Wednesday, September 14, 2022

During Pandemic, Small Churches Find Growth Online

By Tracy Simmons

Worshipers gather virtually for service at Clinton Presbyterian Church/Contributed

Research shows median worship attendance in U.S. congregations is on the decline, but for some small churches, the move to online worship has sparked new life.

First Congregational Church of Verona, in New Jersey, has doubled in size  — from six people to 12 — since the church moved to Zoom-only services in 2020.

Marge Royle, church president, said it may not seem like much, but it’s brought new energy to the church and makes a world of difference.

The congregation is without a pastor and its parishioners are made up mostly of retirees. Royle recalled having only four people online for the first Zoom worship service, but after having some training sessions and teaching members how to use the software, attendance began to pick up.

“I’m so proud of them. They really got Zoom quickly,” she said.

And, members liked it, she added. 

Royle explained some worshipers are homebound, others prefer not commuting 20 or 30 minutes to church and some like attending in more comfortable clothes and not having to get dressed and ready for service. Her sister, who lives out of state, has also started logging on Sunday mornings. 

The online service has brought everyone closer together, she said, particularly through the after church coffee discussions. Sunday services are led each week by guest preachers, which Royle said the congregation enjoys because they get to hear new ideas and perspectives each Sunday, which prompts dialogue in the group.

Royle said the church has talked about worshiping in their building for special occasions, but for now have decided to remain virtual.

“Half our people wouldn’t be there and we’d be back to six people rattling around in the sanctuary,” she said. “It’s depressing. It’s not what we want to do on Easter.”

The other benefit to online worship, she said, is that the ‘snowbirds’ can attend year-round.

All Souls Miami, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, has also seen growth since moving to online worship.

Rev. Kenneth Claus of All Souls Miami holds a candle during virtual worship/Contributed

“We are now not just a local parish,” said Rev. Kenneth Claus. “Our members come from several states, all parts of Florida, London and Munich.”

The church has grown from 60 to over 100 members since the pandemic began.

“We were presented with a serious problem and we adapted well because, although we are very diverse, the members do play well together,” Claus said.

He said the congregation is made up of ‘renegade Christians,’ Jews, nones, Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, atheists, agnostics and,  he added, about one-third of the congregation is under 40 years old.

“It doesn’t make sense whatsoever, but it’s who we are,” he said. “And lucky for me, we have some techies.”

He said when the church moved online, it found a fresh following.

Traffic, he said, was a big reason. Getting to church on Sundays wasn’t an easy feat in Miami and people found it took up a big chunk of their day. Zoom fixed that, he explained.

Out-of-towners also started attending, including people who used to worship at All Souls, but had moved away.

“When they heard we were on Zoom, they found they could still be a part of us,” Claus explained. 

He said parishioners from churches he formerly led also started signing in.

Besides virtual Sunday worship, the church also now has an online book club that meets Saturday mornings and has a YouTube audience who participates throughout the week.

“Our congregation is multifaceted in what they like,” he said, “And they all consider themselves All Souls, and they all give. If you feel like you’re part of All Souls, then you’re part of All Souls. You’re under our care, done.”

Until the church went online, Claus was the only minister. Now the congregation has a chaplain and two other reverends helping lead. All clergy, he noted, have disabilities.

“Being virtual has made disabilities moot,” he said.

Though the congregation does hold a hybrid service at a home church on occasion, the majority of services are on Zoom.

“The group is incredibly energizing. There’s nothing fancy, we don’t have a building, we don’t have an endowment, we don’t have big givers, not on anybody’s radar,” Clause said. “For us, it’s worked.”

The Rev. Meagan Manas of Clinton Presbyterian Church in Massachusetts said attendance may not be up, but her congregation has grown in new ways since the pandemic.

Members of Clinton Presbyterian Church pose for a photo of their hybrid congregation/Contributed

The sanctuary of the church is on the second floor, which prior to the pandemic, had the congregation examining how it could better serve members who physically couldn’t climb a flight of stairs.

Manas said it is important for everyone to be able to see, hear and participate in worship. 

When the pandemic hit, the stairs stopped being a problem, but now technology was prohibiting some members from participating since some parishioners didn’t have home computers.

So, the church bought Chromebooks for anyone who needed one. 

Services continue to be hybrid, and the church still provides Chromebooks for those who need them.

“It’s part of our culture now,” Manas said.

Although online attendance has dwindled some in the past year, she said it’s remained a gift for many worshipers.

She explained several West African families are part of the church who tend to work long hours in healthcare. Prior to the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for a family member to have worked all night before coming to church, or only be able to attend on occasion.

“Now we’re seeing these families joining us from home, and think that’s kind of a beautiful gift in this moment when everyone needs a pause,” she said. “We even have a few families where the kids will be on every week, where normally they would have attended every other week because mom or dad was working Sundays.”

About 65 people attend services regularly.

Manas said, however, that youth and family ministry has grown. Now about 12 teens participate in youth fellowship.

“We’re growing in ways people can connect,” she said. “We’re willing to challenge ourselves and have learned a lot.”

The three congregations agree that digital worship — though a tough adjustment at first — is the way for their communities to grow in a post-Covid world.