A week before their May 23 service—marking Greater Zion Church Family’s first return to in-person worship in more than a year—Pastor Michael J.T. Fisher released 150 tickets (representing the church’s newly configured, socially distanced seating plan) on Eventbrite. Within an hour, 150 tickets had been snapped up and 30 requests for additional tickets were placed in a waiting queue and eventually accommodated.
“I was good with that,” said Fisher. “But you’re talking to someone who normally saw 1200 people on a Sunday morning”
And while 180 was a far cry from the 1000-plus members Greater Zion averaged in the four Sunday services he regularly managed before the pandemic, it confirmed for Fisher that his members were ready to get back to church.
All across the city, county, state and nation, churches are gearing up for a return to physical worship services after being shuttered in March of 2020 by a pandemic that killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States, including a host of both local and well-known faith leaders while becoming the third leading cause of death.
Some churches have already re-opened their doors. Most are gearing up for a return sometime this summer. Many like megachurch pastor, Bishop T.D. Jakes are re-opening in phases, while three of L.A.’s largest megachurches—West Angeles COGIC, City of Refuge and Faithful Central Bible Church—have set July 4th for their coordinated re-entrance.
It is the culmination of a year that has irrevocably changed the way churches operate. The question is just how quickly parishioners will feel safe enough to return and what will the church look like post-pandemic.
“Those humongous numbers we saw pre-pandemic, it’s going to be a long while before we see them again in one setting and the days of long Pentecostal slain in the spirit services is going to be for a very small few and forget about in person mid-week services,” Fisher observed. “Before, churches would sometimes have up to three services or as many as five services on a Sunday—even smaller churches might have two services, now it’s like one service—shortened to 60- 70 minutes.”
From shorter and less frequent in person worship services to less live music, more innovative ways of gathering and accelerated social media platforms, going to church post pandemic will hardly be business as usual. Evening services are going to be more scarce, mid-week services—for the most part—will be online and people will be able to join a church electronically without walking down the aisles.
“A third of our churches are back,” said Rev. E. Wayne Gaddis, senior pastor of the Greater St. Augustine Missionary Baptist Church and president of the 225-church strong California Missionary Baptist State Convention, Inc. “The rest will be back between now and our annual session in October.
“We have a lot of churches with quite a few seniors who are not ready to come back. They want to see if there is going to be another spike.”
To that end when Gaddis does open his church in July, he will place speakers in the parking lot for those seniors who prefer to listen to services from inside their parked cars feet away from the sanctuary.
“I don’t believe it will ever be the same,” Gaddis continues. “We are going to cut the fat. It’s going to be a more streamline presentation with our services being cut anywhere from 30 -45 minutes every Sunday. People will see that a lot that we did before was unnecessary–the announcements, presentations. Even with the offering, you can place it on your way in and on your way out. We are going to allow room for the Holy Spirit, but a lot of stuff we are were doing was not led by the Holy Spirit.
“I do not believe that God wants us to go back into our churches the same, but I do believe in being in church,” Gaddis continues. “I believe virtual had its time and place, now I believe it is time to get back to the unity of fellowship. I was glad when they said unto me let us go into the House of the Lord.”
A very small number of churches Gaddis’ oversees will not be coming back and have permanently shuttered, but such instances, for the most part, have been scarce.
Both Pastor K.W. Tulloss, who leads the Baptist Minister’s Fellowship of Southern California and Pastor Welton Pleasant, who presides over the 300-member strong, California State Baptist Convention, say that none of their churches have been permanently closed.
“Many of the small churches,” said Pleasant, “were still able to meet. I was out of the building for 59 Sundays and my church never missed a beat. COVID has made the building virtually obsolete. We always said that the building is not the church, the people are the church and COVID proved it.
“Personally, I believe Sunday morning in person worship is the only thing we will be doing in the building,” Pleasant continued. “I don’t see us going back during the week for Bible studies, church meetings and auxiliary boards. All of that now can be done on zoom.”
It is one of the first major changes expressed by a majority of churches.
“For my congregation, we will always have a zoom Bible study and a virtual option,” said Pastor Eddie Anderson of McCarty Memorial Christian Church. “Being in person on a Tuesday or Wednesday night is not most important as it is just being together in community and that means it more people can join virtually.”
“This is going to be our new normal,” said Tulloss. “People will gradually come into God’s house as they feel safe, because a lot of people still don’t feel safe. At least 50% of my membership—mostly those 40 and up— have been vaccinated, but some of our younger members remain hesitant.”
Who is and who isn’t vaccinated is a concern that’s personal for many.
“Unless we don’t leave our house at all, that’s the world we’re living in,” said Pastor Nissan Stewart of the Lynwood-based, Greater Emmanuel Temple Church. “It’s tough but we have to take precautions. I’m an advocate for the vaccine, but a lot of people aren’t. I’ve taken the vaccine. My wife hasn’t, and for me, losing the churches lead deacon at 46, it’s personal, because we don’t want anyone else to die.”
Those like Stewart–who has hosted pop up vaccine clinics–are not even sure about asking.
“I’m trying to see is it okay to see who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t and I’m following the lead of the county and the state for which way to go.”
Antioch of Long Beach pastor Wayne Chaney’s June 27 launch is part grand opening and part re-opening.
“This is not a return for us,” Chaney said. “It’s going into a place we’ve never been. COVID hit one month before the grand opening of our facility and we wanted to make sure our celebration was impactful.”
Chaney and his staff conducted a survey of their thriving 1,000+ membership–the largest group of which is millennials– to see how parishioners felt about coming back.
