Last year, pastors Henry Foreman and Jerry O’Sullivan of Shelter Rock Church in Nassau County, New York, began working as a television preacher. For months, they broadcast sermons live as the Covid-19 virus ravaged lush communities on Long Island, where their church has several campuses. After overcoming digital worship hurdles, they now have a new problem: how to wean worshipers off the comfort of online church.
They are not alone. Seventy-five percent of evangelical Protestants in the United States attended church online during the pandemic, according to a recent survey by Infinity Concepts and Gray Matter Research. “We have found that 45% of those who have experienced online church services now believe that online worship is equal to or superior to in-person experience,” said Mark Drstadt, president and founder of Infinity Concepts. Only 44% want to return exclusively to personal worship, according to the report, which included more than 1,000 evangelical Protestants.
Although Pew Research found in April 2020 that a quarter of US adults said their faith had become stronger due to the pandemic, some pastors are skeptical of the long-term effects of online worship. People tend to try to multitask while watching them online. The result is that they don’t focus on God or worship at times,” says Mr. O’Sullivan, patron of the Shelter Rock campus in Syossette, New York. “We’re trying to keep them engaged.”
The Infinity Concepts report also found that many American evangelicals have used pandemic lockdowns to “digitally visit churches” — another cause for concern among some pastors. “One has to wonder if this will eventually lead to church nomads, who are surfing the internet for new church experiences rather than taking root and joining the church community,” says Ron Sellers, president of Gray Matter.
Some churches have resisted forced online services, ignoring state mandates or challenging them in court. Data from Gallup shows that in-person church attendance, after hitting a low in May 2020, has risen steadily for the next year. But many religious leaders still aren’t sure when they should turn off webcams and streaming channels – or if they should ever.
Forman, Shelter Rock’s senior chaplain, said an average of 850 people attended online services between October 2020 and April 2021 before returning to in-person church in the spring. He said nearly two-thirds of the church now attend live services on its Long Island campus. However, more than 1,000 devotees still watch the services online each week. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon.
In Uganda, Reverend Grace Lubala said digital worship during the pandemic has brought converts to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Bugolobi Church in Uganda. But he still viewed the internet age as quite negative, with many leaving the church or slipping into their faith. It is estimated that only 60% of his roughly 3,000 followers have an internet connection, which limits participation. He says: “People should worship together as in Acts 2:42-47.” Virtual worship “cannot be a permanent site or else the church will end”.
Meanwhile, Saints spokesman Derek Cadeau said. Philip and Andrews Cathedral in Mukono, Uganda, said his Anglican diocese is located in a rural area where only 40% of the population can afford some type of internet service. His church managed through a Facebook livestream and broadcast two Sunday services on a local radio station. It has also installed loudspeakers in every church in his diocese “to narrow down the broadcast of the Gospel to members of the nearby community during the closure.”
These innovations did not prevent financial pain, as revenue from shows fell. The diocese may have to lay off employees. He said only 30% of the herd had returned as the epidemic subsided. “We will continue with the virtual church,” he says. The younger generation wants it. People don’t want to go to church anymore. They want to stay online and attend services from their homes. But we need to find new ways to generate income for the church outside the chapel.”
Ultimately, Shelter Rock on Long Island hired an online pastor who can reach people in new ways and serve church members struggling during the pandemic because they lack encouragement, accountability, and community. Last Sunday, Shelter Rock’s total attendance of 2,300 was 40% above pre-pandemic levels, consistent with indications that the church has grown significantly during the pandemic.
“We don’t have any plans to get rid of the church on the Internet,” says Mr. Foreman. “We’re reaching people we couldn’t reach before. I think it’s the new front door.”
Mr. Gladier is an executive editor at Religion Unplugged and a professor at King’s College in New York. Mr. Simakula is a reporter for the Ugandan daily New Vision. This article was excerpted from a longer article that will appear on ReligionUnplugged.com.
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