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Will They Come Back to Worship?

The future of older adults attending in-person services is still unknown

By Michelle Van Loon

"Since our church re-opened about six months ago, no one on the pastoral staff has contacted us," Pam, 62, said. (She asked to use a pseudonym since she lives in a small town.)

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Pam is immunocompromised, and her husband, 60, is recovering from surgery. The couple was active in their small rural Arizona congregation prior to statewide COVID-19 shutdowns in mid-March, but hasn't returned to in-person worship services.

"The pastor is now preaching that if you're not there on Sunday mornings, you have weak faith and are sinning," Pam said.

She estimates that about 10% of the congregation, mostly older adults, have not returned since the building reopened. "This means that ten percent of our congregation is being unfairly labeled, which gives permission to the younger, healthier people on staff and in the congregation to ignore us. And they have," she added.  

Houses of worship in many areas across the country were required to close their doors last spring during the first wave of coronavirus shutdowns. Many congregations attempted to provide some form of online worship and/or educational programming via Zoom, Facebook or YouTube.

As buildings have reopened for worship services again, are older adults returning? Or will COVID-19 move those at midlife and beyond toward different kinds of connection and involvement with their faith communities?

A High Degree of Caution

"Our seniors tend to fall into one of two categories on opposite ends of the spectrum," said Dan Martinson, lead pastor of Hobson Road Community Church in Downer's Grove, Ill., a Protestant congregation.

"Many are exercising a high degree of caution relative to COVID-19 and have therefore not returned or are significantly limiting their engagement," he said. "Others were among the earliest adapters to return, citing various forms of deterministic faith over the circumstances and/or rejecting the mainstream views on the danger of the virus."

Other faith communities have broadened their emphasis beyond building-focused events.

According to Martinson, "a subset of this second group is those that have not returned specifically because they do not want to – or claim they cannot – adhere to the guidelines we've instituted for in-person gatherings, such as masks and social distancing." 

Other faith communities have broadened their emphasis beyond building-focused events.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Chicago's Temple Sholom said her congregation is offering limited in-person programming while focusing on enhancing connection with older or medically-vulnerable members who no longer feel comfortable attending services in person.

"During the month before the High Holy Days, we had some in-person, outdoor, socially distanced programming for congregants," she said.

The synagogue has also focused on continuing outreach to older members. Conover said it has reached out to all congregants and that some older, home-bound congregants now have volunteers who are in touch with them regularly, helping to shop, talk and arrange for transportation to doctor's appointments and other errands.

"We also made sure that all could either connect by computer or by phone for our High Holy Day services," she explained. "We also have many elders who join us for our weekly Friday night Shabbat services via Zoom as well as for our Adult Education experiences."

The Appeal of Online Worship Changes

Rev. Christian M. Wood, senior priest associate for Christian Formation and Liturgy at Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, Fla., an Episcopal congregation, noted that the initial pivot to online offerings last spring encouraged church leaders to think creatively about the way in which they're delivering prayer, worship and learning opportunities.

"One of the significant successes we have enjoyed is a rejuvenated connection of our parishioners to the Daily Office (formal, fixed-hour prayer). Since moving the Office online, engagement has exploded," he said, estimating that about 50% of its older members have returned to in-person worship and others continue to stay connected through online offerings.

A recent Pew Research survey found that most worshipers plan to return to in-person corporate gatherings when they feel the threat of the virus has faded, but noted, "Of course, it is impossible to predict how behavior will actually change after the pandemic, particularly if it extends further into the future than people expect."

The Barna Group focuses its research on the Christian community, and noted in their own July, 2020 survey of COVID-era worship habits that about a third of all regular churchgoers had stopped attending church during the early days of the pandemic, choosing not to participate in online services either in their own congregation or by paying a digital visit to another congregation.

Though a percentage of this number may not have access to the internet, it is probable that most are opting out. And a sizeable percentage of those who have downshifted their connection to their local church are elders (those born before 1945) and boomers, which combined comprise 56% of regular church attendees in the United States.

Relating to Faith Communities in Different Ways

A few years ago, when I asked those over 40 who were readers of my blog if they were more, less or just as involved in their local churches as they'd been 10 years earlier, and why that was the case, I received more than 500 responses. About half had chosen to downshift or fully end their involvement for reasons ranging from changing beliefs, weariness with intramural politics, caregiving responsibilities and career demands.

Though this was not in any way a scientific survey, it underscores the reality that many congregations have older adults who may have been on the edge of changing the way in which they relate to a faith community. The pandemic may accelerate those changes for this group. Digital worship is here to stay.

Ron Wolfson, professor of education at American Jewish University, noted in his piece for The Forward that even with the advent of a COVID-19 vaccine, it will be a long time before many will feel comfortable gathering in large groups for a worship service.

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"The pandemic has forever shifted the way synagogues reach their congregants and beyond their sanctuaries to a worldwide audience," Wolfson said.

Mosques tend to follow the patterns of churches and synagogues in their local areas. Guided by care for neighbors, social distancing and mask-wearing have changed the flavor of everything from Friday prayer gatherings to the way in which Ramadan was observed this year for observant Muslims.

In an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Dr. Nazia Ahmed said the Quran encourages Muslims to frame times of suffering as a test: "In times of hardship, you increase your connection with God."

Will the People Return?

Leaders in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and other Christian traditions where worship is centered on the physical act of participating in communion have found themselves navigating the tension between official church teaching and public health concerns.

Roy Van Brunt captured those tensions in his recent piece for the National Catholic Reporter: "Online worship allows for neither full, active nor conscious participation, and does not fulfill the Holy Spirit's and the Second Vatican Council's encouragement of lay involvement in liturgy."

Van Brunt suggests that the pause of the pandemic can be an opportunity for congregations to ask themselves some hard questions: "Will the people return? Why would they? What could lead them to do so?"

"Every congregation needs to figure out how to shepherd people through this pandemic."

Church teaching and loyalty may bring back some members, but digital connection cannot replace embodied human relationships.

Martinson said, "We take initiative to reach out with phone calls, cards and, when allowable, in-person visits in an attempt to remain relationally connected. There has been an uptick in the needs of rides and other daily assistance for many of our seniors, which we are doing our best to respond to." 

If there is anything that will help keep people connected to their faith communities, I suspect it will be this kind of care, rather than requirements, shame or even excellent digital offerings.

Pam and her husband have not given up their hope in God but are deeply discouraged with the lack of care they've received from their local church.

"Every congregation needs to figure out how to shepherd people through this pandemic. Our church isn't trying at all," she said.

The faith communities that are trying, learning together how to honor God and care well for one another, are the ones that model how faith that can help us endure these painful, challenging times in our world  – together. 

contributor Michelle Van Loon
Michelle Van Loon is the author of six books, including this year's release Growing Sage: Cultivating Maturity, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife. She is the co-founder of a blog for midlife women and men called ThePerennialGen.com. Read More

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