Millions stopped attending religious services during the pandemic. Will they return?

‘We can’t entirely blame everything on COVID,’ says the pastor of a church that’s now permanently closed. ‘But that was just the final blow.’

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A member of Waldoboro United Methodist Church in Waldoboro, Maine, sings a hymn during a service. The church shut down for good after last Sunday’s service due to a drop in attendance in part due to COVID-19.

A member of Waldoboro United Methodist Church in Waldoboro, Maine, sings a hymn during a service. The church shut down for good after last Sunday’s service due to a drop in attendance in part due to COVID-19.

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

With millions of people having stayed home from places of worship during the coronavirus pandemic, struggling congregations are wondering: How many of them will return?

As the pandemic recedes in the United States and in-person services resume, worries of a deepening slide in attendance are universal.

Some houses of worship won’t make it.

Smaller ones with older congregations that struggled to adapt during the pandemic are in the greatest danger, said the Rev. Gloria E. White-Hammond, a lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School who is co-pastor of a church in Boston.

On the Maine coast, the pandemic proved to be the last straw for the 164-year-old Waldoboro United Methodist Church.

Even before COVID-19 swept the world, weekly attendance had dipped to 25 or 30 at the white-clapboard New England church that could hold several hundred worshipers. The number further dwindled to five or six before the final service was held Sunday, said the Rev. Gregory Foster.

The remaining congregants realized they couldn’t continue to maintain the structur, and decided to fold the tent, Foster said.

“We can’t entirely blame everything on COVID,” he said. “But that was just the final blow. Some people have not been back at all.”

The Rev. Greg Foster leads the singing of a hymn at Waldoboro United Methodist Church. The pandemic was “the final blow” for the Maine church.

The Rev. Greg Foster leads the singing of a hymn at Waldoboro United Methodist Church. The pandemic was “the final blow” for the Maine church.

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

In Virginia, the Mount Clifton United Methodist Church had a similar fate. The church could seat more than 100. But the number of weekly worshipers dwindled to 10 to 15 even before the pandemic.

Now, the small church built on a hill in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1880s might be rented to another congregation or sold.

“The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said the Rev. Darlene Wilkins, who oversaw Mount Clifton. “It just became next to impossible to sustain.”

In the United States, where for decades a dwindlingr share of the population has identified as being religious, about three-quarters of Americans who attended religious services in person at least monthly before the pandemic now say they are likely to do so again in the next few weeks, according to a recent AP-NORC poll. That’s up slightly from the about two-thirds who said in May 2020 that they would if allowed to do so. But 7% said they definitely won’t be attending.

Those findings are in line with a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. residents last summer that found that 92% of people who regularly attend religious services expected to continue at the same or higher rate, with 7% saying they will attend in-person services less often.

Congregations that are successful in reemerging from the pandemic will likely be those that did a better job adapting, White-Hammond said.

According to the Pew poll, eight in 10 congregants surveyed said their services were being streamed online.

Congregations that kept a connection with their members and relied less for donations on physical presence — for instance, the passing of the donation plate — 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 a bread-making “challah day.” Volunteers baked more than 900 loaves and delivered them to people for their Shabbat meals.

There will be no returning to “normal” after the pandemic, said Temple Beth-El 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, has reopened some of its 11 locations to worshipers 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, the society’s chair of interfaith and media relations.

In San Francisco, historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral survived when members rebuilt after a fire following the 1906 earthquake but has struggled during the pandemic. The 160-year-old Roman Catholic church, heavily dependent on older worshipers and tourists, lost most of its revenue after parishes closed during the pandemic. The Rev. John Ardis dismissed most of the lay staff, cut the salary of a priest and closed the parish preschool.

The plaster is crumbling, the paint is peeling, and dozens of 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.”

In Maine, the final service last Sunday at Waldoboro was emotional, as nearly 60 people gathered in the sanctuary, and Foster preached about new beginnings and encouraged people to continue their faith.

Judy Grant, 77, who was a newcomer to Waldoboro. said some hope the building will come alive again with a new congregation: “We have to be positive — and pray.”

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