WEST MICHIGAN — With a decline in COVID-19 cases and most pandemic restrictions lifted, this past weekend marked the first in-person Easter service for many West Michigan churches since 2019.
It plays into a larger trend of a return to normal services over the past few months, but new research found a plateau in the number of people who decided to make the trip to their church or other houses of worship each week. The share of adults streaming religious services online has followed a similar trend.
According to a study from the Pew Research Center published last month, in July 2002, 13% of adults reported having attended in-person religious services during the previous month.
The figure rose to 17% in March 2021 and then to 26% in September 2021.
It now stands at 27%.
During the same period, 36% of adults reported watching a religious service online or on TV in July 2020. In September 2021, it declined to 28%.
The percentage sits at 30% as of March 2022.
“As people are coming back to church, we’re paying attention,” said Ashlee Eiland, co-lead pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville. “We’re sensitive to all of those reasons that insensitivities that folks hold, saying this is not one broad brush in terms of how we approach church now.”
According to Eiland and her co-lead pastor, Troy Hatfield, there has been a slow return to in-person services at Mars Hill since they began to offer a modified in-person service last winter.
Currently, between 350 and 400 adults participate in their in-person service on Sunday. About 500 people watch via livestream.
In 2021, 750 people streamed services. About 1,500 people streamed services in 2020.
Hatfield attributes it to what he calls a “reshuffling” among churches and other houses of worship as they try to figure what their “new normal” entails.
“When we came back in person, it was a very sort of slow trickling back,” Hatfield said. “We went multiple weeks where we realized the weight of people accessing our services remained predominately online even when we were back in a physically-distanced, masked-required sort of environment.”
Hatfield added, “I think many of the churches in our area are still negotiating who goes where and what does that look like, but that being said, it was just Easter yesterday and we saw an attendance that we haven’t seen in years and so that gives us great hope.”
To encourage people to return to in-person worship, Mars Hill says they’ve taken a thoughtful approach to people’s hesitations that doesn’t force them to come back, but instead creates a safe, comfortable environment.
They also saw an uptick in people’s attendance after they re-opened other services, like childcare.
“Part of what draws people to be here on Sundays is to not just receive our services, but to be able to give. As those have been more on offer, I think people have felt more drawn to be with us in person,” said Hatfield. “We’re encouraging people to exercise the caution and care for themselves and their families that they think is still necessary.”