“We found that 80% are comfortable with coming back to worship. 70% are vaccinated. 15% are in the process of being vaccinated. Still, most of them would like some level of precaution. And while the vaccinated people have not expressed any challenge being around unvaccinated people, we have a section in our balcony that is socially distanced with a separate entrance.
“While we know gathering is significant and Biblical,” Chaney adds, “we’re processing through inviting people who’ve been out of church for a year and a half and reframing or revisiting their theology around in-person gathering is going to be important. Broadcast never replaced the in-person worship. It’s intangible. We’re just going to have to put a little more effort into the why.”
“Your message,” says Pleasant, “has to be substantive.
“People have become more intentional about the time they’re spending in church,” he explained. “They want to leave learning something. The pandemic–especially with all the racial upheaval and the election– made people start thinking and asking questions.”
McCarty Memorial Christian Church Pastor Edward Anderson agrees.
“Some of what has drawn people to church has been superficial. COVID has taken that away.
Church can no longer be a show or about the music. People are no longer coming because they have a legacy in the church.
“What brings people in the door has changed. Now, you have to actually have a real sense of not only community, but something they can’t get anywhere else that’s unique to their experience.
“That may mean how are you engaging with community in a different way —helping people find recovery— be it healthcare, justice or financial, in light of the fact that people have lost so much during the pandemic. So, part of coming back to church is going to be the church serving as that safety net for folk on a wider scale.”
Of course, the biggest change in church ministry is the pivoting of the church to a hybrid model that is both online and in-person Sunday worship.
“The church has always been behind the times,” Pleasant states. “COVID put the church where it needed to be. I have a saying, if your church is not dot com, it’s dot dead. Pre-COVID, many senior pastors were resist- ant to tech and social media, but they embraced it because they understood that without it, they wouldn’t have a church.
“Many of our seniors were not tech literate,” he notes. “We brought in a media person, showed them how to use a smart phone, and in some cases brought them computers. Now, we are reaching more people via social media. We were all challenged getting the millennials and Gen z throughout the week, now they are able to participate.”
While it is different for every ministry, most churches have enjoyed a greater reach through their online broadcasts.
Said Tulloss, “We’ve invested quite a bit in our online ministry, and it has literally broadened our ministry beyond California. The BMC [Baptist Minister’s Conference] has focused in on pastors being prepared and understanding the guidelines. I was very surprised at how quickly many of our churches pivoted online.”
Two terms have come to define an emerging trend in what is this new era of ministry–electronic evangelism and digital discipleship.
“Those things are going to be key,” said Stewart. “Every church has the obligation to create and put intention into that online space. It’s just as equivalent as if you have a building, how you must cut the grass and clean the bathrooms.
“To me, being a musician and in the entertainment field, it’s an easier transition,” said the pastor who is also a renowned drummer and gospel artist who has served as a musical director to the likes of Jamie Foxx. “It’s getting used to it and learning to be better.”
What’s more, most churches that transitioned to online found their parishioners to be financially supportive, which alleviated a critical concern for the viability of churches.
“People found that they could experience church by themselves,” adds Fisher, “but there’s nothing like experiencing church with a community. Greater Zion came back with a stronger appreciation for community and worshipping together.
“The other thing that has changed is now that people have been used to watching online and having a different schedule on Sundays, they’re not going to want to alter that every Sunday to come to church. Pastors also now get to spend time at home with their families. This new schedule will prevent burnout.
“How the church evangelizes moving forward is how they supply the community with resources,” Fisher maintains. “That is what kept a lot of churches alive. The church that during the pandemic fed and clothed people, and provided other social services and or resources. They are the ones that remained relevant.
“So, it’s not just Sunday Morning service that’s going to draw people to your church. It’s going to be all the above–are you involved in the culture, social justice, how are you responding to the economic needs of your community. To that end, it’s not just about counting your congregants, it’s about counting your constituents. So, you’re pastoring not only the people who come to church on Sunday but the people you fed all week long even if you never see them.
“It’s not so much about the megachurch, it’s about mega reach. How many people can you reach versus how many people can you seat.”
Two challenges remain. The challenge for most will be creating opportunities for intimacy and fellowship.
“To be sure, there is no substitute for the intimacy of fellowship and the touching of people,” Pleasant affirms. “Every first Sunday I have fellowship with the pastor online. It’s a social conversation for an hour and a half where we just converse and my members get to ask me whatever they want, and it’s hilarious.”
At McCarty Memorial, Anderson is hosting an outside workout class that will double as a worship service for those who can’t come to church on a Sunday or on zoom.
“We will always be more cognizant of both audiences,” Anderson reports. “Before it was more focused on taking care of the folks who were in the room. But now, our church services have been rearranged to make sure that folks who are virtual and may never return to church, remain engaged. Or members who have joined from other states–making sure that there is a way for them to connect with the church is going to be a part of how church is done moving forward.”
The biggest challenge remains how to disciple those you can now reach and for Faithful Central, that virtual reach has granted them an audience in upwards of 30 countries including South Africa, Canada and parts of Europe.
“I’m reaching people in London, in Europe. Those peo- ple will never come to 333 W. Florence,” says Senior Pastor, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer. “The challenge is how do we continue to do ministry and turn those viewers into disciples. No one knows how to do that digitally, because it hasn’t been done. Especially when our model for 2000 years has been gathering and what we do know is that the old model by definition, cannot work, because the old model focused in on people coming into a building.”
As they venture into that unchartered territory, churches are doing the best they can to make the best of both worlds
“We have our online platforms and on Sundays we’re back in church,” states Tulloss. “We’re going to continue in our singing while understanding that we can’t control the shouting. There will however be no high fives to your neighbor and the fellowship might be limited after service as people remain very aware that we are still living in the midst of a pandemic.”