Empty pews. receiving communion at home. Zoom into Shabbat services in your pajamas.
It’s been nearly three years since COVID-19 shut down the world, but Bay Area places of worship have yet to return to their pre-pandemic normal — and experts wonder if they ever will. More than one in three local residents say they still don’t go to their spiritual centers as often as they did before the COVID outbreak, according to an exclusive survey by Bay Area News Group and joint venture Silicon Valley. This is despite the fact that almost everything has reopened, vaccines are widely available and hospitalizations and deaths from the virus have fallen sharply.
This massive shift — in which some parishioners have embraced online worship while others have stopped attending altogether — is forcing Bay Area religious institutions to reevaluate their role as they struggle to adapt to the new ones Adapt to the needs of their communities and try to stay relevant at a time when the faith is already in the midst of a years-long decline.
“I think it has something to do with the fact that we have just, collectively and individually, experienced one of the most profound and challenging times we have faced in this country in 100 years,” said Rev. Phil Brochard of All Souls Episcopal Parish at Berkeley. “What we do know is that it has changed the way we live our lives. … And we’re struggling to understand what it means and what to do next.”
About 20% of All Souls’ congregation has moved in the past three years, Brochard said, as some members took advantage of the COVID era of remote work to relocate to cheaper areas, and others who owned homes cashed out and left.
Participation has also declined among those who stayed. Combined, All Souls’ two Sunday services typically draw between 150 and 170 people these days — with another 20 or 30 watching live streams. Before COVID, attendance was closer to 250.
Why? Religious leaders and scholars are still trying to figure that out, but they say the ongoing fear of contracting COVID is only part of the reason. Most sanctuaries are streaming their services, even hiring new technical staff and investing in high-end camera equipment. Parishioners have grown accustomed to the comfort and convenience of praying at home between binges on Netflix, or in the car while driving the kids to soccer. Brochard is trying to meet that demand, even exploring ways to distribute a pre-blessed sacrament so online worshipers can receive communion from the comfort of their own homes.
The pandemic has also upended people’s long-standing habits of going to a sanctuary, and in some cases the act has not made it back into their routine. And many people are still grieving over what COVID has taken away from them – experts say their spiritual needs have changed and may no longer be met through weekly church attendance.
The survey, conducted by Bay Area News Group and joint venture Silicon Valley, asked 1,628 registered voters in the five-county Bay Area how COVID continues to impact their lives: 55% said they go to their place of worship just as often, but 38 % said you walk less. Worship is less affected than some other aspects of life, such as going to the movies – 60% said they do so less often.
But the change is clearly visible in some half-empty sanctuaries, and it comes as the spread of the religion continues to decline. According to the Pew Research Center, about three in 10 American adults said they did not identify with any religion in 2021, up 10 percentage points from a decade earlier.
Nicky Silver of Oakland, prior to COVID, attended Kehilla Community Synagogue regularly and attended services and a 7:50 a.m. meditation group. Now she does it on her computer.
“Sometimes I wear my pajamas,” she said. “And I don’t have to get in my car at this time.”
After carefully avoiding the virus throughout the pandemic, Silver decided to head out for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year and attend in-person worship. A week later, she contracted COVID for the first time.
While she has no way of knowing if she caught it in the synagogue, the experience made online options even more appealing. After almost three years of virtual services, she also worries about her ability to focus from a bench.
“Sometimes I’m online and checking my email while I go to church,” she said. “I’ve lost a certain amount of attention and feel more distracted.”
At the Shomrei Torah Congregation in Santa Rosa, Rabbi George Gittleman is having trouble finding people to head the many volunteer committees that run the synagogue. Fundraising is also declining. The synagogue made ends meet by dipping into its reserves, drawing on a federal Payment Protection Program loan made during the pandemic and laying off a staffer. But unless finances improve, Gittleman expects to run a budget deficit next year.
“The problem is that we bring people together, and that’s how we do what we do well,” he said. “Creating community and connecting people – that’s our bread and butter.”
Not every place of worship has suffered from personal attendance. To make room for anyone wishing to attend the South Bay Islamic Association’s Friday afternoon prayers, the San Jose Mosque recently added a second time slot.
Chair Athar Siddiqee believes this is because the pandemic and the ensuing temporary closure of the mosque have given people a new appreciation for worshiping together.
“It was one of those things that you take for granted until it’s gone,” he said, “and then you realize how much you miss it.”
The mosque offers no alternative to personal gathering. They don’t live stream the prayers because it involves praying together, Siddiqee said.
Outdoor events are also attracting more people as some remain wary of large indoor gatherings. Urban Adamah, a Berkeley-based organization that combines Jewish beliefs with an appreciation of nature, is seeing strong participation in its outdoor activities. The annual Rosh Hashanah picnic in September was about a quarter larger than pre-pandemic picnics, Executive Director Adam Weisberg said.
All Souls has also had success with outdoor events. To avoid the spread of COVID during the pandemic, they transformed their annual Advent gathering from a typical indoor worship service to an outdoor bonfire event. Changing the venue immediately made it feel more special, so this year they did it outdoors again. Last month, as everyone gathered to hear the sermon, the stars came out and flickering firelight played across the faces of the congregation.
“There’s actually this sacredness of being outside and worshiping overall that’s really beautiful,” Brochard said. “We would never have known that before COVID.”