Sight Magazine – Back to church? : Places of Worship Across the United States Struggle to Restore Attendance


When Westminster United Methodist Church in Houston resumed in-person services late last year, after a seven-month hiatus due to COVID-19, there were Sundays where only three worshipers showed up, according to pastor, Meredith Mills.

Attendance has increased slightly since then, but it’s still only about half the pre-pandemic turnout of 160 or 170, Mills estimates.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “People seem to want to leave home less these days. “

Reverend Meredith Mills delivers a pulpit sermon to about 30 people during the day’s second service at the Sanctuary of Westminster United Methodist Church on Sunday, December 12, 2021 in Houston. Attendance at the two Sunday services is only about half of the average attendance of about 160 or 170 before the pandemic, Mills says. “It’s better now than a year ago, but it’s still frustrating,” she said. “People seem to want to leave home less these days. PHOTO: AP Photo / Michael Wyke.

Some places of worship are doing better than Mills Church, others less well. Surveys from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research show how church attendance has plummeted at the worst of the pandemic last year, though many say they are now returning to regular attendance.

Among mainline Protestants, only 1% said in a May 2020 poll that they attend in-person services at least once a week. In the new poll, 14% say they are doing it now, compared to 16% who say they did it in 2019.

“It’s frustrating. People just seem to want to leave the house less these days.”

– Rev Meredith Mills of Westminster United Methodist Church in Houston.

Among evangelical Protestants, 37% now report attending in-person services at least once a week, while 42% said they did so in 2019. In the May 2020 survey, only 11% reported attending services. in-person services as often.

Among Catholics, 26% attend in person at least once a week now, up from 30% in 2019. In the 2020 poll, conducted as many bishops temporarily waived the requirement to attend weekly Mass, only 5% worshiped in person at least. weekly.

At St Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, Ohio, the six services each weekend drew a total of about 3,800 worshipers before the pandemic, according to pastor Bob Stec. Current weekend attendance is around 2,800, Stec says, with 1,600 or more households joining the worship service online.

Elsewhere, churches large and small have taken attendance hits.

John Elkins, a pastor teaching at the Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Brazoria, Texas, said 25 to 30 people have attended services recently, up from about 50 before the pandemic.

“For some, I was not political enough,” he said by email. “Some wanted more activities, others just stopped going to church. “

Sovereign Grace, a Southern Baptist church, had never offered worship services online before the pandemic. When in-person worship was cut short for a month in 2020, leaving online worship as the only option, Elkins said he was offering more crisis counseling to members of the congregation than ever before.

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Reverend Meredith Mills delivers a sermon from the pulpit during the second service of the day at the Sanctuary of Westminster United Methodist Church on Sunday, December 12, 2021, in Houston. PHOTO: AP Photo / Michael Wyke.

In the much larger First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio, there was a near total cessation of in-person worship between March 2020 and September of this year. On two Sundays in September 2020, worshipers were invited to return to church to test the feasibility of in-person services.

“But it was obvious they were still uncomfortable – they came dressed as if they were working at Chernobyl,” Senior Pastor Bishop Timothy Clarke said of hazmat suits. appropriate to deal with a nuclear disaster.

Before the pandemic, the predominantly African-American church held three services every weekend, including one on Saturday evening, with an average total attendance of 2,500 people. Now there is only one service on Sunday and only 500 worshipers – with masks and proof of vaccination – are allowed to enter a sanctuary that can accommodate more than 1,500 people.

Returning to worship in person “gives us a sense of connection and community,” Clarke said. “But you also have security.”

At All Saints Episcopal Church in the Borough of Brooklyn in New York City, average Sunday attendance fell from around 140 pre-pandemic to 30 before rebounding, reaching 120 earlier this month. Reverend Steven Paulikas assigns a mandatory mask policy.

“Wearing the mask reassures people about their health and allows them to do what people come to church to do: worship God,” he said.

Attendance is down sharply from pre-pandemic levels at St Barnabas’s Lutheran Church in Cary, Ill., Which halted in-person worship for more than six months in 2020. Instead , she organized drive-thru in the parking lot.

Before the pandemic, around 115 people would attend one of two services offered on Sundays, said Pastor Sarah Wilson. Now there is only one service and attendance has dropped by more than half.

“Some families are still nervous about being in a room with others, even though most of those present are vaccinated and we need masks,” she said. “Other people have rearranged their priorities and worship is not one of them.”

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Reverend Meredith Mills delivers a sermon to about 70 people seated in folding chairs at the inaugural church service, held in the Fellowship Hall, Westminster United Methodist Church, Sunday, December 12 in Houston. The church organizes two Sunday services. The first is a more flexible and more contemporary service with an electrical band better used by families with children. The second is the traditional service celebrated in the sanctuary. PHOTO: AP Photo / Michael Wyke.

Friendswood United Methodist Church in suburban Houston suffered not only COVID-19-related disruption, but also flooding during a winter storm last February that rendered the sanctuary unusable. It just reopened for services this month, said pastor Jim Bass.

Before the pandemic, Friendswoods Sunday services reportedly attracted around 900 worshipers; Bass was delighted that around 650 people gathered when the shrine reopened for high-energy, music-filled services on December 5.

However, he said average attendance was only half that during most of the pandemic, creating a shortfall of US $ 400,000 in expected donations.

Like many places of worship, Friendswood offered online services as an alternative to in-person attendance. He sees them as a mixed blessing – a plus for older members of the congregation worried about their health, but a deterrent for others who are increasingly disconnected from the church.

“They became spectators,” Bass said.

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At Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rabbi Asher Knight was delighted that the recent Hannukah celebrations drew around 300 people in person. Overall, attendance is now around half of pre-pandemic levels, but an improvement from times earlier in the year when only a handful of worshipers appeared.

“It was demoralizing and painful to run the cult with hardly anyone,” he said. “But in October and November, people got the booster and their children were vaccinated and they slowly started to come back.”

In September, amid an increase in COVID cases, Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida observed Jewish High Holy Days without in-person services. To keep the shrine from looking so empty for online services, Rabbi Judith Siegal and her team filled it with cardboard cutouts depicting members of the congregation, including children and pets.

In-person worship has now resumed and the weekly attendance range – 75 to 125 – is near pre-pandemic levels.

“We always wear masks and the seats are always distributed,” Siegal said. “But our members love it.”

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Children play with banners during the inaugural service, held in the Fellowship Hall at Westminster United Methodist Church on Sunday, December 12, 2021 in Houston. The church organizes two services on Sundays. PHOTO: AP Photo / Michael Wyke.

Among Christians, the option of online worship has been adopted by many evangelical Protestants, according to the AP-NORC poll. About three in ten have broadcast live services at least once a week in recent months, compared to about one in ten Catholic or Protestant.

According to the poll, three-quarters of evangelical Protestants say they pray privately at least once a week, compared to about half of Protestants and mainline Catholics.

About a quarter of evangelical Protestants report having recently spoken by phone or video conference with a religious or spiritual leader at least a few times a month, compared to about one in ten Protestants and Catholics.

Some religious leaders, like Meredith Mills, see bright spots, like more energy in the church, even with fewer worshipers.

“Those who are showing up right now are the ones who really want to be there,” she said. “There is a lot of joy in the room on Sunday morning. This is one of the reasons why, despite everything, I still love my job.

The AP-NORC survey of 1,083 adults was conducted between October 21 and 25 using a sample designed to be representative of the American population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus four percentage points.

Jerry B. Hatch