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

Shelia Poole, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Religious News

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.”

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.

 

“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.”

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