opportunity for us to give [hope] not only to the Christian community, but those who may be on the periphery or even from other faith traditions, as we have gone through Passover and I mentioned Ramadan coming up."

"This pandemic isn't stopping us from making every effort to stay connected socially and spiritually even though we may have to be psychically distanced," he said.

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