When COVID-19 hit the U.S., it not only shuttered businesses and workplaces but shut down churches across the nation.
As religious leaders coped with restrictions, their congregations were forced to pivot to new ways of operating; changes that many believed will forever change what it means to worship.
"People are really wrestling right now with what matters and I think they're really taking stock of their lives," said Rev. Chuck Jacob, the senior pastor at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham. "What do I really care about? What do I believe in? What is worth my time? And my in-person time? And I think that's a gut-check moment for the church's calling. Is what we believe and hold forth speak to the real things of life?"
Jacob can still remember watching the world shut down, shutting down the church and questioning what comes next.
"To be really honest with you the scary part for me was I was seeing what was happening in New York City and in New Jersey. I've got family up there and I'm hearing and reading the stories of mortuaries overcome, refrigerators for corpses overcome and they're all saying the wave is coming your way," he said. "Personally, it was how do I actually prepare people to see death in a way that we haven't seen it in a long time."
He said fortunately that wave never hit but the pandemic did have a significant impact.
His congregation, like so many others. had to scramble to figure out the technology to live stream service. Then later, as some restrictions lifted, the church had to learn how to add social distancing, where the best airflow was and how to navigate vaccination statuses.
Now, nearly two years into the constant pivots, worship is still not back to what it resembled before the pandemic. Jacob estimated in-person attendance is down around 60%.
He said some of that is likely due to older members and those who care for vulnerable people continuing to be cautious. But, he also said as the pandemic forces people to reevaluate their life and priorities, some may be questioning where the church fits.
"It's like the snow globe has been shaken and you don't know how it's all gonna sort of settle. I think we're all wrestling with that," Jacob said.
The ABC Data Team analyzed mobility data across the U.S. and found in many places Americans are not attending in-person church services in as large of a number as they were before the pandemic.
In North Carolina, the team found 90% of counties had fewer people attending church in October 2021 than in January 2021. Physical attendance is down an average of 20% across the state. Attendance was lower in metro areas and in areas with predominantly non-white residents, according to the analyzed mobility data. Counties with fewer than 10,000 residents reported a very small change in attendance.
Reverend Dr. Jay Augustine is the pastor at St. Joseph AME Church in Durham. He said his congregation's physical attendance is about half of what it used to be, but he doesn't think that means fewer people are worshipping.
"Our numbers online have skyrocketed, which is really wonderful. So realistically, and thinking about what church means in this immediate day and age and thinking about the possibilities optimistically about the possibilities of the church in the future, I'm focused on growing a church and recreating community and community may mean different things," Augustine said.
He said shifting to offer online services has allowed people from across the country to regularly join them, something that wouldn't have been possible if the pandemic didn't force them to pivot.
"So we really feel blessed that the pivot was something that was needed, but the pivot was something that really helped and enhanced our ministry," Augustine said.
He believes the pandemic has caused more people to become closer to God.
Both Augustine and Jacob don't see virtual worship options going away anytime soon. However, Jacob said he is still trying to attract more individuals back to in-person worship as he sees a lot of value in coming together in person. He believes being physically around others who are going through similar struggles has a lot of value.
"What value is it even just to see them and you go, 'Their hanging in. I too can.' or to see those who are politically different than you and they're actually humanized," Jacob said.
Despite the constant changes all places of worship have had to endure, Augustine said he remains optimistic about the future of worship and his congregation as the pandemic continues.
"With that spirit of perpetual optimism we feel so incredibly good about the future and we feel good about where we are now, in spite of circumstance, so as far as I'm concerned, notwithstanding what other losses have existed, we will thank God for the blessings that we have. And that's the true spirit of Christmas," he said.