Church attendance across the Upper Cumberland has either returned close to normal or declined since reopening in May.
The Crossville First United Methodist Church returned to in-person worship in July. Pastor Steven Lee said attendance fell from over 400 before COVID-19 to nearly 100. The biggest challenge he says is encouraging members to not fear the church’s future.
“Even though that kinda alarmed me that so many people were afraid, I think my role has been to remind them that the church throughout the ages has withstood every challenge,” Lee said.
Lee said transitioning to virtual worship was easy since the congregation already had an online service option before the pandemic. He said most of the members who have not returned to the building are elderly and do not want to risk contracting the virus.
“We only have certain doors that are open for worship,” Lee said. “They come in and they will have temperatures checked. We have hand sanitizing stations all over the place, they are required to wear a mask, each family unit is required to sit six feet apart, and then we are also using every other pew.”
Cookeville’s Willow Avenue Church of Christ Elder Jeff Gaw said in-person services returned in June and offered two morning services. Each service had over 100 members in attendance. Now worship has returned to a traditional one morning service with over 300 participants.
“We got four sections and three sections we did every other row for social distancing,” Gaw said. “And then one section we designed for people who weren’t worried as much about social distance, and we could use every row. Plus we set up an overflow room with a live-stream TV.”
Gaw said all attendees are required to wear a mask upon entry. Wednesday services returned in July, and Sunday evening services returned in August. He said all pews and door handles are sanitized after each service.
“For the most part we hear people complement in how we’re handling it,” Gaw said. “We’re actually having a lot of visitors that appreciate having to wear masks. Now we did lose a few people who didn’t want to wear masks and didn’t feel like they had to wear one. Just to say, we’re doing everything on the side of caution.”
McMinnville’s First Baptist Church Pastor Jeff Owens said pre-COVID attendance was close to 400, but since reopening in May that number is nearly half.
“We started out with just one service and now we started a second service a few months after that, and then we’ve just now gone to a third service,” Owens said. “So our numbers are continuing to climb as people are feeling more and more comfortable about coming back to in-person gatherings.”
Owens said social distance seating, mask requirement, and extra sanitizing measures are some of the precautions church staff are preforming. He said he’s not sure how attendance will look during the winter months, but preventative plans are being made.
“We’ve done a lot as far as using YouTube and Facebook and a lot of the live streaming,” Owens said. “Those are great and they are intended to be an alternative or a stop gap measure, but we just feel like there’s nothing quite like getting together in person. We’re encouraging folks that when the time is right to come back.”
Each spiritual leader said a percentage of the fold has left either because of the congregation’s decision to close during the shut down or implementing a mask mandate when in-person worship returned.