After Church Buildings Have Been Closed for So Long, Can the Church Recover After COVID-19?
Since March 2020, the US has been in a quarantine period forcing public places, including churches, to shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In May. during a virtual town hall at the Lincoln Memorial, President Donald Trump expressed his desire for Americans to be able to get back into their church buildings for church services. This was at odds with many state governors who have insisted that trips to Planned Parenthood, marijuana dispensaries and grocery stores are safe, but attending church services isn’t.
In fact, it’s been a boom time for liquor stores. According to beveragedynamics.com, during the 18-day period of March 12-29, total sales were up 71%, year over year at Caesar’s Wine & Liquor in Tennessee, which was representative of sales in the liquor industry during the early days of the pandemic. Meanwhile, church buildings remain closed causing some to wonder if the church can completely recover after the novel Coronavirus.
When Will Churches Reopen?
The time period for churches reopening varies by state and also by the ability of local churches to adapt to the local government Coronavirus safety protocols, but at least 30 of the 50 states are close to phase two of reopening the economy after feeling pressure from President Trump. For several weeks, President Trump has been asking governors to end their quarantine period, so many states have begun to implement plans to open businesses and public places, including churches, around the country. However, judges have denied legal challenges in at least 22 cases that were seeking religious exemptions to stay-at-home orders that would allow houses of worship to host gatherings, according to research by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group that promotes the separation of church and state.
Whenever the restrictions are lifted, congregations will be asked to implement social distancing and other safety protocols when they reopen, following plans much like those set forth by the governor of the state of Tennessee. But not all churches plan to reopen when the restrictions are lifted.
Why Will Some Churches Delay Reopening?
According to the Washington Post, some churches are concerned about keeping parishioners apart, especially children. Reopening at 50% capacity and following social distancing protocols, among other things, is proving challenging to some congregations. Holding more services to accommodate fewer people is a daunting task for some churches. Others are concerned about their older members who are more at risk for catching the new Coronavirus.
Still others are hesitant because of reports of church staff who get sick and have to go into isolation after reopening. A Catholic church in Houston had to close its doors after five of its leaders tested positive for COVID-19, including two priests. In addition, on May 20, the CDC released a report Titled “High COVID-19 Attack Rate Among Attendees at Events at a Church — Arkansas, March 2020.” the report is about a rural Arkansas church known as “church A.” The CDC claims that at least 61 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in the community were traced back to that church.
Will People Return to the Pews after the Pandemic?
While many people have missed the fellowship of their friends at their local congregations, many have turned to to online church services during the Coronavirus pandemic. A survey of pastors conducted in April by the Center for Bible Engagement showed that at the time 62% of churches were recording better attendance for online services than for regular church services. An earlier study by CBN indicated that out of 400 pastors who responded to a survey, about half of churches had seen a rise in online church service attendance near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “In our previous research among pastors and regular church attenders, we found that the vast majority of regular attenders are participating in online worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Arnie Cole, CEO of Back to the Bible and Director of Research for the CBE says. “And one-third anticipate their in-person church attendance will not go back to pre-pandemic rates.” In other words, the surge in popularity of online services may keep some from attending services in church buildings when the Coronavirus pandemic is over.
Some experts think that by September social distancing guidelines will be more relaxed, and people may go back to a more normal way of life life, having contact with others, including at their local houses of worship. This would be welcome news to congregations where several hundred to thousand people attend services at the same time on Sundays. According to Cole’s research, out of those participating in online worship services during the lock down period, most (77%) anticipate that their church attendance will be the same after the pandemic.
But some church members have grown accustomed to viewing church services from the convenience of their couch or bed and may decide to continue as part of an online service. Habits take an average of 66 days to form (some say 21 days), and new habits have been formed during the isolation brought about by the pandemic.
“How church leaders plan and respond now will make the critical difference in how the church continues after the pandemic,” says Cole. “Each of us can choose to virtually attend any church with an online presence. This choice can be an add-on to our active participation in our local church, or a substitute for it. Online worship with the mega church across the country can be a ‘yes, and’ or an ‘in lieu of.’ As behavior scientists, we believe the ‘in lieu of’ scenario is the more likely one, and that has many pastors and leaders concerned.”
But many churches remain optimistic about the return of their flocks to their congregations. “We continue to believe that the local church is the hope of the world, and whenever it is possible, we want our doors to be open as a place of spiritual refuge,” says an email message from Life.Church. Some churches are finding helpful tips in a blog post by Lifeway’s Ken Braddy titled “24 Questions Your Church Should Answer Before People Return,” for help. The post covers basics like cleaning and maintaining social distance, but also offers suggestions about handling volunteers and greeters, as well as dealing with special occasions like weddings and funerals.
Can the Church Recover After COVID-19?
Time will tell what the future holds for the church after the Coronavirus pandemic and the drastic change in our lives over the past few months. Habits have been formed and people have had the opportunity to find other worship options. But Christian leaders remain optimistic. The church is not just a building, after all.
“The world has entered an uncertain time. Yet, the silver lining that never changes is our hope in Jesus,” says Walt Wilson of GlobalMediaOutreach.com a web outreach that shares Jesus through technology. “Even in challenging times, God provides Good News. We’re in a new era, realizing our familiar structures and patterns will be forever different. As we pivot, the need for God’s hope and love still exist, and we’ll continue to share it.”
Will the church recover after COVID-19? The answer is yes, but church attendance and outreach may look a bit different in the “new normal.” LifeChurch says that when the church stopped meeting physically, members adapted and attended Life.Church Online in record numbers. Not only are online services booming, but digital giving is growing. CBN points to another trend: Bible verses posted on social media have been receiving three times as much engagement. Other digital resources for churches have flourished. The church is evolving due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and that may not be so bad. Digital resources and online services are here to stay, and that is a good thing.
There is still merit in churches meeting together for fellowship, worship and prayer, however. Digital resources are great for teaching and outreach, but there is still a need for people to meet together in their local congregations. As the writer of Hebrews says:
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrew 10: 24, 25 NIV
Let us know in the comments below if you plan to go back to church services or continue to attend online services, or both, after lockdown restrictions are lifted.
This article originally on how the church will look after COVID-19 was originally published May 18, 2020, and has been updated since then,
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