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Hampton Roads Community News

Empty Black Church Pews Reflect Post-2020 Worship

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

The pandemic created empty church pews nationwide; so more churches turned to streaming services, downloads, and apps.

Most streaming services cost the average church $79- $139 a month. But you get what you pay for and many parishioners may have to wait in line to watch a specific service on a less-expensive streaming service. Some streaming services require a church to subscribe to software and also buy hardware. Facebook and YouTube now offer live-streaming and are easier to operate.

Norfolk’s historic First Baptist Church of Bute Street notes on its website, in the section for streaming services, “Greetings First Baptist Church Family! Due to the unprecedented load on the nation’s communication industry, many businesses/schools/churches are finding strains on their streaming and phone services. We ask for your patience as we navigate through this process, and trust that God will lead us through these challenges, and our faith will remain firm and hopeful.”

The notice continues,”Church streaming and Bible study content can be accessed using the following methods listed below: Live or Recorded Video Stream: Church YouTube Channel or www.fbcnorfolk.org. If you are unable to view the service try back again when network traffic is lighter.”

Another local church, Norfolk’s Second Calvary Baptist also holds in-person worship services, streaming services and it also offers an app– “SCBC Norfolk” which is available in the app store. Its website noted “21 days of Prayer and Consecration” Monday, January 10 – January 30 by downloading the “SCBC 2022 Prayer and Fasting Guide.”

The point is the pandemic has changed how many churches operate nationwide. Six-in-ten African Americans who attend religious services said they visited an African American church before the pandemic began, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report.

But a recent Pew Research Center report showed that more than a quarter (28 percent) of regular African American congregants–those who regularly attend worship services said their church should be closed due to the pandemic, compared to 9 percent of white Americans and 14 percent of Hispanic Americans. Only 30 percent of the African American congregants said they were “very confident they can attend safely,” compared to 36 percent of Hispanics and 53 percent of white attendees.

This poll helps to explain the increasing number of empty pews but it does not tell the full story.

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“COVID has been harder on us,” the Rev. Leslie Callahan, who pastors St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia, told Religion News Service in an October 2021 interview.“Black people know people who’ve died. Black people know people who are sick now.”

The pandemic forced St. Paul’s to cap attendance at its two outdoor September 2021 services, limiting pew attendance to a maximum of 75 mask-wearing worshippers. Callahan said about 35 attended one service and 50 were at the other, while other parishioners watched online.

In Alexandria, Va., the Rev. Howard-John Wesley said, “Every church has to make a decision on where they believe the line of safety is. And in our mind, one member contracting COVID on the grounds of (attending) Alfred Street Baptist Church would be more than we believe glorifies God.”

The Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, who pastors Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and also chairs the Conference of National Black Churches, said some churches have seen increasing numbers of parishioners attend online services. Other churches in the seven CNBC-affiliated denominations have had to close because their leaders could not make a technological pivot because they lacked the finances and the skill sets needed to survive.

Richardson said smaller churches that are continuing to offer services online find that when they do open for in-person worship, attendance increases; but it is followed by a steep decline. He said he is not aware of any African American church that has more than 40 percent of its pre-pandemic in-person attendance.

“The issue is that, yes, you can open the church, but if the atmosphere, the climate, is not conducive for people to come back, you just open the door and they won’t be there,” Richardson said.

“Most of the people who are not attending [services] are afraid,” the Rev. Mike Meshaw, lead pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, N.C. said in a recent interview in Christianity Today. “They are uncomfortable being around crowds.”

But one pastor said, “The church has to make a major adjustment to online worship. It’s with us to stay,” said the Rev. Kip Banks, pastor of East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is also a senior consultant for Values Partnership, an organization that works with African American pastors nationwide.

“The reality is, it is unrealistic to expect a church to go back to what it was anytime soon,” Mark Moore Jr. wrote in an Aug. 25, 2021 op-ed in The Washington Post. Moore launched and heads the Atlanta-based Young Leaders Conference and Spirit and Truth Ministries. Visit his website, MinistryGoesDigital.com.

“There’s no reason to think that everyone will be back in the building for the foreseeable future,” Moore wrote in The Washington Post this fall, a few months before the Omicron variant surfaced in South Africa on Nov. 24, 2021.

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The first U.S. Omicron cases surfaced in a California woman in late November after a 48-year-old Nebraska man traveled from Nigeria to the USA on Dec. 24. 2021. The first confirmed death from the Omicron variant in the U.S. occurred in late December. It was a reinfection.

According to news reports, the victim was a man who lived in Harris County, Texas. He was unvaccinated and had previously been infected with COVID-19. He contracted the virus again, and it was confirmed as the Omicron variant.

These troubling COVID-19 and Omicron facts stop some parishioners from walking into a church and sliding into a pew for in-person worship services.

“Some have legitimate health and wellness concerns,” Moore wrote in The Washington Post. “Then there are others who have just fallen in love with the idea of being able to go to church without getting dressed or leaving the couch.

Come as you are” is pretty convenient, but not nearly as convenient as ‘stay where you are.’”

Moore said, “If we are going to see continued progress and change in the Black church, we must make simple shifts toward a digital future.”

But some African American churches did not need to pivot during the pandemic. An online search suggests the pandemic did not actually change Norfolk’s Calvary Revival Church, which was a technological pioneer when it was launched around 1998. It averaged weekly attendance of 8,000 at its main campus on Poplar Hall Drive in Norfolk and three satellites in Chesapeake and on the Peninsula–long before the pandemic started.

According to its website, Norfolk Calvary Revival provides an array of services via an app,via Zoom services, live stream, Facebook and YouTube. Click on Norfolk’s Calvary Revival Church website and notice its streaming services are hosted by Boxcast, a streaming service that ranges from $99 to $999 a month. Calvary Revival also offers multiple streaming services and programs on YouTube and Facebook.

“Due to the rise in covid cases, Sunday services will be ONLINE ONLY for the month of January. Join us online at 10a, 12p and 7p! Stay safe!,” Norfolk Calvary Revival Church explained in a recent statement on its website.

The point is the pandemic may have launched a paradigm shift in many African American churches. It ended “hand clapping, foot stomping” worship services, charismatic preaching, gatherings in the fellowship hall and more,” Moore said in his recent op-ed in The Washington Post. “Shifting to the digital space doesn’t mean that we lose our identity. Instead, it gives us an opportunity to be innovative in the way we do ministry in this generation.”

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At this historic juncture, more African American churches are using Zoom, Streamyard, vMix and Restream to host Bible classes, church school lessons and full worship services. Many congregants are shifting from the pew to smart devices, in other words.

Black churches are increasingly hiring graphic designers who do not only focus on creating event fliers but also focus on disseminating information via live streams. More African American churches are increasingly offering in-person worship with an online option, Bible study classes, and other events are being delivered via apps, downloads, streaming services, and social media services such as Facebook or YouTube.

Some of the more popular services are Livestream.com, which offers monthly plans for customers who frequently stream videos. Livestream prices range from $42 to $800 a month with varying features. Ustream.tv offers monthly plans ranging from $99 to $999 a month, as well as a 30-day free trial. Smaller providers offer one-off pricing for single events, which often cost $100-$200.

PIC Church graphic with steeple

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