Churches see low attendance

New Providence Baptist Church members Madison Pickle, left, and Carol Pickle consult the seating chart Sunday before directing a fellow member to his seat.

After reopening their doors to the community, some churches in the area are still seeing low rates of attendance because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rev. Jon Henson, pastor of Blairland Baptist Church in Loudon, has seen a significant drop in on-site attendance, estimating 40 percent of regular attenders are staying away.

The church reopened 12 weeks ago and has averaged 90 people a service since. Those numbers have largely stayed consistent excluding the last two weeks, which have seen a slight drop. Henson thinks the increase of active cases is to blame.

Canvas Church in Lenoir City is reporting the same 60 percent attendance rate after opening its doors May 31, the Rev. Nick Rains, pastor, said. The church has asked “vulnerable populations” to stay home and watch the service online.

Rains said the drop in attendance is directly linked to an absence of child care services. Many members rely on child care to attend on Sunday, so online services are the better option for them, he said.

Both Henson and Rains said online services have been getting hundreds of views.

“So it’s been wild because even though we’ve seen about a 40 percent decrease in attendance, we’ve seen a pretty big transition where we’ve always offered this podcast, and now that we’ve started doing video sermons it’s getting more listens,” Rains said. “We’ve actually seen a very big jump in our digital engagement, so that’s been good.”

The Rev. Mark Caldwell, pastor of New Providence Baptist Church near Loudon, said the church has seen sporadic attendance rates in recent weeks. The church split its Sunday service into two services to better accommodate for social distancing. Parishioners reserve a seat on Facebook and an usher shows them to their reserved seat on Sunday.

“So with the two services, up until about three or four weeks ago, we were almost at capacity with both of those services,” Caldwell said. “We were doing well, and then we did have two people test positive, a father and his daughter, and so the next week, our face-to-face crowds dropped. That kind of scared some folks. That was also the same week that there was a death in the church community, pastor Ernie Varner of Sixth Avenue Church of God. So with that we had several folks that got a little more anxious. So the crowd dropped off drastically that following Sunday.”

Until July 19, Caldwell had not requested people wear masks in the church. After he put out the request, more people showed up and told Caldwell it was because they felt safer when he promoted the masks.

The Rev. Woody Martin, pastor of Victory Temple Church in Lenoir City, said attendance is “booming.” He said the church took three weeks off when Gov. Bill Lee initially asked churches to close. The church has been in revival since Dec. 31.

“Our attendance hasn’t been affected that much,” Martin said. “As a matter of fact, the last four or five weeks it’s gotten stronger, more people attending. It’s really been a move of God that we really think it’s from God, and we really think it’s no end in sight in our estimation, because people are still coming. People are being saved. People are being healed. It’s just phenomenal what the Lord’s doing.”

Rains hopes other churches are preparing for the future.

“Normal has changed,” he said. “So it’s this thing where we’re putting a lot of our emphasis right now in actually not just trying to get back to normal per se, but we’re looking a lot of what do the next five years look like. So we’re exploring ways we can do better within digital church and ministry and also do better resourcing with our small groups and even watch parties. If we have to shut down our doors again, we want to better engage people in the community and not just be something they’re watching on a TV and have better avenues to engage people in small groups.”

He said the “cultural response” to coronavirus could impact the way churches operate well into the future.

“We’ve seen H1N1. We’ve seen SARS. These were all worse than COVID-19 has been, but there was not the cultural response that we see now,” Rains said. “So now that we’ve kind of responded in this way, I think this is going to be a new normal, and I think churches are going to have to pay attention to that and say we’re going to have to make sure we’re doing digital well because 60 percent may be the new norm.”