(Un)churching in the Pandemic: How are NC Churches Doing?

(Un)churching in the Pandemic: How are NC Churches Doing?

COVID-19 sent churches online. That change might lead you to think it’s never been easier to go to church, and that attendance might be up at NC churches. But church attendance across the board has actually dropped.

In NC, the unnaturalness of digital church deters millennials.

A Barna Group study from May 2020 found that one in three practicing Christians has stopped attending church altogether during the pandemic. In examining the data by generation, millennials were by far the largest group leaving. Half of millennials who attended church before COVID-19 had stopped attending.

At the time of the study, churches met almost exclusively online. So why is a digitally-native generation leading the charge?

Graph courtesy of the Barna Group.

David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock of the Barna Group asked the same question. They explored possible in “Why Millennials Aren’t Streaming Your Service.”

Millennials are tech-savvy, Mark Matlock noted, so the streaming needs to be done well. At the same time, however, millennials value authenticity. “Too polished can come across as disingenuous,” Matlock said.

Christian millennials, David Kinnaman said, “want the church to feel like a church experience. They don’t want it to be so cool and hip and relevant — they actually want to be with other people and experience a worshipful environment.”

Virtual church is a bit of an oxymoron. Mark Matlock quoted a slogan, “If you can do it by yourself, it’s probably not the church.” For churchgoing millennials, contribution and connection comprises authenticity at church. Digital church doesn’t seem to cut it on either option.

Image courtesy of Gene Gallin on Unsplash.

NC Church Pastors Weigh In

The Reverend Jonathan Furst at Church of the Apostles in Columbia, SC, said, “Millennials are the group I worry about most.”

He elaborated, “Young families with kids were struggling to get to church before COVID.”

Austin Pfeiffer, Associate Pastor at Salem Presbyterian in Winston-Salem, related that a young family in his congregation can’t attend outdoor services. But they also find it strange to stream a service filled with people they know.

On the other hand, many millennials don’t have spouses or children. Pfeiffer told us that even pre-COVID-19, this was something his church was aware of.

“I learned this the hard way,” he told us, because people complained after sermons in which he used examples of “being around the house” or using instances from family life. “‘Hey, I don’t live in a house. I live in an apartment,’ or ‘Hey, I’m not married’ or ‘I don’t have kids,'” he explained.

But if churches’ community pre-COVID-19 centered around family life, then the pandemic has created an easy exit for those singles who had already felt marginalized.

The pandemic, Pfeiffer observed, “exposed the futility” of going to church simply out of social obligation. If church attendance was motivated by social expectation, then COVID-19 largely removed that motivator.

Image courtesy of zachrie friesen on Unsplash.

In-person gathering policies also keep people away.

Restrictions have eased enough that many churches are offering in-person gathering options again. But church is still not the same as pre-COVID-19.

Kathy Joyce attends Old Richmond Evangelical Methodist Church in Tobaccoville, NC. “Our church is running at about half of its attendance before COVID. Some people won’t come because masks have been required; some people won’t come because not everyone will wear a mask.”

Similarly, Rev. Furst told us, “Our regular attendance was around 450 between three services before COVID. Since then, between an online service and outdoor small group gatherings (20-30 people each), we estimate around 350. From talking to other pastors, I think we are fairly average to a bit above average in our city. ”

But Salem Presbyterian Church has grown

Salem Presbyterian in Winston-Salem gathers outside, rain or shine.

Despite the downward trend in church attendance, Salem Presbyterian Church has grown during COVID-19. Pfeiffer told us that pre-pandemic, the staff had 250 people attend per week. Now they have 300. The majority of the congregation are millennials, followed by Gen Z. When we asked Pfeiffer about reasons for their growth, he gave multiple options.

Not pretending that this is normal.

Salem very carefully signalled that streaming services online was better than nothing, but “not a valid longterm alternative to meeting together,” Pfeiffer told us. Rather than stream the service from the sanctuary, for instance, Pfeiffer and the senior pastor were in Pfeiffer’s living room.

“Tenacity to make church happen in creative ways.”

Austin Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer told us the “church is relatively young, only 10 years old, so that led to a tenacity to make church happen in creative ways.” Once restrictions loosened enough to allow for in-person gatherings, groups of 20-25 people met outdoors, to introduce congregants to meeting outside with masks and observing physical distancing. Now they are back to one service but remain outdoors, rain or shine.

Addressing loneliness.

Offering in-person opportunities to meet others is particularly important for anyone living alone or apart from families. “A lot of [our congregation] are single or live alone, so we’re sensitive about language around family,” Pfeiffer said. He’ has learned that you “don’t assume family or kids or a spouse.”

Whether married or single, Pfeiffer noted, “people want authentic community.” To that end, several years ago Salem reorganized its small groups because young families clumped together while singles felt excluded.

Pfeiffer explained, “We made it blind. You sign up for a night and a time.” This format folds in young families alongside singles, and “single people love it.” Small groups continue — outdoors and distanced — and remain at 75% engagement for Salem, Pfeiffer told us.

Another recent Sunday gathering outside at Salem Presbyterian.

Clear policy.

Pfeiffer’s wife, a nurse, advised the church leadership to create “stringent policy.” Stringent sums up the church’s guidelines: Salem has committed to meeting outdoors, wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing. Salem is near Wake Forest University, Pfeiffer explained, where students are strongly discouraged from attending churches that meet indoors and unmasked. Salem’s compliance with COVID-19 health regulations makes it possible for these students to attend.

While it’s easier now than ever for churchgoers to disengage, this time also presents real needs that an NC church like Salem can creatively address.

To learn more about creative adaptations to the new normal, read about SPENGA Fitness: Overcoming COVID-19 and Still Giving You A Great Workout. Or you can read about one Durham company’s textile boom in the midst the pandemic!