As millions of Christians gather to celebrate Easter Sunday, a new Gallup survey shows church membership at an all-time low. It has in fact been on a downward trajectory for a few decades now and the pandemic made it worse.
It’s generational too, with younger adults less likely to belong to an organized worship community.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn in New York, agreed, and is also willing to have the Church share some of the blame.
“It’s a lack of education… a lack of religious education,” said the bishop, “So we have to evangelize, give people back the reasons why they should see this as part and parcel of the life.”
It has been a difficult year, but there are signs of hope after months of COVID-19 shutdowns and empty pews. As vaccines become available to more Americans, Easter brings a renewed understanding of the Resurrection for many houses of worship.
“I can’t be more excited,” exclaimed Dr. Michael Beck, senior minister of Wildwood United Methodist Church in Wildwood, Florida.
On Easter Sunday, Wildwood will hold its first in-person service since the start of the pandemic. And it will be the new normal moving forward.
“We haven’t been inside our sanctuary in over a year,” noted Beck.
Wildwood is an example of a new Pew Survey that shows a 12% rise — from 64% last July 2020 to 76 % in March 2021 — in the number of people who feel somewhat or very safe to return to in-person services.
Still, it will be another atypical holiday season for many churches and synagogues as many will maintain their online presence. The digital platform Yahad.net boasted the first worldwide virtual Passover Seder.
But for Bishop DiMarzio, who waged a legal battle against New York State to hold a socially distant Mass, this Easter will be especially meaningful.
Despite the Gallup survey, the leader of 1.5 million Catholics said, “I think this Easter, we will see more people coming back to Church. It’s going to give the pastors and priests a boost because they haven’t seen the people either, many of them. So this will be a kind of a homecoming day.”
Minister Beck added the last year has been like a prolonged Holy Saturday — the space of time between when Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday and his Resurrection on Easter morning.
“The disciples are praying and getting to know each other and kind of really totally dependent on the power of God for what’s next. So I think when the pandemic started, we’ve just been in an extensive tomb time.”
Boston College theologian Thomas Groome agrees. “I think the pandemic has brought a lot of us proverbially to our knees,” said Groome, “where we had to stop and ask really deep ultimate questions like ‘What’s my life all about?'”
And in that way, Beck stated that the COVID shutdown had some unexpected benefits. Not to minimize the suffering of millions, by any means, but he says if there’s a silver lining for houses of worship, it’s that they were forced to go virtual where many started to attract younger adults who call themselves more spiritual than religious.
“The pandemic in some ways was a gift for us to rethink, ‘What does it mean to be worshiping community?’ And we connected with thousands of people that would never come to our church,” said Beck, “Some of those people have come on to the core leadership of our team….. They live in Georgia and Pennsylvania and they’re spread all over the country. But they connected through our digital community that we formed that we call the living room church. And they’ll probably stay that way indefinitely. That’s their form of church.”
Despite polls and surveys, the meaning of Easter remains the same; it’s that death does not have the final word. And the message especially for this Easter is that neither does COVID.