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As churches mark Easter, hope builds for return to in-person services

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Online options that helped congregations in pandemic propelled them into future

The Nett Church in Gwinnett County plans to hold Easter service indoors, the first in-person service inside the church buildings since last March 15.

Since that time, the church, like many others, has turned online, with congregants watching streamed services. Nett Church — which has campuses in Lawrenceville, Lilburn and Norcross — has also held outdoor “house churches,” where members gather to watch the livestream together, following health guidelines.

This Sunday, things will be different.

“We don’t say we’re opening on Easter because we were never closed,” said Lead Pastor Rodrigo Cruz. “Theologically, Easter brings in hope, a new future and a new season. It’s about the resurrection of Jesus and the message he brought. Our community is still living in fear (and) panic, and Easter reminds us to be louder in our message of love and hope.”

For many churches, that hope has come in the form of COVID-19 vaccines as more and more inoculated members are slowly leading to a return to pre-pandemic worship. Easter is the first large religious observance for some churches that plan to hold services inside for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began more than a year ago.

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New data from Pew Research Center found that many people are more confident they can safely attend services in person. Roughly 4 in 10 people who typically attend religious services at least once or twice a month say they actually have done so, in person, during the past month — an increase of 9 points since last summer, according to the survey conducted in early March.

But that trend only goes so far, and many worshippers are still not comfortable being inside. Just 39% of those surveyed plan to attend in-person services this Easter, much lower than the 62% who said they typically go to church on Easter. For many congregations, this Easter Sunday will be the second observed with their doors closed to congregants.

Striving to reunite

Amos King aches to get back inside Beulah Missionary Baptist Church.

He misses the fellowship and in-person worship. He misses the hugs and slaps on the back.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

He knows, though, that not everyone will come back. At least not right away.

“I think churches will lose some attendees on Sunday,” said King, a 59-year-old deacon at the Decatur church. “I don’t think a lot of people will come back in a hurry.”

Early in the pandemic, houses of worship were the site of some COVID-19 outbreaks, including several in Georgia. It forced many to improve their technology game by streaming or recording services online or holding Zoom-inspired worship and small group gatherings. Experts say the changes have propelled many places of worship into the future and ushered in a new era for their parishioners.

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“You don’t have to worry about parking,” said King, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. “You don’t have to worry about getting a seat. You can send money online, so what are you missing? You can go to Bedside Baptist and still feel the Spirit.”

As vaccinations increase, more people will eagerly return to church for in-person services. But many will likely choose a hybrid model for their worship, sometimes in person and sometimes online. Some will continue their individual learning, and others will not come back at all.

New Birth Missionary Baptist Church’s sanctuary holds roughly 7,000 people, said the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, the Stonecrest megachurch’s senior pastor. He doesn’t know, though, when he will see that many people in the church again.

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“The throngs of people that many churches and pastors are used to is gone,” said Bryant, whose church already had a vibrant online ministry before the pandemic.

Bryant expects New Birth to start holding services inside the huge sanctuary either on or after Labor Day weekend. On Easter, though, services will be held outdoors.

“I think about the young family that has adjusted to praising God while eating pancakes,” he said. “They have to get the 4-year-old ready with snacks and a juice box. I think everything is up for grabs.”

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Since then, more than half a million Americans, including more than 15,000 in Georgia alone, have died from COVID-19. Over the past year, just about every aspect of daily life also has changed, from the tragic to the mundane. Between now and March 21, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is publishing several stories chronicling the impact on Atlantans and Georgians — what we’ve lost, how we’ve changed, and what we’ve gained.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta is planning eight services on Easter Sunday, with the possibility of adding two more.

Last year, the church had services that were streamed or held outdoors. For Easter this year, services will again be held in person outdoors, with worshippers following social distancing and other safety guidelines.

Rector Simon Mainwaring called the opportunity to meet in person, even if it is outdoors, “an incredible gift.”

“To be able to worship, that’s a gift,” he said. “Even if a third of the people show up, it will be so worth it to be together. That’s what church is meant to be.”

ExploreHow we gather: Georgians adjust to social distance during COVID but long for intimacy

‘Drop-kicked’ into future

For those who study the religious landscape, these changes were bound to occur at some point, particularly as some denominations struggle with declines in attendance and baptisms.

