We started to allow a little singing, with masks, but we shortened the songs to keep services brief. I trimmed my sermons to 1,000 words. For those who were uncomfortable with this, we created a separate seating area in the parish hall where masks were required, singing was prohibited, and people could watch the live-stream projected on a wall. A few families with young kids, as well as some who had other health concerns, tried that. It worked for a couple of weeks. Then they asked, “Why don’t you make the people who don’t want to wear masks sit in here instead?” If they were watching the live-stream projected on a wall, they reasoned, they might as well watch from home.
I don’t know how to make this work. After a year of trying to assure people that we were still the church even when we weren’t in the same room, I don’t know how to convince them now of the importance of gathering in person. I know that if they are watching from home, fancier churches all over the country offer much slicker streamed services than our suburban church with its secondhand camera and duct-taped tripod. And no matter what we do, it isn’t going to work for someone. A few families have started attending larger churches with more—or less—restrictive masking policies. I also know that kids’ sports, held outdoors, have fewer restrictions, and that returning to a church habit after 20 months away gets harder with each passing Sunday.
In 2020, no one could come to church. Now some of my parishioners are choosing not to. I can see on social media that many are at restaurants or parties, but I don’t see them in person on Sunday mornings. The pandemic has accelerated trends I’ve heard about at church conferences since I was first ordained: Sunday attendance will shrink, so churches need to focus on the people outside our walls.