As area spiritual leaders have spoken before buildings of empty seats amid the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two months now, wondering who might be watching virtual worship services, a seemingly strange thing has happened. Some of the houses of worship have noticed a larger online audience than the ones normally physically attending their services.
Sometimes exponentially larger.
For Columbus’ Come As You Are Ministries, where normally 60 to 80 people usually attend services, one recent online Sunday video attracted more than 1,000 viewers for various lengths of time from six states over a total of several days, according to Pastor Rob Hurt.
“I thought that was pretty amazing,” Hurt said of the reach that spanned from North Carolina to Tennessee. “That tells me that people are hungry for something.”
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Other clergy have said online services have given the curious a better chance than ever to “visit” a church without pressure or awkwardness.
And of course, the nation’s Christ ian megachurches have seen meganumbers checking them out. Pastor Joel Osteen’s much-publicized Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, reported that it attracted its largest online audience ever of 4.6 million people for March 15. And some online reports have held that far more people attended virtual services on Easter this year than attended in person on last year’s holiday.
So some wonder if something more than the novel coronavirus has been spreading.
“This is just the perspective I’m coming from, but I think people always are searching,” said Aaron Lentz, lead pastor for Athens Church in Columbus. “They may not always know exactly what they’re searching for. But, in some ways, this (pandemic) has turned our thoughts and our attention toward a different direction in a way that life’s regular rhythms don’t usually do.
“I think we’re used to distractions, we’re used to busyness, we’re used to running a million miles per hour. And I think getting rid of some of those distractions and normal routines and things have caused us to shift our attention and even our searching to different things and different places.”
Athens, among the fastest-growing, newer local assemblies, normally includes about 225 people per service when meeting at Central Middle School. Its online viewership of Sunday services done through the Zoom app and presented on Facebook is 100 device views. That actually translates to about 300 people total, since Lentz said most of the church households average one to four people, with many of those watching together as a family on their television screen.
So, even in those cases, online numbers still seem slightly on the increase over normal, in-person numbers.
At Columbus First Assembly, about 150 people normally attend, according to Rick Glowacki, lead pastor. Online views of services have ranged from 300 to 400 per service, with many watching three-fourths of the length of presentation, according to Glowacki.
“As we get to a final song and closing, you can sometimes see a slight drop at that point,” Glowacki said. “But I definitely would consider those viewers ones who attended most of the service.”
Glowacki believes what he sees as a continuing digital revolution is changing the landscape of nearly everything, including ministry.
“I don’t shop the way I used to shop, I don’t buy cars the way I used to buy cars, I don’t bank the way I used to bank, I don’t go the movies the way I used to,” Glowacki said. “When I travel, I don’t even get paper (flight) tickets anymore.
“So the digital revolution will continue to change the way that the gospel is presented. And pastors still are trying to figure out what that’s going to look like. And I don’t yet know for sure yet if we’re truly being effective (as a church at large) right now or not.”
Pastor Doug Bauman at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbus has seen his church with a normal attendance of about 325 people average about 525 views per online service so far. He thinks many of those viewers “have a hunger for the word (of God). And there may be some watching even more than one service in a week because they desire to be edified partly because of the anxiety and the fear of the pandemic.
“And this definitely has been a time when many of us have realized that we are not in control, and we have come to the realization that we need God.”
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- Come As You Are Ministries: 60 to 80 average in-person attendance; one virtual service recorded a viewership of more than 1,000 people.
- St. Paul Lutheran Church: 325 average in-person attendance; virtual viewership about 525.
- Columbus First Assembly: 150 in-person attendance; 300 to 400 views online.
- Athens Church: 225 in-person attendance; about 300 viewers online.