PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — For the first time in 80 years, according to a Gallup survey, most Americans do not belong to a place of worship. The numbers have been falling for years and now, because of the pandemic, thousands of places of worship could close permanently.
Research firm, Barna Group, estimates that in-person church attendance is 30% to 50% lower than pre-pandemic figures.
“We normally live our lives in an ocean and the pandemic has made everything so much smaller,” said Reverend Jim Curran, pastor of The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Norfolk.
Gone are the crowds that filled the pews for Sunday services; gone are the dozens of mourners who attended the funeral; for some, the warmth of in-person fellowship so desperately needed in this time of global turmoil is gone.
“After existing for only a boom year, it was a shock and suddenly our world turned upside down,” said Rabbi Israel Zoberman who is the founder of Lev Tikvah.
This is a pandemic that does not discriminate. Leaders of all faiths have made major adjustments amid shutdowns, crowd restrictions and mask mandates.
“It changed our teaching ministry, it changed our fellowship, it changed everything we do.”
“We reopened in March 2021 and what we’ve seen is that there hasn’t been a full return of the congregation to in-person worship,” said The Reverend Dr Geoffrey Gunns, pastor of Second Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk. “We have a large number of people worshiping virtually and I have shared with pastors that you can expect a number of your congregants not to return to worship in person.”
As the pandemic enters its third year, there are warnings that 1 in five places of worship could close permanently.
“Statistics say 15,000 churches in North America will close,” echoed Bishop Kim W. Brown, who is the presiding prelate of The Mount Global Fellowship of Churches.
Here in Hampton Roads, some places of worship defy predictions. The Mount, with 8 brick and mortar locations, now has a ninth location called the Virtual Mount which is a product of the pandemic.
“On New Year’s Eve, we did a two-hour production and preached four points from my sermon. Each of the points was in a different geographic location, Bishop Brown explains. “The first point was in Atlanta, Georgia, the second at Langely Speedway, the third at a bank and the fourth in my backyard. The audience was 25,000 people across six continents.
Bishop Brown says the pandemic is minimizing church walls while expanding church reach.
“Someone who is a church consultant to us said that COVID has compressed ten years of change in the church. We just rolled out a new platform that allows you to sit next to the people you are next to. you want to sit in a virtual church and that allows you to interact with these people, boasted the bishop.
AT Renaissance Unit in Chesapeake in the first year of the pandemic, the church received its highest amount of contributions ever. It was enough to build a million dollar extension including a space where tutoring services are offered to children who have fallen behind during the pandemic.
“We went through the toughest times where being together was one of the happiest days I’ve ever had in my life.”
The years, 164 of them, included 6 pandemics at the current location of St. Mary’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Father Jim Curran looks forward to the day when the whole herd returns.
“This church has been closed for almost five years [for renovation] and when we came back it was during the pandemic. So I haven’t seen this church full yet,” the pastor, Reverend Jim Curran, said.
As it looks like the pandemic could reach endemic status later this year, Father Curran has this assessment of how a global health crisis has affected humanity.
“We normally live our lives in an ocean and the pandemic has made everything so much smaller. The tiniest little ripple in this pond can look like a tsunami and I think that’s what we see happening,” Fr. Curran says. “Everything, even the mask forces Critical Race Theory… you cling to one thing and it becomes everything because everything is so small now; it’s so isolated.
Reverend Curran says that when we can expand our living space – where we exist – then everything expands.
“I think it’s going to take time, but I think we’ll do it because that’s what we do; human beings are remarkably adaptive, Reverend Curran said.
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