More church pews and chairs slowly are being filled again just in time for Easter Sunday.
Congregations have begun trickling back in after a year of caution and health directives from the top – but local livestream capabilities and audiences also have picked up and remained steady since last March as well. And whether some churches felt closed or not, having these footsteps re-enter the sanctuaries after some pastors have been preaching to near empty rooms is a promising sign of life.
“I think we have between maybe 40 to 50% of what we had before,” said Pastor Ken Haskins of First Christian Church in Carson City. “But the people are starting to feel better about coming back.”
First Christian offers three services, and Haskins said his staff focuses more on the 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning times with its 6 p.m. Sunday night meeting drawing a lower attendance than the others. They are livestreamed for those who have been uncomfortable about attending in person. The church has encouraged its people to get involved in synchronous meetings through Zoom for prayer or praise meetings or asynchronous postings such as on Facebook in which participants don’t always get an immediate response.
It’s an option for those who still might be worried about coming in person, a convenience who enjoy needing to make a meal immediately afterward, First Christian associate pastor Micheal Hulbert said. Hulbert helps to oversee the church’s digital discipleship programs.
“There is something in breathing the same as other people,” Hulbert said. “You’ve got to have those same in-person contacts. We’re not doing a lot of that. … That’s something you can’t have in more synchronous ways of discipleship.”
Altogether, the physical attendance numbers are rebounding from a year ago, even if there is some fluctuation, he said.
“I don’t understand church from a distance,” Haskins said. “I don’t understand televangelists. It’s the family of God, and people need to be together as much as possible, and you need to take precautions.”
At Valley Christian Fellowship in Minden, Pastor Leo Kruger shared life slowly has been returning to normal after some minor setbacks with COVID-19.
“People’s attitudes are very good,” Kruger said Tuesday. “People are holding onto their faith and it’s becoming more of an anchor. That’s a good thing.”
VCF has added a service in the past year, and attendees have had the option to attend either a 9 or 10:30 a.m. service or watch them through the church’s livestream. The 9 a.m. service requires anyone attending to wear masks while masks are optional at the 10:30 service with chairs set up 6 feet apart.
While Valley Christian was impacted briefly by COVID-19 this past fall, Kruger said the church is gaining momentum and has returned to its attendance before the pandemic last year.
“We feel pretty blessed, and we’re just rocking on,” he said.
Giving churches the ability to worship at church or at home now, though, likely will remain a permanent home considering folks will always remain active and still want to watch from wherever they are on a Sunday, Hulbert said.
“We’ll always be livestreaming,” he said. “It’s too easy, the money’s already been invested. It works when we have people outside of our state or if one of our members goes on vacation. We don’t see it going away. Our church isn’t going away. We’re not going to make a top priority, but digital discipleship will always be a priority.”
VCF’s Easter plans this weekend remain simple and involve some stage changes with a children’s program requiring kids to get an invitation to go inside the empty tomb, he said. With adults, Kruger has been studying the Book of Mark and soon will visit 1 Corinthians but said he typically examines all four gospel accounts when he studies one at a time.
“We’re blessed,” he said. “We’re living in a time where people are really looking for the truth.”
Haskins said about five years ago he began going through the entire Bible by book and recently reached the Book of Philippians and soon will begin Colossians. He said it’s important to remind the public this Easter that “God loves them and that the church is open” this season.
“I think we’re all opening and I recently saw a survey that talked about more than half of Americans for the first time praying,” he said. “I think this last year was the reason we need to turn it around and have a great year for churches.”