SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month

`Difficult days are ahead’ for America’s churches, faith institutions

Charita Goshay
charita.goshay@cantonrep.com
The onset of COVID-19 has significantly impacted how Americans worship. One church expert said it could result in some churches closing, and will forever change how the survivors operate.

America’s churches and other institutions of faith are not immune to the devastating effects of the coronavirus.

In Ohio, many were shuttered in March and resorted to social media; others have resumed in-person services, requiring masks and social-distancing and prohibiting such in-person contact as hugs and hand-shaking.

Some never closed at all, choosing to believe that faith is enough to protect and sustain them through the outbreak.

One church-growth expert says not all congregations will emerge intact. And those that do survive are forever changed in how they’ll function.

“COVID-19 will cause the most significant changes anyone’s ever seen in our lifetime,” the Rev. Brian Kluth said. “It already has. It’s been a very dramatic shift. I do think that tens of thousands of churches will have difficulty surviving and operating into 2021.”

According to the National Congregational Study Survey, there are an estimated 380,000 churches in the U.S.

Kluth, who is based in Denver, is the national spokesman for the Bless Your Pastor movement, and director of the National Association of Evangelicals Financial Health Solutions for Churches and Pastors.

Even before the outbreak, many churches were struggling. In a country where nearly 70% of Americans identify as Christian, just one in three attends worship services on a consistent basis.

In contrast, people who claim no religious affiliation are one of the fastest-growing groups in the U.S.

Kluth noted that, prior to the outbreak, 80% of churches had memberships of less than 200, and that 55% had fewer than 100 people.

“It’s a moving number because one-third of churches are having onsite services, and the number is increasing,” he said. “One-third to one-half are having meetings on-site but continue to offer online services.”

Kluth added that as churches start preparing their budgets for 2021, a number of scenarios could become more clear.

“Some will get stronger, reaching more people,” he predicted. “Some will figure out their new normal. Some will not be able to continue, and may become satellite campuses. Some will merge. Some will disband and gift their buildings and properties to another church or nonprofit organization.”

Temple Israel, Stark County’s largest Jewish synagogue, has no immediate plans to re-open, said Rabbi David Komerofsky, who assumed his post in July.

Temple Israel is part of Beit Ha’am, a shared campus and worship space that includes Shaaray Torah Synagogue and the Canton Jewish Community Federation, which also are closed.

“Temple Israel does not yet have plans to return to in-person services,” Komerofsky said. “We will be doing all of our High Holy Day services online, and will do two rituals outside ... I do look forward to being able to convene in person and to meeting all of the interesting people in Canton.”

Julia Shearson, director of the Cleveland office of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said some mosques in Northeast Ohio have reopened under strict social-distancing rules.

Some are requiring pre-registration for the Friday prayers and limiting it to a certain number, she said. “They have to bring their own prayer rug, and wear a mask.”

Last week, Union Baptist Church in Canton reopened after closing for two weeks, strictly as a precautionary measure.

Like most churches, Union Baptist was forced to close its physical doors in March while continuing services online. The building reopened on May 12.

The Rev. Sherman Martin Jr. explained that a few members had been exposed to people who had the coronavirus, but that they themselves were not infected.

“When there’s a spirit of fear, people tend to run with it,” he said with a chuckle.

Martin said Union Baptist practices social distancing, masks, and they sanitize the building after every service. They also put a safety team in place months before the outbreak occurred. His wife, Odette, is a nurse.

“We have a nice flow of people,” he said, “And once people’s confidence goes up, we expect that to increase.”

Kluth has published a survey, “State of the Plate,” which finds that donations to churches have declined by 65%.

“It’s the worst giving I’ve ever seen,” he said, noting that 40% of the nation’s churches have applied for PPP, the federal Payment Protection Program.

That has bought them some time, Kluth said. “But nobody thought it was going to last this long. ... Something’s going to have to change.”

On Aug. 19, State of the Plate reported that 88 percent of churches have reopened but at 50% attendance.

One bright spot, Kluth said, is that many churches are reaching more people than ever through technology.

“I would recommend that every church embrace technology to serve their people,” Kluth said. “Difficult days are ahead. They need to be proactive in how they care for their people and communities whether it’s financial or food, or well-being checks. You just need to be creative.”

The Revs. J.R. and Amy Rozko, lead co-pastors at historic First Church of the Resurrection in Canton, are among those who have conducted online worship services since March.

They also make well-being phone calls to keep in touch with their older members.

“In terms of a strategy for regathering, as in person, we are working out a phase-based plan currently with our elders,” J.R Rozko said. “So long as Stark County remains `orange’ per the Ohio Department of Health, we plan to continue gathering via Zoom, hosting a monthly parking lot service, limiting all group ministry to five people or less, and engaging with and resourcing our people via mail, phone, and electronic communication.”

Rozko said that once Stark County moves to “yellow” status the state has a color-coded risk level for each county with purple being in the highest and remains there for at least two weeks, First Resurrection will move to resume in-person worship in some format.

Temperatures will be taken at the door, masks will be required and social distancing will be practiced, he said.

Kluth said that regardless of what happens in the months to come, the church and Christianity will continue to exist.

“How and where they’re gathering is undergoing a major shift,” he said.

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @cgoshayREP