Millions of people have skipped church during the pandemic. Will they come back? | News, Sports, Jobs


AP Photo / Robert F. Bukaty Minister Greg Foster delivers a sermon at Waldoboro United Methodist Church on Sunday, June 20, in Waldoboro, Maine.

WALDOBORO, Maine – With millions of people left at home away from places of worship during the coronavirus pandemic, struggling congregations have a key question: How many of them will return?

As the pandemic recedes in the United States and in-person services resume, fears of a growing drop in attendance are universal.

Some places of worship will not succeed.

Small organizations with older congregations that have struggled to adjust during the pandemic are the greatest danger of a downward spiral from which they cannot recover, said Reverend Gloria E. White-Hammond, speaker at Harvard Divinity School and co-pastor of a church in Boston.

On the coast of Maine, the pandemic proved to be the last straw for 164-year-old Waldoboro United Methodist Church.

Even before COVID-19 swept the world, weekly attendance had fallen to 25 or 30 in the New England Clapboard Church which could hold several hundred worshipers. The number fell further to five or six before the final service took place on Sunday, Rev. Gregory Foster said.

The remaining worshipers realized they couldn’t continue to maintain the structure and decided to fold up the tent, Foster said.

“We can’t blame everything entirely on COVID. But that was only the coup de grace. Some people did not come back at all ”, he said.

In Virginia, the United Methodist Church of Mount Clifton suffered a similar fate. The church can accommodate more than 100 people but the number of weekly worshipers has fallen to 10 to 15, even before the pandemic.

The little white church built on a hill in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1880s can be rented to another congregation, or it can be put up for sale.

“It’s a complicated picture overall, but the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Reverend Darlene Wilkins, who oversaw Mount Clifton. “It has become almost impossible to maintain.”

In the United States, the latest challenge for places of worship comes against the backdrop of a decades-long trend of a smaller portion of the population identifying as religious.

It is too early to know the full impact of the pandemic. The polls show signs of hope and are also worrying.

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. That’s up slightly from around two-thirds who said in May 2020 that they would if they were allowed to do so. But 7% 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 attend church services regularly expected them to continue at the same or higher rate, while 7% say they will attend in-person services less often.

Lifeway Research, an evangelical research company based in Nashville, Tennessee, says 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, said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway.

“That’s a lot of momentum to lose and a lot of people are breaking the habit” of weekly worship, McConnell said.

Those who succeed in breaking out of COVID-19 lockdowns are likely to be the ones who have adapted better to the pandemic, White-Hammond said. Eight in ten worshipers in the United States said their services are delivered online, Pew said.

Those who kept a connection with the faithful and relied less on the physical passage of the plaque for donations have a better chance of coming out unscathed, White-Hammond said.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, Beth El Temple was closed during the pandemic but has kept worshipers in touch thanks to events like “challah day.” Volunteers baked more than 900 loaves of bread, which were delivered to homes for worshipers to share during a Shabbat meal.

There will be no going back to “Ordinary” after the pandemic, said Rabbi Dusty Klass. “There were people who have returned home and who may never return to the shrine. They can just pray from their couch. It’s up to us to make sure they get the opportunity.

The All Dulles Area Muslim Society, whose main campus is in Sterling, Virginia, said some of its 11 sites have reopened to worshipers with security measures.

“If COVID is 100% gone, I strongly believe our community would be back because people are thirsty … to be together”, said Rizwan Jaka, president of interfaith and media relations.

In San Francisco, the historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral survived when the limbs were rebuilt after a fire after the 1906 earthquake, but it fought mightily during the pandemic to stay open.

The 160-year-old Roman Catholic church, which relies heavily on older worshipers and tourists, lost most of its income after parishes closed during the pandemic. During these “Dark hours”, Reverend John Ardis had to fire most of the lay staff, cut a priest’s salary, and close the parish nursery school.

The plaster is crumbling, the paint is peeling off the walls and dozens of its stained glass windows need to be replaced.

“But these are secondary for the moment” said Ardis. “Because I’m just trying to keep the doors open. “

Here in New England, any shift could be more acute as a smaller proportion of residents identify as religious.

In Maine, Judy Grant, 77, was a newcomer to Waldoboro who started looking at the services online and then began attending in person.

She is upset by the closure.

“I am extremely disappointed” she said. “Many churches are closing. I think COVID played a big role in this latest shrinkage, but they were shrinking even before that ”, she said.

Sunday’s final service was moving, with both smiles and tears, as nearly 60 people gathered in the shrine. Foster preached on new beginnings and encouraged people to continue their faith.

Subsequently, people began to remove some of the contents of the church, including religious paintings, furniture, and other items.

Grant said some are hoping the building will come back to life with a new congregation: “We have to be positive – and pray. “

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