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 Charlotte, North Carolina, Temple Beth El was closed during the pandemic but kept congregants in touch through events like “challah day.” Volunteers baked over 900 loaves of the bread, which were delivered to homes so worshippers could share them over a Shabbat meal.
There will be no returning to “normal” after the pandemic, said Rabbi Dusty Klass. “There were people who went home and may never come back to the sanctuary. They may just pray from their couch. It’s up to us to make sure they have the opportunity.”
The All Dulles Area Muslim Society, whose main campus is in Sterling, Virginia, said some of its 11 locations have reopened to worshippers with safety measures.
“If COVID is gone 100%, I firmly believe our community would be fully back because people crave … to be together,” said Rizwan Jaka, chair of interfaith and media relations.
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.
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.”
Associated Press writers Mariam Fam in Winter Park, Florida, Luis Andres Henao in New York and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.