Major US churches talk reopening amid pandemic, recovering attendance

Volunteers assemble masks for medical staff at The Rock Church locations in Point Loma, City Heights, El Cajon and San Marcos, California, April 6, 2020.
Volunteers assemble masks for medical staff at The Rock Church locations in Point Loma, City Heights, El Cajon and San Marcos, California, April 6, 2020. | Courtesy of The Rock Church

In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, countless churches shut their doors, going weeks to months without holding any in-person worship services.

Many of these congregations initially switched to virtual services, with clergy recording their messages in empty sanctuaries, along with socially distanced musical performances.

However, as COVID-19 infections and death plummet and state restrictions are lifted, many churches, including prominent congregations, are returning to the pews.

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Some have returned to pre-pandemic standards, while others maintain certain social distancing guidelines, in part to give assurances to those still struggling to return to normal.

The Christian Post reached out to churches across the U.S. to learn more about how they're reopening, the ways they're accommodating people in light of pandemic concerns, and what lasting impact, if any, might exist on their congregations post-lockdown.

Immanuel Bible Church

Worship at Immanuel Bible Church of Springfield, Virginia.
Worship at Immanuel Bible Church of Springfield, Virginia. | Stephen Procopio

Immanuel Bible Church of Springfield, Virginia, a non-denominational megachurch based in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, began holding in-person services on Memorial Day weekend last year.

Jesse Johnson, the teaching pastor at Immanuel, told CP that the decision came despite some concerns over legal action from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“We feel like we would have won had we gone to court, but instead decided to just strive to worship under the leadership of our elders rather than the government, and to wait for the government to enforce their own mandates,” said Johnson.

“In our case, and we know other churches were not this fortunate, but in our case, there was no government intervention.”  

Johnson noted that Immanuel does not adhere to any restrictions on in-person worship, such as social distancing or the wearing of facemasks.

When Immanuel restarted in-person services in May last year, worship was at 30% of what it was pre-pandemic, according to Johnson; however, at present, it has returned to its previous attendance numbers.

In May, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam lifted COVID-19 restrictions, with masks still required in a few select circumstances. This was done in response to the large number of Virginians who had been vaccinated and the drop in COVID-19 cases.  

“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to forge convictions on the government’s role in regulating church worship. This is not something American churches had to deal with before,” Johnson told CP.

“Our church is largely influenced by the Puritan tradition, meaning we reject that the government has the right to regulate church worship, but this gave us an opportunity to solidify those convictions.”

Church of the Resurrection

Socially distanced worship at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.
Socially distanced worship at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. | Tom Bradley Photography

Headed by bestselling author Pastor Adam Hamilton, Church of the Resurrection is considered the largest United Methodist congregation in the United States. It's based in Leawood, Kansas, not far from Kansas City.

Church of the Resurrection's Communications Director Cathy Bien told CP that her church returned to in-person services back in March, due to a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases in their community and a rise in the number of vaccinated individuals.

“We followed the guidelines for masks and social distancing that were established by our local government and health departments,” said Bien.

“Initially, we went back to in-person worship with required mask and social distancing. We lifted the mask requirement in May when our local community did.”

Attendance at Church of the Resurrection has been slowly increasing, having yet to reach the congregation’s pre-pandemic levels. Nevertheless, according to Bien, they “continue to have a substantial audience online and a local television broadcast.”

“Congregants are all over the place. Many anxious to be back in worship and many still uncomfortable,” she continued.

“We’re doing everything we can to make them safe and comfortable, but we will continue to provide quality online worship for those who are not comfortable coming back.”

The Rock Church

Worship at The Rock Church of San Diego, California, held Sunday, April 18, 2021.
Worship at The Rock Church of San Diego, California, held Sunday, April 18, 2021. | Christy Radecic

In May, The Rock Church of San Diego, a multisite evangelical megachurch, garnered headlines when 15 of their staff and volunteers tested positive for COVID-19.

The outbreak occurred not long after the congregation had reopened its campuses for indoor worship on April 18, having previously limited in-person gatherings to outdoor services since last October.

In response to the news, the church closed down all campuses save for their Point Loma location, and had the remaining staff work from home and get tested as a precaution.

Since then, according to Point Loma Campus Pastor Travis Gibson, those who tested positive have recovered and the church has returned to including indoor worship at their five campuses.

“All of them have recovered, they're negative now, and we went above and beyond for the rest of our staff, and we provided testing up to two times per week for anybody that wanted to get a test in the wake of that incident,” said Gibson in an interview with CP in late June.

“[We] wanted to say, 'hey, Rock Church family, City of San Diego, we want to show you that one, we really want to worship the Lord, but we respect the people that were impacted and we also respect those that have concern.’”

Since the end of the outbreak, Gibson told CP that they are following CDC guidelines, which make masks optional for fully vaccinated individuals who attend worship.

They have also set up a “specific mask-only seating” for those who are unvaccinated who might prefer to not sit nearby people who are vaccinated and unmasked.

“They can still feel comfortable doing that. And we also have outdoor seating available for anybody and everybody,” Gibson explained.

“People have, whether they are vaccinated or not, they have different opinions or different levels of comfort, and so we have some seating available outside for people to enjoy. And that's at all five of our physical locations.”

When it came to the decision to reopen, Gibson noted that the leadership team at The Rock Church prayed, looked at plans, and talked with other congregations for advice.

“We sat down with our leadership team, we made a plan, we prayed, and then we went and studied other churches our size in and around the area, others like us in the nation and asked those questions: What have you done? Do you have a plan? What could we learn from each other?” said Gibson.

“So that is what I would encourage them to do, to reach out. I think too often, whether it's a church or any organization, maybe there's a feeling of competition, and I would hope that, especially within the church, that we could be unified.”

Gibson stressed that different churches will have “different levels of comfort and different ideologies” as well as different circumstances, that can influence their decisions to reopen.

"I would encourage those churches to first pray and meet with your leadership team and begin to ask questions: What would be the best thing for our community, for our congregation?" he added.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

Looking down the nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
Looking down the nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. | Dennis Lennox

The New York City-based Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, holds the distinction of being the largest cathedral in North America.

After more than a year of only holding virtual worship, the Cathedral is planning on returning to in-person worship services next Tuesday, with regular Sunday services to return in September.

Isadora Wilkenfeld, director of Cathedral Programming & Communications at St. John the Divine, told CP that so far, they have held smaller services for ceremonies such as ordination and confirmation of new members, with family members being the only attendees allowed.

“At the moment, we’re still requiring masks for all visitors and congregants inside the Cathedral, and are looking to both the city/state and to the bishop of the Diocese for guidance on when and how to adjust that policy,” said Wilkenfeld.

“The Cathedral clergy has been working on details related to the resumption of services almost since we were forced to move them online back in March of last year.”

Wilkenfeld noted that although “there were many positives to the switch to online services,” having in-person church “is at the core of all we do at the Cathedral.”

“I imagine the pandemic will have a lasting impact on our community,” she added, “both as a period of great trauma for those who lost loved ones or were ill themselves, and as a great turning-point for many people, in terms of what they consider priorities or important facets of their lives.”

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