HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With the start of the pandemic came the end to a lot of normalcy in all of our lives, including how we worship. In many places across the country, people have not returned to church in a large number as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
"Oh, there's nothing like being back in church," said Marilyn Foster, a member at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
Masks and registration are required, and COVID vaccination is encouraged to attend Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Third Ward.
"Not yet. Everybody is still taking it easy and just taking a wait and see approach," explained Steven Smith, another Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church member.
Nearly two years into the pandemic and several months after vaccines were made widely available, there are more empty seats in churches now than before the pandemic started.
"We were all nervous. I think every church that had to close its doors was nervous, because no one had ever experienced anything like this," said Pastor Marcus D. Cosby, the senior pastor at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
An analysis by the ABC data group showed that churches in the northeastern U.S. suffered the largest church attendance loss with 27% fewer people going to in-person services in October of this year compared to January of 2020 - before the pandemic hit. Compare that to the southern U.S., where churches saw a 20% drop.
Closer to home, Harris County is right on par with the national average, data shows a 22% drop in in-person church attendance in that same time frame, slightly less of a drop in Fort Bend County, 20%, where the vaccination rate is higher than average, and in Montgomery county-the lowest attendance loss of the three, just 15%, though also the least vaccinated.
"When I walk into church, I don't know who is vaccinated and who is not and I feel less safe in church. I feel less safe at a restaurant. Again, the more people that are vaccinated around you, the safer you are," said Dr. James McDeavitt, the executive vice president and dean of Clinical Affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.
McDeavitt says it's difficult to reconcile the two--gathering as a congregation and taking a risk with your health.
Pastor Cosby said through the pandemic, their congregation has actually welcomed at least a couple of hundred new members thanks to their upgraded online presence.
"We have not decreased in any way. The people have been very generous with their gifts. They have been very generous with their time and people across the globe as you said have become a part of our experience, so we can't complain beyond the fact that we just hadn't been together until last month," said Cosby.
At Wheeler, the congregation actually gave more money to the church than usual, but statistics show Wheeler's story is not the norm.
"Probably a good 20-25%, but gradually people are coming back. They are realizing they don't have to be as afraid as they once were," said Monsignor Bill Young, pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.
Young said their attendance and offerings are both down since the start of the pandemic.
"I think many people have become discouraged and the fear. Whether we've lost them permanently, I don't know. It's going to take a little more time for them to be a little more comfortable," said Young.
As for how they have retained a majority of the congregation through the trying times, churches have gotten creative in order to connect.
"When we started all of these activities, that's what really helped to bring people back. We had a wine tasting night one time. We had an outdoor movie...that was a big hit. We had parties, we had service Saturday, just to start getting back on the campus," explained Young.
'We did some workout routines, we did some sing alongs, all of these kinds of things just to keep people connected," explained Cosby.
Church through a screen is just different, but Mc Deavitt said there is hope.
"I would agree, it's not the same online, but I think we have to view that as a bridge to get us to the other side. And there is another side. There won't be a COVID holiday 2022 edition. I think this is the last holiday where we are going to have this sort of disruption around COVID," said Mc Deavitt.
Until then, on these pastors' Christmas lists is one day seeing their congregation all worshipping together again.
"I think most people would look forward to it, getting back and just having a raucous worship service, in the best sense of the word raucous," said Young.
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In-person church attendance down 22% nationwide since start of COVID-19 pandemic