Houses of faith are bastions of tradition, so change often comes slow and hard, if at all. Many smaller churches didn’t have an online presence or had older congregations who didn’t use streaming services or social media.

“Most people will tell you that the pandemic did not cause new things to happen as much as it accelerated things that were happening anyway,” said Kenda Creasy Dean, a United Methodist Church pastor and a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. “It drop-kicked them 20 years into the future. What’s crazy is that if we had gone at this gradually, we would have argued ourselves to death about it. It was a necessary kick in the pants.”

Nearly 86% of Protestant congregants say they are proud of how their church has responded during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Nashville-based Lifeway Research.

Credit: Hyosub Shin, hyosub.shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin, hyosub.shin@ajc.com

“Pastors have heard their share of second-guessing for how they have handled their church’s response to COVID-19,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said in a statement. “But a large majority of churchgoers agree with their church’s various responses, and few are critical overall.”

David Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, expects to see roughly 20% of worshippers not return.

Even for those churches that continued to hold in-person worship services, there are unknowns, from comfort with a shared Communion cup to a desire for full choirs and big indoor events.

“Those who hung in there are going to be even more committed on the other side,” Gushee said. “They found religion or church is something they cannot do without. I think this could be a time of joyous renewal.”

‘Will they come back?’

The Rev. Ted Clarkson, interim rector at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Augusta, said the church didn’t livestream its services before the virus hit, but now it does on a Facebook page and YouTube, which it plans to continue.

The church plans to hold smaller group meetings and will likely continue holding daily morning prayers on Zoom.

“I don’t know of a clergyman out there who doesn’t worry about the pandemic and people breaking the habit of being in church on Sunday morning,” he said. “Will they come back? I certainly hope so when the pandemic is not a threat any more than the flu or something like that. I’m crossing my fingers and toes.”

The church is just starting in-person services again. He said he’s heard from members who “desperately” want to sit in pews again.

At Congregation Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs, the pandemic forced them to also rethink how they conduct services.

Because it is an Orthodox synagogue, the use of technology was limited and not used at all on the Sabbath. For that reason, said Rabbi Yossi New, the congregation gathered as much as possible in person, following CDC safety guidelines.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Some services were held outside under a big tent, and Zoom was used for weekday services, adult education and children’s programming. However, they shortened the services, so people would spend less time in shared space — and plan to keep it that way.

What was unexpected, many say, was the length of the pandemic and the sheer number of deaths and illnesses.

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Thom S. Rainer, CEO of Church Answers, a Tennessee-based resource center for churches and church leaders, said the pandemic didn’t cause fault lines in the religious community, it exposed them.

Rainer estimates about 8,000 churches close each year; and expects the number to double in 2021. Those that continue will likely move more toward an outward focus.

“If you’re not reaching beyond your walls, you will not reach people,” he said.

Giving held steady in most churches in 2020, but “we are beginning to see financial declines of 15% to 20% in 2021. We anticipate the financial declines will follow attendance declines of around 20% on the average,” he said.

Others say giving has increased as they reach larger audiences from around the world and people are able to give on online through donation apps.

The Rev. Kervance Ross, pastor of Internet and Innovations at New Birth and founder of KDR Consulting, saw his business grow as more churches beefed up their online presence or started from scratch.

Forty-seven percent of the business comes from churches, a 22% jump from five years ago.

“Today every church is a megachurch as long as you have a digital platform,” he said. “Now you have the ability to reach people around the globe.“

Some churches and faith-based organizations who don’t keep up won’t make it, he said.

One of his early clients is Hillside International Truth Center on Cascade Road.

Executive Bishop Jack L. Bomar said the church learned to cater its services to the television and internet market and to a viewership at home with a shorter attention span. It held virtual classes, virtual conferences and town halls.

Like others, the church shortened a service that sometimes could run as long as two hours. Bomar said they plan to continue.

The online service, shown on Facebook, YouTube, the church’s website and Instagram, ran like a well-oiled machine and resulted in skyrocketing viewership.

On Facebook, Hillside receives between 10,000 and 30,000 views a week, coming from 35 different nations, up from 16 nations pre-pandemic.

“We think we have established a new normal and it behooves us to continue this momentum.”

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