Local faith-based community weighs in on church membership decline amid pandemic

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Posted at 5:50 PM, Mar 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-03 11:38:19-05

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how and if we worship.

Over the last two years, many congregations have turned to virtual services to stay connected with the flock. But one Newport News reverend said the impact is trickling down to those they serve in the community.

"I can truly say that I never thought something like this would ever happen. It's been a great challenge," said Rev. Michael Sumler with the New Grafton Baptist Church.

Pews that were once filled pre-pandemic are now nearly empty rows on Sundays. According to recent Pew research, church attendance has dropped a staggering 45% nationwide.

"We fear that a lot of people are not going to come back to church. We're losing people because of being out of church, and that's a really big concern" Sumler said.

Sumler fully opened his doors back in March 2020, but he said there's been many challenges. It has changed his teachings, but has also depleted volunteers for his many ministries.

"The church has to still go on, and business has to be done," Sumler said.

But it has prompted some volunteers to take on extra roles and fill in where they can.

"We work harder, we do more and there's a longer time to do it with less people, that type of thing," said Sharon Lowther, a trustee for the church. "So I would say the stress is there."

But another concern with the lack of attendance are cuts in much-needed funding to keep churches open. Although Sumler said the bills have luckily not been a concern since the beginning of the pandemic, he has lost 25 to 30% of funding because of dwindling membership.

"Sometimes we have 40 people, sometimes we have 70 people and sometimes we have 50 people, but it's not always the same people, and that's what you look at," Sumler said.

As the pandemic enters its third year, there are warnings that one in five places of worship could close for good.

Sumler said although it's a scary challenge, he's holding on to his faith. But he said when it comes to the future of church, he wants to stay optimistic, but has some doubts.

"Right now I'm under the mindset that the church will never be the same again," Sumler said.

Leaders said there is a long way to go in determining the new normal of worship, but Sumler said he's hopeful that public health and science will guide decisions that will be made.