Finding new ways to worship

Congregations slow to return to numbers seen before pandemic

As churches resume in-person services, many are continuing to livestream online for people who cannot attend or feel more comfortable worshipping from home. (Ashley Duong/The Union)
As churches resume in-person services, many are continuing to livestream online for people who cannot attend or feel more comfortable worshipping from home. (Ashley Duong/The Union)

After serving as an ordained priest for 44 years, Father Nick Adam thought he had seen it all, but the coronavirus pandemic managed to throw him for a loop.

“I never thought I would [preach] like this and with a face shield. I’m becoming used to it, but it’s strange and a little odd,” Adam said.

St. Mary Catholic Church in Fairfield, where Adam serves as a priest, reopened in late June for in-person services. Attendance at the church slowly has begun to creep back up but is not at full numbers just yet.

Before the coronavirus, St. Mary saw an average of 250 people across two weekend Masses. Now instead, many are opting to attend the daily weekday services.

“We had close to 30 people today,” Adam said on Thursday morning. Weekday Masses usually average about 10 to 15 people.

“I think some people are taking advantage of the daily Masses as opposed to the weekend where there may be more people. At the daily Masses more social distancing is available,” he said.

To keep parishioners safe, the church has marked off 6-foot areas and closed access to every other row to help people maintain distance. Disposable face masks and hand sanitizer are readily available. Church secretary Roberta Danielson said about 99 percent of those who attend are in face masks.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe,” she said.

Several weeks into reopening for in-person meetings, churches and their congregations are slowly adapting to the new normal, which often means keeping social distance from one another and wearing face coverings or even worshipping outdoors.

The First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant is continuing to take every precaution to ensure people are safe.

This includes holding services on the Old Threshers grounds, where families sit cloistered together on lawn chairs and distanced from other groups, when in-person services began the first Sunday in June.

While masks are not mandatory, a majority of the congregation wears face coverings during the services. Pastor Trey Hegar said the church has also asked people to hum rather than sing.

Hegar added the leaders of the church recently met to discuss plans moving forward and decided against moving services indoors, the next phase of their reopening plan.

Attendance for the church has been “pretty normal” with 70 to 110 people coming out on Sundays, but with outdoor services, it often depends on weather conditions.

“If it’s a rainy morning, there will be fewer in-person and more people just watching on YouTube,” he said.

Many church members were grateful when services began again. Deb Rodgers and Jean Carpenter sat together during service this past Sunday. They had just picked up their juice boxes and individually packaged crackers for communion.

“It’s nice to be around people again,” Rodgers said.

“We like to give hugs here so that can be tough sometimes,” Carpenter added.

Barb Miller, who had family members visiting from out-of-state, said she felt it was a “blessing” the church could gather again.

Before the church restarted in-person, Miller said she had to figure out how to use Zoom, where the services were being streamed.

Hegar said with the initial shutdown, churches across the nation had to work quickly to find new ways to deliver services.

“We’ve really made our online presence so much more robust,” the pastor said.

In addition to livestreaming Sunday services on Facebook, Hegar posts a prerecorded service on YouTube, which has seen tremendous growth in viewer count.

“This has definitely fundamentally altered the way people will worship,” Hegar said.

“What we’ve seen in the church is there’s been a decline in in-person worship for decades, and now we’ve seen it exacerbated with COVID-19,” Hegar said.

The pastor added in the last two decades, participation in online worship has gone up. For the Presbyterian Church, the numbers have risen exponentially.

“This crisis has speeded up the change. For many people, it’s not going back to normal,” he added.

Other churches are seeing similar shifts. Dave Watson, pastor of the First Assembly God Church in Washington, said preaching to an empty room was even stranger than seeing people grouped in pods.

“I was bringing down some puppets so I had something to preach to,” Watson said of what it was like to record sermons.

Unlike Adam and Hegar, who began livestreaming services when the virus hit, Watson has been doing it for more than five years. Until recently, the videos were averaging about 250 to 300 views. Now the church sees up to 1,400 hits on their Facebook streams.

“In March, when we were still closed, our viewership tripled. I think people were hungry for hope and engagement,” Watson said.

Though Watson has been streaming for a while, he said seeing fewer people physically in church can still be disorienting. However, he sees the change as positive as well.

“I think about how many people the message is getting to. The message needs to be out, and it can reach people’s lives whatever the circumstance,” he added.