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The Rise of the ‘Virtual Church’

by Michael Miller |
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Church attendance still suffers the lingering effects of COVID, more congregants watch services online, and the young are absent

The pews aren’t empty yet.

Peoria-area religious leaders report that worship attendance has continued its pre-pandemic decline in many cases, while holding steady in others. Two local churches reported that attendance is on the upswing.

Nationally, a June Gallup poll found that in the period from 2020 to the present, an average of 30% of U.S. adults said they had attended a house of worship in the previous seven days, down from 34% from 2016-2019.

Locally, all that’s available is anecdotal evidence — several faith communities didn’t return calls or emails — and the results are mixed.

Retired Bradley University religion professor Robert Fuller said that he notices on his Sunday morning walks through different city neighborhoods that attendance generally is down. And while Catholic and Protestant attendance has dropped at about the same rate over the past couple decades, the decline at mainline Protestant churches such as United Methodist, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, and Episcopal congregations “has been perilous,” Fuller said.

There, but not there

The Rev. Ann Schwartz, lead presbyter of the Peoria-based Presbytery of Great Rivers, confirmed the attendance struggles at area PCUSA churches but lauded the congregations’ efforts to serve the community nonetheless.

“Generally, in-person attendance remains lower than it was pre-COVID,” Schwartz said, attributing some of that to the continuation of online streaming of Sunday services, allowing the faithful to worship at home. But while streaming may be depressing in-person attendance, it also is reaching many previously unchurched people, she said.

“They have found a virtual church,” she said.

A pandemic awakening

The presbytery’s impact on the community, though, hasn’t faltered, Schwartz said. Peoria-area PCUSA churches continue to be involved in programs such as Habitat for Humanity, neighborhood cleanups, and assistance with home repairs and landscaping while also offering tutoring programs and preschools.

“Many of our churches have food pantries,” she said. “Other churches plant community gardens. In towns and cities throughout central Illinois, Presbyterians partner with local organizations, providing money, volunteer hours, and considerable energy to address the needs that no single agency or church can do alone.”

Bishop Louis Tylka of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria said the pandemic’s silver lining may be a renewed focus on bringing people back to church.

“People were awakened during the pandemic to the need to be a part of a community specifically centered on God,” he said.

In some sanctuaries, a ‘baby boom’

One congregation where attendance is growing is Northwoods Community Church in north Peoria.

“I would say it is growing slowly, but it is definitely growing, not shrinking,” said Executive Pastor Mike Bell. “We are seeing a lot of new, young families, and it appears they are staying. In fact, we joke about it being a baby boom. Our nursing mothers room is full each week and that is a positive change. It hasn’t been that way in past months or years.”

Sunday morning services and weekday classes and events are “back to full strength and well-attended,” Bell said.

“One of the advantages we had when COVID hit was the fact that we already had a growing, vibrant online ministry,” he said. “During COVID, and currently, we were able to livestream our services and keep everyone engaged. Our online ministry continues to flourish. We have been blessed!”

Other local churches also continue to slowly but steadily recover their pre-pandemic numbers.

‘The post-pandemic adjustment has been challenging because so many things have changed’ — Rev. Deveraux Hubbard

St. Paul Baptist Church in Peoria, for instance, had an average attendance of 214 in 2022 while its online viewership soared. The latter has been dropping, though, as people are returning to in-person worship. This year, attendance is up to an average of 400, said the Rev. Deveraux Hubbard, pastor of the 108-year-old congregation at 114 W. Forrest Hill Ave.

“The post-pandemic adjustment has been challenging because so many things have changed,” Hubbard said. “How we work, shop, and interact is different. Our leadership is optimistic. Church attendance declined in America before the pandemic, so it is not surprising that it is difficult to re-engage people in the local church.

“As we continue to focus on connecting people with Jesus and one another, the Holy Spirit will renew our focus on the importance of being in community.  We are also excited about the opportunity to continue to leverage technology to expose people to the gospel message and then work to connect them after the Holy Spirit draws them.”

‘Lots of young people are unchurched, but we can also see that as an opportunity’ — Glenn Ross

Retired Caterpillar Inc. executive and St. Paul member Glenn Ross said that increasing community impact is “a challenge,” but that he and others “are doing a lot of outreach.

“Lots of young people are unchurched, but we can also see that as an opportunity,” Ross said.

Pastors wanted

One of the additional challenges that many denominations face besides attendance is staffing.

“There are more churches looking for pastors than there are pastors available,” the Presbytery of Great Rivers’ Schwartz said. “Some congregations cannot afford the costs of calling and retaining seminary-trained and ordained leaders. Many small churches can only afford a pastor part-time.”

Volunteers do step in to help, including retired pastors and individuals who have participated in an intensive lay-pastor training program and are commissioned to serve one or more congregations.

Hubbard said he thinks the church in general — “big ‘C’ church,” he said — “is being challenged to rely on the Holy Spirit more than on our budgets, programs and planning.

“We’ve all been reminded that the Church belongs to God, and he has promised that the ‘gates of hell will not prevail,’” Hubbard said, citing Matthew 16:18. “We are confident that as we surrender to him and do our part, he will do his part.”

Michael Miller

is a former Peoria print journalist and is newsletter editor for a health care sharing ministry

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