Closing Doors Is Boosting Church Attendance, But Can Online Activity Stem Christianity's Decline?

This story is being co-published with Religion Unplugged.

When Tate Spring Baptist Church canceled its in-person services to combat the coronavirus in Arlington, Texas, Pastor Curtis James wanted to re-create a weekly Bible study for the kids in his ministry.

Breaking down complex theology for elementary and middle school kids to grasp is no easy task. Take away in-person interactions, add distractions, and some would say it's nearly impossible. But James found a way: by building a world inside the popular Legos-like video game Minecraft that his kids, now teens, used to play.

This Sunday, the church is hosting an Easter egg hunt inside the virtual world. The church's ministry serves about 30 kids, who participate in a weekly Bible study inside Minecraft. Now, hundreds have registered to participate in the egg hunt from across the country, with more added every day. The National Esports Association heard about his project and helped expand the hunt. Then computer programmers from as far away as Australia and the Czech Republic volunteered their time, happy to contribute some cheer to kids trapped indoors.

"We secured a larger server," James said. "But we had no idea that it would blow up like it has."

Despite seven states allowing religious exemptions for gatherings, only 3 percent of churches in the U.S. plan to hold in-person Easter services, according to a LifeWay survey of Protestant pastors. Many churches are getting creative with worship at a distance, asking congregants to lay palm branches in their driveway, as Jesus' followers did to treat him like a king entering Jerusalem on a donkey; placing puppets or photos of church members in the pews shown during online sermons; and handing out bags of plastic eggs stuffed with candy and Bible verses for families with children to have a backyard egg hunt.

The nearly nationwide stay-at-home orders will test whether churches can maintain a connection with their communities to draw them back inside their doors when it's safe to do so again—or speed their decline.

It's clear that Christianity is slowly but steadily losing believers in the U.S., particularly among Catholics and mainline Protestants like Episcopalians and Lutherans. Only 65 percent of Americans called themselves Christians in 2019, down from 77 percent a decade earlier, while 26 percent identify as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, a rise from 17 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

New York City's St. Patrick's on March 18. On Palm Sunday, more than 150,000 people online watched Cardinal Timothy Dolan give the Mass in the cathedral. Getty/Noam Galai

University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith said those who have stopped attending church during the pandemic will likely return at normal rates, although the risk of losing followers is probably greater for Catholics than other groups, like white evangelicals or black Protestants.

"I think there are forces that could work for and against church involvement as a result of this crisis," Smith said. "My guess, just a guess, is that it won't change anything big either way. At least unless things go really, really badly for deaths and the economy."

Many churches are seeing higher participation online than they could fit in their sanctuaries.

In a survey April 6, 44 percent of pastors said their attendance online has been higher than normal (29 percent said much higher and 24 percent said slightly higher), according to the Barna Group, an evangelical polling company. Seventeen percent said their attendance is basically the same after the switch online, and 29 percent said attendance is down.

Tate Baptist Church, which counted 400 to 450 people on a normal Sunday before stay-at-home orders in the U.S., had 439 views of its Sunday sermon on Facebook. Nashville's Mount. Zion Baptist Church, a tech-forward megachurch and one of the oldest and largest black congregations in the U.S., sees a weekly attendance of 10,000 and had more than 12,000 views on its Facebook live stream last Sunday.

While smaller Catholic parishes streaming online are more likely to lose followers to the larger archdiocese channels, large cathedrals are pulling in views more than 50 times their seating capacity.

On Palm Sunday, more than 150,000 people watched Cardinal Timothy Dolan give the Mass at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, which seats 2,400. Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which seats up to 1,700 people, live streamed last Sunday's Mass to more than 100,000 screens. Washington's National Cathedral, with a capacity for 4,000 in its pews, had nearly 74,000 views on its YouTube video of the same day's Mass. In the live chat, viewers greeted one another from the D.C. area and beyond, including several members of nearby Episcopal churches.

"Peace of the lord from San Diego!" Michael Tierney wrote, while a socially distanced choir sang to organ music and four priests waved palm branches in the air, standing more than 6 feet apart from each other near the altar.

"Blessings from Long Island, NY," Jean Dougherty replied. Others chimed in from Alaska, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Mississippi in the next few minutes.

"Blessings to the world!" a user named Angelina wrote. "We must all go to god!"

YouTube underestimates the number of viewers, depending on how many families and households share the same screen. It may also overestimate viewers if the same person watches the Mass more than once, and the number of views does not measure how much of the service, often 40 minutes to an hour long, a person watched.

"One of the things that I've observed about the data this week is that even though churches are beginning to say it might not be until June or later [when they can meet again], there's still this overall good cheer that leaders are expressing about the stability of the environment," said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. "In the data, there's a sense that pastors are trying to keep their chin up, but they're also thinking they need to be prepared for what might be the toughest month of ministry any of us have ever had."

While most churches pay attention to their attendance records, their primary concern is usually the spiritual lives of the faithful already active in their community and what their members do between Sunday meetings. As the U.S. continues entering a post-Christian phase, many Christians liken themselves to the small remnant of Jews exiled to ancient Babylon who, the Bible says, successfully passed on their traditions despite an exodus of their people relenting to the dominant secular culture.

"Young Christians, becoming a resilient disciple means engaging in spiritually formative practices beyond attending church," Kinnaman wrote about millennials leaving the church. "If we want to follow Jesus with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, all of us in modern exile must consider the total input and output of our faith. The input can't simply be a few hundred hours of passive church attendance in a year."

Rhema Trayner, who leads a movement of house churches called Revive the Way, is deeply concerned about how many young people are leaving the faith. She believes the Western church has become consumeristic, a place for people to sit and receive a message with a "come and eat and leave mentality."

"This strange season of church where people have had to do it online is really interesting because I think people will find they aren't missing anything at all except for people," she said. "Your worship on your own should be more fruitful than meeting in a large crowded room. It can highlight the individual lack of faith."

Her church groups of about 12 to 25 people normally gather inside homes but have moved to online meetings during the virus outbreak.

"Often it's these times in history that are the catalyst for revival and awakening," Trayner said. "It's a waking up of people to realize, no wonder why, we're not to trust in the riches of the world, because in a week that can fall apart. It brings believers into a place of deeper foundation, because the only thing that can't be shaken is the reality of Christ. It brings people to a real faith."

Meagan Clark is the managing editor of Religion Unplugged. She previously reported on retail and economic news for the International Business Times and wrote human rights and religion stories from India for several outlets, such as The Indian Express, The Wire and Follow her on Twitter, @MeaganKay.

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