By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Special to the AFRO

Church membership has declined below 50% among American adults for the first time in the 80 years since the Gallup Poll started keeping track.  Only 47% responded yes, down from the 50% of 2018, when asked, “Do you belong to a church, synagogue or mosque?”

And so, as churches are re-opening, there is a question as to how many will “be in that number,” in the face of already declining ranks.

Church leaders everywhere are wondering whether or not members of their congregations will return to in-person services once the pandemic has subsided due to adequate vaccinations and achieved herd immunity.  And after speaking with several church leaders the simple fact of the matter is… no one on earth knows.

Clearly, church attendance is down. Since spring of 2020 churches have been everything from totally shutting down to slowly reopening following CDC guidelines proportioning capacity allowed in a building to requiring mask wearing and social distancing within the pews.  Some came back to church immediately. Others went online and participated in ZOOM church services or live streaming from the church’s website.  Not only can parishioners view the services, but they can make their weekly offering on their phone or computer using apps such as Givelify, Cashapp, Venmo or Zelle.  It is all so convenient now: getting up a little later, not getting dressed up, no traveling or parking worries, no steps or ramps to navigate for the disabled or the elderly.  But is convenience enough to keep people at home?  Is there something missing from worship when it’s done at home?

There is reluctance on the part of some according to the Rev. Nancy M. Dennis, pastor for 10 years of St. Stephen’s AME Church on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, soon to be designated a national historic landmark because of its Civil War cemetery next door. Despite early urges by the CDC, surface cleaning inside the church has not been enough to convince St. Stephen’s members to return. In fact, in Pastor Dennis’s poll of the congregation, they agreed to continue ZOOM church sessions each Sunday. “We are concerned about variants of the original virus. So, we’ve asked the congregation to do what you want to do. You are responsible for your own well-being. And yet we’ve been very aggressive with encouraging folks to get vaccinated.” 

The St. Stephen’s leadership will wait to see how many in the church will get vaccinated. That information will guide their decision on when to reopen. In the meantime, St. Stephen’s shares its online Sunday service space and time with two other congregations:  Bethel Easton AME (Pastor Wendell Gary) and New Queen Esther AME (Pastor Brittany McCoy).

Father Kenneth Gaddy, a Catholic priest, for seven years has been associate pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in southeast Baltimore.  He has different responses to Mass attendance at his church and neighboring St. Patrick’s Church in Fells Point. “Attendance among members of the Spanish speaking community has gone up but not among English only speakers.” As to the question of whether or not church members will return, Gaddy said, “We may see them back, we may not.”

“In person attendance is at about 30% of pre-pandemic attendance,” according to Friar Timothy Dore, pastor of three Catholic Churches in northeast Baltimore County (St. Michael the Archangel, the Church of the Annunciation and St. Clement). “We have 125 hits to our online masses per Sunday service. This includes families who are watching together, so we believe attendance is “good.” Friar Dore finds it hard to guess if congregates will come back in normal times. Some may be longing for being together and some may stay in attendance from their homes and their more “personal spiritualities.”   

Since 2007, Union Baptist Church has been pastored by the Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway in Druid Heights.  He returned to the church’s pulpit on Palm Sunday and vows to preach from it from now on.  Union broadcasts services from ZOOM and Facebook Live. There was a vaccination clinic organized by the church for members and others. 

“Persons have returned for funerals and memorial services. We…follow CDC protocols.” Members returned to Union slowly but viewership and giving have increased “significantly.” Rev. Hathaway said, “Expenses have gone down.”

The challenge for houses of worship is the decrease of persons who express a religious affiliation.  More people watch NFL football games than attend church services. Dr. Cyril Wecht, author of the groundbreaking concussion study among football players once famously said, “The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.”

That may not be true.  But the backdrop of sharp decline of church attendance since the year 2000, leaves ministers, rabbis and imams wondering if members will return.  Will people return to houses of worship at least at the pre-pandemic levels they once did?  God only knows.