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Are internet services as good as the church?

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Last year Pastors Henry Fuhrman and Jerry O’Sullivan of Shelter Rock Church in Nassau County, NY, began working as television preachers. For months, they broadcast sermons live as Covid-19 ravaged the verdant communities of Long Island, where their church has multiple campuses. Having overcome the obstacles of digital worship, they now have a new problem: how to wean the congregation from the convenience of the online church.

They are not alone. Seventy-five percent of evangelical Protestants in the United States attended church online during the pandemic, according to a recent poll by Infinity Concepts and Gray Matter Research. “We have found that 45% of those who have experienced online church services now believe online worship is equal to or better than in-person experience,” said Mark Dreistadt, president and founder of Infinity Concepts. Only 44% want to return exclusively to worship in person, according to the report, which interviewed more than 1,000 evangelical Protestants.

Although Pew Research found in April 2020 that a quarter of American adults said their faith has grown stronger as a result of the pandemic, some pastors are skeptical of the long-term effects of online worship. “People tend to try to multitask when looking online. The result is that they sometimes don’t focus on God or on worship, ”says Mr. O’Sullivan, pastor of the Shelter Rock campus in Syosset, NY. “We try to keep them engaged.

The Infinity Concepts report also found that many American evangelicals have used pandemic blocks to “digitally visit” new churches – another cause for concern for some pastors. “One has to wonder if this will ultimately lead to church nomads, who surf the internet for new church experiences rather than to put down roots and be part of a church community,” said Ron Sellers. , President of Gray Matter.

Some churches have fought back against forced online services, ignoring state mandates or challenging them in court. And Gallup data shows in-person church attendance, after hitting a low in May 2020, steadily increased for the following year. But many religious leaders still don’t know when they should turn off webcams and streaming channels, or if they ever should.

Mr. Fuhrman, the senior pastor of Shelter Rock, said an average of 850 people attended online services between October 2020 and April 2021 before returning to church in person in the spring. He said about two-thirds of the church is now attending live services at its Long Island campuses. Yet over 1,000 devotees still view online services every week. It is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

In Uganda, Reverend Grace Lubaale said digital worship during the pandemic has brought converts to her resurrection church, the Bugolobi Church in Uganda. But he still sees the online age as a stark negative, as many have left church or slipped into their faith. He estimates that only 60% of his congregation of about 3,000 people had an Internet connection, limiting attendance. “People should worship together as in Acts 2: 42-47,” he said. Virtual worship “cannot be a permanent position or the church will end.”

Meanwhile, Derrick Kaddu, spokesperson for Sts. Philip and Andrews Cathedral in Mukono, Uganda, said its Anglican diocese is in a rural area where only 40% of the population can afford some kind of internet service. His church was run by broadcasting live on Facebook and broadcasting two Sunday services on a local radio station. He also installed loudspeakers in every church in his diocese “to spread the gospel to neighboring members of the community during the lockdown.”

These innovations did not avoid financial difficulties, as supply revenues fell. The diocese may have to lay off staff. He said only 30% of the herd has returned as the pandemic abates. “We will continue with the virtual church,” he said. “The younger generation wants it. People don’t want to go to church anymore. They want to stay online and attend services from their homes. But we need to find new ways to generate income for the church outside of the offertory.

Shelter Rock on Long Island finally hired an online pastor who could reach people in new ways and serve church members struggling during the pandemic because they lacked encouragement, responsibility and community. As of Sunday, Shelter Rock’s overall attendance of 2,300 was 40% higher than pre-pandemic levels, consistent with indicators that the church has grown significantly during the pandemic.

“We have no intention of getting rid of the church online,” Fuhrman said. “We’re reaching people we couldn’t reach before. I think this is the new front door.

Mr. Glader is editor-in-chief of Religion Unplugged and a professor at King’s College, New York. Mr. Semakula is a reporter for the Ugandan daily New Vision. This article has been adapted from a longer essay that will appear on ReligionUnplugged.com.

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