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Waldoboro United Methodist Church in Waldoboro, Maine held its last worship service on June 27, with attendance declines in the past year forcing its closure. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Millions Skipped Church During COVID Pandemic. Will They Return?

By Associated Press

With millions of people having stayed home from places of worship during the coronavirus pandemic, struggling congregations have one key question: How many of them will return?

As the pandemic recedes in the United States and in-person services resume, worries of a deepening slide in attendance are universal.

Some houses of worship won’t make it.

Smaller organizations with older congregations that struggled to adapt during the pandemic are in the greatest danger of a downward spiral from which they can’t recover, said the Rev. Gloria E. White-Hammond, lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School and co-pastor of a church in Boston.

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

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Even before COVID-19 swept the world, weekly attendance had dipped to 25 or 30 at the white-clapboard New England church that could hold several hundred worshippers. The number further dwindled to five or six before the final service was held Sunday, said the Rev. Gregory Foster.

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

“We can’t entirely blame everything on COVID. But that was just the final blow. Some people have not been back at all,” he said.

In Virginia, the Mount Clifton United Methodist Church experienced a similar fate. The church can seat more than 100 but the number of weekly worshippers dwindled to 10 to 15, even before the pandemic.

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

“It’s a complicated picture overall, but the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said the Rev. Darlene Wilkins, who oversaw Mount Clifton. “It just became next to impossible to sustain.”

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

It’s too early to know the full impact of the pandemic. Surveys do show signs of hopefulness — and also cause for concern.

About three-quarters of Americans who attended religious services in person at least monthly before the pandemic say they are likely to do so again in the next few weeks, according to a recent AP-NORC poll. That’s up slightly from the about two-thirds who said in May 2020 that they would if they were allowed to do so. But 7% said they definitely won’t be attending.

Those findings are in line with a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. residents last summer. It found that 92% of people who regularly attend religious services expected to continue at the same or higher rate, while 7% say they will attend in-person services less often.

Nashville, Tennessee-based Lifeway Research, an evangelical research firm, says many churches lost steam when in-person services shut down. A small but concerning number churchgoers are coming out of the pandemic in limbo without a church home, said Scott McConnell, Lifeway’s executive director.

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

Those that are successful in reemerging from the COVID-19 lockdowns will likely be those that did a better job adapting to the pandemic, said White-Hammond. Eight in 10 congregants in the U.S. reported that their services were being streamed online, Pew said.

Those that kept a connection with congregants and relied less on the physical passing of the plate for donations stand a better chance of emerging unscathed, White-Hammond said.

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

The 160-year-old Roman Catholic church, which is heavily dependent on older worshippers and tourists, lost most of its revenue after parishes closed during the pandemic. During those “dark hours,” the Rev. John Ardis had to dismiss most of the lay staff, cut the salary of a priest and close the parish preschool.

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

“But those are secondary at the moment,” Ardis said. “Because I’m just basically trying to trying to keep the doors open.”

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

Following its final service on June 27, 2021, members lamented the closure of 164-year-old Waldoboro United Methodist Church in Waldoboro, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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

She’s upset by the closure.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said. “A lot of churches are closing. I think COVID had a big part in this latest shrinkage, but they were shrinking even before that,” she said.

The final service on Sunday was emotional, with both smiles and tears, as nearly 60 gathered in the sanctuary. Foster preached about new beginnings and encouraged people to continue their faith.

Afterward, people began removing some of the church’s contents, including religious paintings, some furniture, and other items.

Grant said many hope the building will come alive again with a new congregation: “We have to be positive — and pray.”

Reported by David Sharp of Associated Press, with contributions from AP writers Mariam Fam in Winter Park, Florida, Luis Andres Henao in New York and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington.

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22 thoughts on “Millions Skipped Church During COVID Pandemic. Will They Return?”

  1. Brothers and sisters who are/were at high risk of death had the option to stay home and “stay safe” free of any judgement, but the older ones I know had a hard time with the livestreaming and Zoom meetings. Consider also the learning curve with the newer technology, plus, older generations are typically content with low to no bandwidth. But also, it’s just not the same.
    People need people – present. Risking getting sick to be in each others presence in God’s name is fellowship. There is something disheartening about being treated as a leper; what did saints of old do during the black plague…what did Jesus do? Churches closed their doors to healthy people and people who didn’t mind the risk. Why were they not allowed to continue to meet and worship together? Church leaders showed their fear (and it was not fear of the LORD). What do you think that does to the sheep? It makes the sheep fearful as well. You are showing them that fear of death is okay and fellowship is unimportant. Pastors and elders are so busy doing church, they forget to read their Scriptures.
    My church laid their foundation on Romans 13 and appointed our state governor king over the bride of Christ. They forgot that obeying God was above obeying worldly authority. And the World hates Jesus and will hate the believer because of Jesus, yet we are to obey when they tell followers of Jesus to not meet? Where is Wisdom?

