The COVID-19 pandemic forces American churches to a nationwide account of how to safely reopen
The COVID-19 pandemic forces American churches to a nationwide account of how to safely reopen

The COVID-19 pandemic forces American churches to a nationwide account of how to safely reopen

Since the onset of the pandemic, personal church attendance has dropped by a staggering 45% nationwide, according to an ABC analysis of churches across more than 3,000 U.S. counties from cellphone data provided by Safegraph.

In the last two years, many congregations have turned to virtual services to stay connected.

“The ‘pancake church’ phenomenon thrived during the pandemic – eat pancakes and watch church on TV,” said Dr. Brent Taylor, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in The Fields, Carrollton, Texas.

But church leaders suggest that for most, all-virtual services are not sustainable in the long run because the current situation drains churches financially and dampens the experience for many. Church leaders tell ABC News that people are more likely to donate when it comes to personal worship services. Also, the morale of society is negatively affected without the human interaction that comes with people physically participating in worship services, they say.

Recently, many churches begins to return with a hybrid model – a mixture of personal and virtual worship – where some faith leaders see the congregation grow again and new parishioners come to their churches.

“This participation was lower in the beginning, and those numbers have risen to the level where we are currently at the pre-pandemic level, but we still offer virtual services as well,” Taylor added.

Faith leaders have to contend with the risks of personal worship, while also reckoning with the politicization of vaccinations and mask mandates. Many are still struggling, their challenges are unique depending on the demographics of their communities.

“We do not have a playbook here, we do not have a precedent,” said Dr. Terence Rhone, National Director of Pulmonology for the Care More Health Plan and pastor of Mt. Sinai Church of God in Christ near Los Angeles.

In addition, the data showed that there were differences in attendance within the counties with different predominantly religious affiliations. Ten small southern counties – and the country’s only predominantly black Protestant counties – lost 62% of their personal worshipers during the nearly two-year period. It was the largest turnout among counties with a majority of worshipers of a particular religious affiliation.

But at the same time, attendance dropped by only 43% in the southern counties, where the population was predominantly evangelical Protestants. These patterns suggest that in addition to regional, cultural, and accessibility prejudices, differences in church doctrine of faith and medicine or church attendance policies may also have been a factor in sanctuary worship during the pandemic.

While some churches are now experiencing more of their parishioners returning to the church chairs, others have had no choice but to close their doors permanently.

“Priests are feeling the effects of this pandemic, and they’re just being driven to a point of exhaustion, both mentally and emotionally,” Rhone said.

The lack or limitation of attendance reduces the much-needed revenue to keep churches open, especially those with few members. Add to that the constant debates about what practical and affordable health safety protocols need to be implemented, recurring increases in cases and updates of health recommendations create a melting pot of challenges for churches.

“I see pastors leaving the ministry because they are exhausted and tired of political fights,” Taylor said.

For those seeking to return to personal services, new variant-driven increases are forcing religious leaders to assess how to assemble safely. Some worship leaders have implemented mandate masks, social distancing, and restrictions on the number of people who can attend in person. Others get their choir members tested before singing their hymns Sunday morning, and others install systems to improve ventilation in their shrines.

These new approaches to going to church in person are welcomed by some members.

“The COVID reduction that some churches have introduced has made parishioners comfortable,” said churchgoer Latasha Barnes, describing her experience of returning to personal worship. She chose to return to personal rather than participate virtually because she wanted to feel more engaged.

“Once you get in, you have a mask ready, everyone gets their temperature and hand alcohol checked throughout the church. We even sit by the family to minimize the risk, and the officers make sure the traffic is minimized,” Barnes added.

But church leaders and churchgoers say returning to personal service can also take an emotional toll because many ward members have passed away from COVID-19.

“The church is a reminder of people who have died because you do not see them next to you on the pulpit,” said Dr. Green, CEO of the Family Christian Health Center in Harvey, Illinois.

And church leaders say that because of the ongoing threat, many churches will continue to offer virtual services to their members. The opportunity to worship while in your own home and staying safe has been a welcome alternative for many. This option is becoming more and more popular to the point that some leaders find it a necessary tool for engagement, especially during the pandemic.

“The future of the church is a hybrid model, I think, because you’re just going to see more and more people following you online, instead of coming to your sanctuary,” Rhone said.

Congregation leaders agreed that there is still a long way to go to determine a “new normal” for worship. Every house of worship will have its specific factors and risks to assess which decisions are the safest. It will take time, but many leaders are still hopeful that public health and science will guide decisions that will be made.

Alexis E. Carrington, MD is an associate producer at ABC News’ Medical Unit and a growing dermatologist residing at George Washington University. Mark Nichols is senior manager of data journalism for ABC News. Dr. Jay Bhatt is an intern, instructor at the UIC School of Public Health and a contributor to ABC News.

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