A common challenge among churches for over a year has been to find a way to get the message across to the congregation when the congregation cannot make it to church.
Live services have become more prevalent as churches seek to adapt to a world changed by COVID-19, and they remain popular even after many churches reopen and start to see more people in the pews on Sunday.
The First Baptist Church of Gray Summit began broadcasting streaming services through Facebook Live during the initial “flatten the curve” shutdown in spring 2020.
Tommy Schmitt, pastor of the church, partly attributes to these feeds the increase in the number of live spectators of the church in recent weeks. The church experienced a second in-person service shutdown in December, but since reopening in January, it has gradually taken live attendance levels to new heights.
“A church that had between 65 and 85 (attendees), last Sunday (July 18) we had 120,” Schmitt said. “It would be like Easter Sunday for us. Last month we had an average of 94, which is well above our pre-COVID average. “
Now that the church has become accustomed to live streaming services, Schmitt hopes to develop this option in the future.
“It was something that was not on our radar before the pandemic,” he said. “We knew churches that were broadcasting live, but in my mind, I thought it was kind of a big church, a mega-church, with cameras and stuff. The pandemic has shown that a church our size can do this and be successful at it quite well. Now, we are looking to improve our ministry in this area, not by gadgets and gadgets, but by doing it as well as possible, because there are people who are widowed and people who are older and live in establishments that depend on this live stream. “
Donna Schofield-Dolle, pastor at St. Clair United Methodist Church, said face-to-face fellowship remains important, but the practice of ongoing church services is here to stay.
“I think it’s a really good thing the churches had to go online because it’s the wave of the future across the country,” she said. She echoed what another pastor had said about the popularity of on-demand services in other industries like TV streaming and online shopping. “Now you can shop 24/7,” he would say, “so why would we expect millions of people to have to keep an hour on Sundays available? “
Schofield-Dolle joined St. Clair United Methodist Church in June 2020, months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was difficult,” she says. “Usually when you come to a new church, you get together with the people and you either have a listening session with the people or you have small groups of people get together so the pastor can meet them and hear what you are talking about. they have to say – their visions and their hopes and dreams for the church. We couldn’t do it. We could not go to see anyone who was in the hospital or the nursing home. We had a lot of people watching the livestream who couldn’t make it to church so I couldn’t meet them either.
She said her church remained cautious, but the drop in attendance was not so noticeable during the pandemic as it is already a small congregation. She said in-person attendance was close to its weekly average before COVID, with summer weather playing a role in people exiting.
Other churches in the area still see between 60 and 65 percent of their pre-COVID-19 congregations, but members who come are grateful to pray in person again.
“The attitude of many people is, ‘Enough is enough’. Let’s get back to normal, ”said Reverend John Deken, who leads Mass at the Assumption Catholic Church in New Haven and St. Paul Catholic Church in Berger.
Deken said that at the start of the pandemic, his parishes directed its members – about 280 households in New Haven and about 75 households in Berger – to live broadcasts and webcasts from other Catholic churches that had more than resources for providing online services.
Schofield-Dolle and Reverend Gary Schulte, chief pastor of The United Church of Christ St. Peter in Washington, both reported changes in the way their churches deliver fellowship services.
Instead of calling parishioners in person to Communion, packets of wafers are distributed for Communion to be taken while parishioners remain in their socially remote headquarters.
“We have these prepackaged little communion things that are kind of like smaller versions of McDonald’s,” Schulte said. “It’s pretty hard for some people to open them, and you have to remove one layer, then the other. “
Schofield-Dolle said she encourages people who watch online services to commune with anything they have available, such as toast, cookies, a banana, juice or beer.
Churches also had to give up the practice of passing a collection plate, instead of leaving a box or plates by the door for people to make their offerings when they come in or out or accept tithing online.
Another big change for Schulte has been the need to avoid physical contact with parishioners in order to follow social distancing protocols.
“What I missed a lot is visiting the people at the gate,” he said. “I am like a magnet. If I’m at the door, they’ll want to shake hands, and then you move from person to person. Before COVID, I never thought about it too much. I’m not a germophobe, but I certainly think about the responsibility I have when it comes to “Hi, how are you?” over and over again and just exchanging handshakes with everyone down the line. “
St. Peter’s, a nearly two-century old institution in downtown Washington, was one of the last churches in the community to resume in-person worship, in April 2021, and has since seen fewer people attending. than its pre-pandemic services.
Adapting to the new circumstances is nothing new for churches, Schulte said, noting that the church is reverting to old ways of worshiping while continuing to serve people who have started attending outside online services. of the region, including one in Wright City and others in Florida and Texas.
“Churches are also survivors,” said Schulte. “This church has been around for 175 years. They might not have seen anything like it, but the Spanish flu, the Great Depression – churches big and small have a way to survive.
Schmitt said the whole experience has shown how much more the church is than its grounds.
“A lot of our events (that) we did by inviting people into our building, we had to transform into ways of leaving our building and giving food to people in the community,” he said. “Instead of ‘Come to our property, and we will feed you,’ we had to go out and serve our community. I think it shed light on what it means to be the church and what it means to leave our property and love our community. I think there is a real sense of hope and optimism in doing this.
State of Faith: Church Membership, National Attendance Declines
In the United States, the COVID challenge for places of worship comes against the backdrop of a decades-long trend to reduce the number of people identifying as religious.
It is too early to know the full impact of the pandemic, although polls and attendance figures from local congregations show signs of hope – and cause for concern.
About three-quarters of Americans who attended in-person church services at least once a month before the pandemic say they will likely do so again in the next few weeks, according to a recent AP-NORC poll. More than 25 percent of former practitioners said they had no plans to return to their church in the next few weeks or months.
This is a change from May 2020, when around two-thirds of respondents said they would return if allowed to do so. But 7 percent said they definitely would not participate.
These findings are consistent with a Pew Research Center survey of US residents last summer. It found that 92% of people who attended church services regularly expected them to continue at the same or higher rate, and 7% said they would attend in-person services less often.
According to LifeWay Research, an evangelical research company based in Nashville, Tennessee, many churches lost momentum when in-person services were closed. A small but worrying number of worshipers are emerging from the pandemic in limbo without a religious home, LifeWay executive director Scott McConnell told The Associated Press.
“That’s a lot of momentum to lose and a lot of people are breaking the habit” of weekly worship, McConnell said.
McConnell’s comments echo a new Gallup analysis highlighted by The Christian Post earlier this year, showing a marked shift from formal church memberships. Data showed that for the first time in nearly 80 years, less than half of Americans officially remain members of a specific place of worship.
In 1937, according to Gallup, when they first measured formal membership in places of worship, about 70 percent of Americans had formal church membership, and this measurement remained stable for the next 60 years. until it began to decline steadily in 1998. In 2020, formal membership in places of worship stood at 49 percent.
Churches that succeed in breaking out of COVID-19 lockdowns are likely to be the ones that have adapted better to the pandemic, church officials say. Eight in ten worshipers in the United States said their services were streamed online, according to Pew.