Despite rigid safety measures imposed during the two-year-long pandemic, the Rev. John Cannon, pastor at Asbury Methodist Church in Lafayette, never forgot the people he serves. Their images stayed fresh in his mind – sometimes with a little help.
During Easter 2020, Cannon and his staff affixed individual photographs of his flock to the empty pews in front of him as he preached the Word of God — livestreamed — during Good Friday and Easter services. This year, he said, he expects those pews to be filled with flesh-and-blood people, not one-dimensional images.
“We’re expecting to have a full church on Easter Sunday, as we had before the pandemic,” Cannon said this week. Asbury Methodist has been “slowly building back” its live attendance, despite some setbacks when COVID-19 variants have posed some threat to public health.
“Typically, on a Sunday, our numbers are at about the mid-500s for Sunday. We expect double that,” he said of Easter Sunday. Asbury Methodist will hold four services: at 8:30, 9:45, and two at 11.
At First Baptist Church in Lafayette, the pastoral staff has been tracking an increase in attendance over the past four to six weeks as pandemic restrictions have been lifted statewide. Dennis Clark, in the church’s communication ministry, said a small contingent of older church members — perhaps 30 or 35 people — remain reluctant to participate in in-person services but stay loyal to the digitally delivered services. Otherwise, the faithful are back in person.
In fact, he said, the church has trimmed its digital offerings to encourage people to return to the pews, especially those with no health restrictions. Surprisingly, he said, he believes the church has grown during the pandemic. Cannon says the same.
At Trinity CME, the oldest Black church in Lafayette, the Rev. Maggie Banks, pastor, said she’s expecting “a great turnout.” Attendance has increased in recent weeks as the church prepares for its sesquicentennial celebration.
She said older church members have been tentative about returning to in-person church services and have used Facebook and Zoom to stay in touch.
“It’s about 50-50,” she said of the downtown church — digital attendance vs. in-person attendance. In-person attendance is what she hopes will increase.
“I’m praying that if they come Sunday, they’ll return to regular attendance,” she said.
Clark said First Baptist is also hoping to encourage people back into church. He estimated some 250-300 people have been attending through livestream. The church has trimmed its digital offerings — most are geared toward older people with health issues — and hopes that more people will come inside the church.
Livestreaming and other digital offerings have provided a good alternative for the faithful, he said.
“But we are not getting any significant relationship building in a group like that,” he said. “The concept of discipleship is, to a great extent, done in one-on-one settings. What they do in the halls and before lessons start is when a lot of what we do happens.
“There’s not the interaction and mentoring that go along with in-person attendance. We’re encouraging lazy Christianity by enabling people too much to not go to church.”
At Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Broussard, the Rev. Michael Delcambre said the pandemic has enabled him to develop and exercise new digital muscles.
As a pastor, he said, he’s had to become more creative to reach his flock. He’s done drive-by confessions and offered a podcast that has been popular with his church and others.
Connecting with his congregation by computer forced him to learn new, valuable skills and to rethink how he is delivering the message to the faithful.
“It has given me a deeper appreciation for people in the media world and how to do things with great quality and proficiency. When I see something well done and beautiful digitally, I now understand it took a lot of planning, work and technical skills to record and edit it to a final product.
“I’ve never been trained for this. The learning curve, pandemic to now, involved more knowledge about sound, cameras, etc. It keeps building so you can offer an engaging product. A pastor in a little country parish is competing with CBS and ABC. People have been sensitized to new expectations of quality.”
The two-year journey from empty sanctuaries to limited-seating to full sanctuaries did not represent a net loss to some churches. Delcambre said the social media outreach offered him new opportunities to connect with people’s homes — with parishioners as well as those who had not been active in church.
“In real numbers, we have a lot of young families with children who are coming back to church,” he said. “It might be just the area we live in, with lots of people moving into the area from out of town. What I am seeing visually is younger folks with families or young singles looking for connection or purpose.
“Will we be stronger going forward? I have to think our church will be stronger going forward. People have found more ways than ever to respond to curiosity about faith, about questions they might have, about their interest in God. They’ve been supplementing their knowledge in between opportunities for community service.”
“I think we might have a little more committed group now than pre-pandemic,” Clark said. “Folks are coming because they want to. It’s more intentional, not just a habit. They’ve experienced not being able to go to church and know it is something that needs to be part of their lives.”
“People didn’t just go away,” Cannon said. “We all made adjustments in how we participated in the church. We seemed to gain numbers during COVID, even from people online. That didn’t stop.
“This event caused us to adjust how we did church. I don’t feel like it was a stumbling block to people’s faith. What I learned was that people still had active prayer lives, wanted to engage with churches and ministry. We tried to accommodate that in how we did things.
“We did not find that people’s faith wavered. God’s love could get us through.”