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Are Internet Services as Good as Church?



Last year Pastors

Henry Fuhrman

and Jerry O’Sullivan of Shelter Rock Church in Nassau County, N.Y., began working as TV preachers. For months they livestreamed sermons as Covid-19 ravaged the leafy communities of Long Island, where their church has several campuses. After overcoming the hurdles of digital worship, they now have a new problem: how to wean the congregation off the convenience of online church.

They aren’t alone. Seventy-five percent of evangelical Protestants in the U.S. have attended church online during the pandemic, according to a recent survey by Infinity Concepts and Grey Matter Research. “We found that 45% of those who experienced online church services now believe that worship online is equal or superior to the in-person experience,” said Mark Dreistadt, president and founder of Infinity Concepts. Only 44% want to return exclusively to in-person worship, according to the report, which surveyed more than 1,000 evangelical Protestants.

Although Pew Research found in April 2020 that a quarter of U.S. adults said their faith had become stronger because of the pandemic, some pastors are skeptical about the long-run effects of online worship. “People tend to try to multitask when they are watching online. The result is that they are not focused on God or the worship at times,” says Mr. O’Sullivan, a pastor of the Shelter Rock campus in Syosset, N.Y. “We are trying to keep them engaged.”

The Infinity Concepts report also found that many American evangelicals used the pandemic lockdowns to “digitally visit” new churches—another cause for concern among some pastors. “One has to wonder whether this will ultimately lead to church nomads, who surf the internet for new church experiences rather than putting down roots and becoming part of a church community,”

Ron Sellers,

president of Grey Matter, says.

Some churches fought back against forced online services, ignoring state mandates or challenging them in court. And data from Gallup show in-person church attendance, after hitting a low in May 2020, steadily rose for the next year. But many religious leaders are still unsure about when they should turn off the webcams and streaming channels—or if they ever should.

Mr. Fuhrman, the senior pastor at Shelter Rock, said an average of 850 people attended online services between October 2020 and April 2021 before shifting back toward in-person church in the spring. He said roughly two-thirds of the church is now attending live services at its Long Island campuses. Yet more than 1,000 congregants still watch services online each week. This isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon.

In Uganda, the

Rev. Grace Lubaale

said digital worship during the pandemic brought converts to his Church of the Resurrection, Bugolobi Church of Uganda. But he still considers the online era a net negative, as many left the church or slid in their faith. He estimates only 60% of his roughly 3,000-strong congregation had an internet connection, limiting participation. “People should worship together as in Acts 2:42-47,” he says. Virtual worship “cannot be a permanent position or the church will end.”

Meanwhile, Derrick Kaddu, spokesman for the Sts. Philip and Andrews Cathedral in Mukono, Uganda, said his Anglican diocese is in a rural area where only 40% of the population can afford some kind of internet service. His church managed by streaming live on

Facebook

and broadcasting two Sunday services on a local radio station. It also installed loudspeakers at every church in his diocese “to narrowcast the Gospel to the nearby members of the community during the lockdown.”

These innovations didn’t stave off financial pain, as offering revenues dropped. The diocese may have to lay off staff members. He said only 30% of the flock have returned as the pandemic eases. “We shall go on with the virtual church,” he says. “The younger generation wants it. People don’t want to go to church anymore. They want to remain online and attend services from their homes. But we need to find new ways of generating income for the church outside offertory.”

Shelter Rock on Long Island ultimately hired an online pastor who could reach out to people in new ways and minister to church members who are struggling during the pandemic because they lacked encouragement, accountability and community. This past Sunday, Shelter Rock’s overall attendance of 2,300 was 40% higher than pre-pandemic levels, matching indicators that the church grew significantly during the pandemic.

“We have no plans of getting rid of online church,” Mr. Fuhrman says. “We are reaching people we couldn’t reach before. I think it’s the new front door.”

Mr. Glader is executive editor at Religion Unplugged and a professor at the King’s College in New York. Mr. Semakula is a reporter at the Ugandan daily newspaper New Vision. This article was adapted from a longer essay that will appear on ReligionUnplugged.com.

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