    And now that those people were abandoned by their church “leaders”, they realize they don’t want to come back. Lord have mercy on their souls because, do you blame them? Bring them back to yourself, O Lord!

    There is a sifting going on. many who were abandoned by their own local church had weak faith anyway and are falling away. Others, like myself, are doing home church and did it even during the pandemic. I have heard that some people continued to meet and caught COVID and died, but I guarantee that to them it was worth the risk because they are now with Jesus.

    I don’t blame COVID for people not wanting to go back to church, I blame weak pastors and elders making a problem worse and allowing Satan a foothold.

    1. Many churches closed initially as they didn’t want to spread the COVID-19 outbreak due to how much was unknown about it. Then governments decided to give preference to abortion mills and strip clubs, and churches had to fight to reopen.

      I agree that there is a sorting of the wheat and the weeds. Many who were marginally committed likely won’t be back. But others who’s churches stayed closed even when safe to return, are looking for new church homes.

      1. Andrew Thomas

        Mr. Reeder,

        When a church receives 501(c)(3) status, they accepted 2 masters (something Jesus specifically addressed as impossible), and now have federal oversight. When, under Obama, the government mandated churches had to to pay for abortions, birth control, trans therapy, and hire people that are theologically opposed to church doctrine, the churches had no recourse in the courts.

        The churches could not argue that they are under God’s law because they agreed to the federal oversight. The churches had the option to give up their tax exempt status and return to God’s law, but you saw how many churches were willing to do so.

    2. Jared you said:”I have heard that some people continued to meet and caught COVID and died, but I guarantee that to them it was worth the risk because they are now with Jesus.” How do you know they would say that? Are you saying it was ok that they put others at risk of dying that were not Christians?

      1. Andrew Thomas

        Mr. Parker,

        The reason he says “I guarantee …” is because they chose to continue to meet despite the risk. They were willing to accept the consequences of practicing their faith, something most of the churches and pastors were not willing to do.

        It is one thing to say how strong your faith is as a pastor/church, it is another to actually show it when there is risk to your health or comfort level. The amount of Jesus virtue signalling going on in modern churches is disgusting and this “pandemic” showed the Christian and non believer communities the churches/pastors true colors.

        1. Andrew: You said:”The reason he says “I guarantee …” is because they chose to continue to meet despite the risk. They were willing to accept the consequences of practicing their faith, something most of the churches and pastors were not willing to do.”

          I do not think Jesus ever asked us to do such and those that chose not to go have no less faith.

          1. Andrew Thomas

            Mr. Parker,

            I do not understand your point “I do not think Jesus ever asked us to do such and those that chose not to go have no less faith.”

            You “do not think…”? What teaching by Jesus is this based on? These Christians put God before self, exactly what Jesus preached.

            Nobody is forcing anyone to expose themselves to C19. If you are in fear and want to stay home, you have the right not to gather for prayer/service, but those that accept the risks are free to go and worship.

            Did Jesus ever turn someone away? Did Jesus refuse to minister to the lepers? Did Jesus ever cancel His sermons? Did Jesus say if you choose to follow me you are allowed do it on your own terms? Did Jesus ever say that we can pick and choose which of His teachings to follow? Did Jesus ever say following Him was safe and easy?

            On another point, why haven’t we as Christians been this concerned for other lives during flu season for the past 50 years? Why haven’t churches closed their doors to slow the spread and protect their fellow man/woman?

  2. Christopher Hanley

    When one’s church uses the COVID-19 pause as a reason to switch over to Hillsong-style music, and then wonders why people aren’t coming back in big numbers(mostly older people)… We’re told the switch was to “keep the young people in the church” but they still seem to be fleeing like Cubans on a raft.

  3. If I may say, we kept the lines of communication open with our Congregation, and that did help to some degree. However, we still have people that haven’t returned in the name of being “fearful”…….yet they’re all over the place, at the Mall, in Restaurants, in the beauty parlor, barbershops, and just out and about. I’ve learned that people really are interesting creatures……when it comes to the things of God. We’re willing to sacrifice and do everything for the things that really matters to us, but when it comes to the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, we have little dedication and commitment to it…….but we still want to profess faith in Jesus…….as long as that means that we don’t have to be too serious about Him.

    1. I believe the Book of Solomon discusses this–There is nothing new under the sun. BTW going to church does not mean you are a believer.

      1. Marin Heiskell

        @Tom, you remind me of a saying by my great grandmother: “Sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car!”

      2. Larry Statten

        I would say that many folk will not be returning back to church because their pastors and elders clearly don’t believe Psalm 91 and may as well tear it out their bibles since they don’t believe it or preach it.

        Now that’s a reason not to return.

