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COVID 1 Year Later: Faith Communities Reflect On Post-Pandemic Life

Exterior of a church
Staff
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WGLT
The future of churches has been at particular risk during the pandemic. Normal First United Methodist Pastor Kent King Nobles said the next generation has often tuned out.

This story is part of a special episode of WGLT's Sound Ideas airing March 12, marking the one-year anniversary of COVID's arrival in McLean County. Find more stories in the series.

A year ago, church services came to an abrupt halt. The comfortable after-service chats over coffee and pastry stopped. Hymns stopped. Sunday school stopped. It all moved online. And pastors said they have accomplished a lot to help people emotionally and socially.

"Just because we have not been able to be together doesn't mean we don't need to strengthen our spiritual muscles from prayer, and devotion, and bible study and caring for others and finding ways to give ourselves away. So, we have found ways to help people strengthen their spiritual muscles while at home," said Sara Isbell, senior pastor at Wesley United Methodist church in Bloomington.

That includes distanced activities, phone trees, and many, many online offerings.

Churches are coming back to limited in-person services or are getting ready for that. Some won't start till Easter. Others will wait till September.

Central Illinois pastors and ministers look ahead with both optimism and anxiety. In talking with each other some glumly estimated they could see 25% of their congregations disappear. That would accelerate a decades-long trend of falling membership.

"I think the pandemic has helped people fall out of the habit of being active in church even more than they were before. So, that is certainly a concern for all of us," said Isbell.

Spiritual leaders also said they see the glass half full instead of half empty.

"I think the pandemic just sped up some of the adjustments and changes we need to make to be speaking to society," said Senior Pastor Kent King Nobles of First United Methodist Church in Normal.

Jennifer Innis is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Peoria. Innis agreed the pandemic accelerated a call to action.

"Protestant worship hasn't had to really radically change format, structure, and environment in hundreds of years, until now," said Innis.

As hard as it has been, the pandemic has proved a growth opportunity for some churches. Reverend Josh Lee of Imago Dei in Peoria said simply offering online services is a form of marketing to those who seek. And he said the stakes are lower.

"People have been able to explore other churches online that maybe they hadn't been able to before in a way that feels safer. They don't actually have to walk in the door. They can just watch online. People who have been wanting to check out a church or try something different that haven't before, I think they are willing to take the leap more," said Lee.

Lee said 50 new members have joined during the pandemic. His challenge now is to integrate those new people with the existing members. He said he has done distanced coffees and meals with them, takes their pictures, and then uses that information to post a picture of the new member and information about them in social media outreach to the rest of the congregation. Lee said that has paid off as established members have reached out personally to the new people.

Ministers and pastors agree some people will remain online and will need to be served there.

Ready for Lent

Pandemic attempts to bring elements of a church sanctuary into homes for lent may also stay after the coronavirus recedes.

"We sent kits to the family so they will have the things that the need for Lent, for Pentacosts, for the kids who get new bibles, to try to let them know they are valuable and that they are important to us," said Isbell.

Willow Hill United Methodist in Germantown Hills has done something similar to bring elements of a church sanctuary into homes for Lent.

"We came up with little things that we could send home with people so they could create their own altar space at home. And then every time they walk by it they can think about oh year we talked about how Jesus is the 'good shepherd' this week. Maybe I can spend some time thinking about that in my own life," said Willow Hill Directing Pastor Nicole Cox.

Those tools may stay after the coronavirus recedes as will some of the multimedia elements churches used to up their game during the pandemic: Zoom, Facebook, You Tube, and the like. 

"The 16th of March will be the one-year anniversary of the date we began doing daily devotional videos and sending them to people's homes. And some of those are recorded by the pastors, but others are recorded by lay members, people who are active, kids, adults, older folks, younger folks, teenagers," said Sara Isbell.

Peoria Unitarian minister Jennifer Innis said some people watch services just like they would go to church on a Sunday morning. Others, particularly those with families, may take it in chunks and not finish the service till Thursday. She says that pattern suggests they are finding better quality videos, and shorter worship segments and asynchronous services have a future. That's something Unitarians have worked on.

"And I was like, huh! I'm more engaged," said Innis.

Innis said that gave rise to an entire new media and communications plan.

"It already feels better. It feels like we're more visible. And we're more following through with the ministry we want to be doing in the world. So, it works externally as well as internally" said Innis.

The challenge for churches going forward, several ministers agreed, is to find enough resources to do both in person and online worship content well going forward.

Not everything in the new media world works well with a physical worship space though. Nicole Cox of Willow Hill Methodist acknowledged a tension between the contemplative benefit of going through a service and thinking about the elements of it and short bite online consumption patterns that don’t promote as much time for personal reflection.

"It's a fine line to walk. If we were to sit in a worship service in person for a three-minute period of quiet contemplation, that would not seem so long. But if you are watching that on-line people will just click away," said Cox.

And the future of churches has been at particular risk during the pandemic. Normal First United Methodist Pastor Kent King Nobles said the next generation has often tuned out.

"Even though they are so good at technology, a lot of churches have had trouble reaching kids on Zoom or whatever other social media platforms there have been. They do that at school, and they are just sort of checked out and not interested in spending a lot more time on the computer," said King Nobles.

King Nobles said many churches are thinking about fun ways to bring youth together. Yes, there will be more online resources, but small groups centered on discussion instead of a teacher addressing every child of a certain age may be a more effective and accessible way to pass on values, he said.

" You know we may not call it Sunday School. That term may have lost its excitement, King Nobles laughed.

Churches will need to continue looking for new ways to do things for all age groups or people who came online during the shutdown won't come through the doors again.

Josh Lee said Imago Dei in Peoria is already trying to be intentional about that through calls for community activism. His church is advocating for a racially woke new police chief. It's putting in work on relief efforts for those still taking an economic hit from the pandemic through rent and food help. He said they also try to feed the homeless who are on the streets instead of in shelter.

"I think the church has been challenged to redefine what being the church is. It's not just gathering on a Sunday in a building and shaking hands and having coffee and saying some prayers, it's actually physically doing something and maybe doing that thing together to see change exist and happen not only in our own lives, but also in the communities we live in," said Lee.

Kent King Nobles in Normal agreed as he looked at potential new churchgoers who are reacting to the isolation they experienced during the pandemic with a fresh engagement in life.

"I'm hoping there will be people who maybe have not been interested in church communities or other parts of the larger community that will say I think I want to work a little harder now to be with other people and to work with other people for the common good

All the spiritual leaders say the pandemic has also showed them religious institutions are still very much essential and, in some ways, unique in the way they offer ways to create community and the ability to socialize around common principles. They don't see that going away.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.