The pandemic put paid to many in-person social events, such as concerts, theaters, clubs, churches, etc. While many shifted to doing things online, when the pandemic looked like it was easing last summer and these organizations looked to go back to in-person events, they found that many people resisted coming back, either because they feared getting infected or because they found that doing things online was more convenient for them. But this has had a negative financial impact on the organizations.
That is definitely the case for my local bridge club, which is the only social organization to which I belong. It generates revenue to pay the rent and other expenses by charging a table fee for each participant. When the pandemic hit, online bridge tournaments exploded but while those too charge a fee, those provide little or no revenue for the local clubs. When the pandemic seemed to be easing, some people returned to play face-to-face but nowhere near the numbers before and this has resulted in a financial hit for the club.
The same thing is true for many other organizations, including churches.
When Westminster United Methodist Church in Houston resumed in-person services late last year, after a seven-month halt due to COVID-19, there were Sundays when only three worshippers showed up, according to the pastor, Meredith Mills.
Since then, attendance has inched back up, but it’s still only about half the pre-pandemic turnout of 160 or 170, Mills estimates.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “People just seem to want to leave home less these days.”
Some houses of worship are faring better than Mills’ church, some worse. Polls by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows how dramatically church attendance fell during the worst of the pandemic last year, even as many say they are now returning to regular service attendance.
Among mainline Protestants, just 1% said in a May 2020 poll that they were attending in-person services at least once a week. In the new poll, 14% say they’re doing so now, compared to 16% who say they did in 2019.
There is something nice about getting together with people. Even I, someone who is quite comfortable being alone, find the in-person bridge games to be much more fun than the online ones, worth getting dressed and going out for. With the rise in omicron cases, I have stopped doing so but have only rarely played in tournaments online. Online tournaments can provide one with the intellectual challenge of bridge but does not meet the social aspects, which has always been an important part of its appeal. I expect that those for whom the intellectual aspect is sufficient will never go back to face-to-face games.
I suspect the same thing is true for church attendance. Talking to people before and after the service was always a big part of the experience and online services just does not satisfy it. So I expect that attendance will rise slowly. What the churches might lose are those people who attended out of habit or a vague sense of obligation because they thought that it was sinful not to do so. Now that the habit has been broken, they may decide to not start again.
I expect those things that people attend because of genuine desire to do them and for which there is no online substitute (such as concerts and the theater and clubs) will eventually come back to normal attendance but those that they did out of habit (such as church) or for which there is an adequate online alternative (church, bridge, films, seminars and the like) may never get back to the former numbers.