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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

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.

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.

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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