  4. I know people who now feel a strained relationship with their church over the prevalence of nationalism and anti-vax conspiracy theories and so-on. From what I’ve seen, most pastors seem to advocate that we agree to disagree, but it often isn’t panning out that way. One of my friends got a lot of push-back from his church friends for getting vaccinated. And this was a large, mainstream evangelical church in a large city. I know a few others that stopped fellowshipping because all people wanted to talk about was politics. My wife works in healthcare, and the cavalier attitude many in the church had toward the pandemic while her hospital was under tremendous strain, made church very difficult for her. I hope that this is all water under the bridge and things get more peaceable. We shall see.

  5. Marin Heiskell

    Blaming the lack of return attendance to church solely on covid19 (and responses to it) is to oversimplify and overlook what has happened over the last 18 months – which also includes further exposure of the abuse, power-grabs, political partiality, infighting, and outright hypocrisy of many who call themselves Christians – or even worse – pastors.

    For example, it’s interesting that when a church or pastor obeys government leaders or files for tax-exempt status, they are called out for “having 2 masters” and “caving to Caesar”, but when they vocally support and justify the sins of conservative or Republican political leaders, they are hailed for “defending the faith against God-haters.” Oh, and to vocally support or justify teh sins of a liberal or Democrat is to allegedly confirm they are “God-haters.” Huh? Do you realize how hard that tapdance is to explain – much less justify – AND also claim to love and prioritize Christ at the same time?

    The content of this site is another example. (Ms Roys, please know I am not blaming you, but just emphasizing that your work rightfully exposes and highlights PLENTY of other reasons people are hesitant to return to the church).

    If we as the body of Christ blame our dwindling numbers solely on covid19, I fear we will miss an opportunity to openly and humbly repent of the NUMEROUS sins that have been exposed and radically return to the feet of Christ. That in and of itself is a powerful testimony that can encourage our frustrated brothers and sisters to reengage while also winning the hearts of the lost.

      1. There were plenty of other institutions that are not under 501(c) that were forced to comply with the mandates, so I’m not really sure what your point is.

        1. Andrew Thomas

          I am not addressing closings.

          I asked a specific question in response to this statement above:

          “For example, it’s interesting that when a church or pastor obeys government leaders or files for tax-exempt status, they are called out for “having 2 masters” and “caving to Caesar”, but when they vocally support and justify the sins of conservative or Republican political leaders, they are hailed for “defending the faith against God-haters.”

          I was asking for an explanation of how a church with 501(c)(3) status is not serving 2 masters.

          Would you like to explain how 501(c)(3) is not serving 2 masters?

          1. Marin Heiskell

            How is a church (or pastor) that openly supports and defends a political party not serving two masters?

  6. I’ve seen something else that has occurred that has hurt the image of the Church, and it has to do with insincere people that want the Church to show more sympathy for people that are in fact God-haters and Christ rejectors, while criticizing the people that believe in the principles and truths found in the Scriptures. While I really don’t want to make this a political issue, an example of what I’m saying is many people in and around the Church hated President Trump, not for his policies that were helpful to many in the country, especially minority groups, but for his raw personality, while at the same time they thought that Joe Biden was somehow a better option when his belief system as well as his policies were/are antithetical to Christian beliefs. That is amazing to me!

    I fear that the Christian Church has lost her way in this culture because we’re trying hard to be accepted by a culture that wants to put the Church into the closet and shut us up and shut us down. In my life time, I’ve not seen people who profess faith in Christ that are so very easily weakened and scared of the culture as this current generation. I pray that God will give us courage and strength to be able to stand the test that is surely to come!

    1. Marin Heiskell

      @Wayne,

      Thank you for proving my point re: supporting and justifying sins of Republicans in the name of politics. “Raw personality” makes Trump’s behavior sound cute. Call it what it is called in scripture: SIN.

  7. Andrew:

    What specific scripture(s) can you list that clearly say that Christians should endanger their lives? Have you ever taken a vaccination?

    1. Andrew Thomas

      Mr. Parker,

      You must not have read my reply to you above, so I will partially re-post here:

      “Nobody is forcing anyone to expose themselves to C19. If you are in fear and want to stay home, you have the right not to gather for prayer/service, but those that accept the risks are free to go and worship.

      Did Jesus ever turn someone away? Did Jesus refuse to minister to the lepers? Did Jesus ever cancel His sermons? Did Jesus say if you choose to follow me you are allowed do it on your own terms? Did Jesus ever say that we can pick and choose which of His teachings to follow? Did Jesus ever say following Him was safe and easy?

      Jesus warned us following Him was not safe or easy, we would be shunned, labeled, prosecuted, and attacked for our faith.

      Why haven’t we as Christians been this concerned for other lives during flu season for the past 50 years? Why haven’t churches closed their doors to slow the spread and protect their fellow man/woman?”

      My medical history is really none of your business, just like your sexual history is none of mine, but I will answer for the sake of this discussion. I was vaccinated when I was a infant and had a girlfriend talk me into a flu shot in 1998, but in the end I chose to get it, she did not force me.

      What point would you like to make?

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