After weeks of hosting virtual services and meetings online to abide by state guidelines and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols, many houses of worship across New York have returned to having indoor services over the past few months.
For many church leaders in Lynbrook and East Rockaway, the excitement of returning to indoor services brought with it some difficulties, including decreased attendance.
“The first church service back indoors was a mixed bag, and things have been challenging ever since,” said the Rev. Robert Walderman, pastor of Lynbrook Baptist Church, which returned to indoor services in July. “We are happy to be back, but we are also sad that our whole congregation is still not meeting together in person.”
Since opening, Walderman said, he has had to change many of his usual practices to abide by state and CDC guidelines. At the beginning of every service, upon entry, congregants have their temperatures taken and they are given hand sanitizer. Attendance is taken at every service and for every pew that is open for seating; two pews are closed, in order to maintain social distancing.
“It’s difficult because even with this new reality of indoor services, close contact with people has been removed and we have also lost complete connection with many of our congregants,” Walderman said. “We went from having about 175 people attending our church before the pandemic, to now only having about 50 people showing up to indoor services.”
Walderman said many congregants told him they won’t come back until there’s a vaccine and many feel uncomfortable returning despite the safety protocols in place.
Though there are challenges with in-person attendance, services for Lynbrook Baptist Church are available virtually on live stream every Sunday on their website as an alternative.
For Bethany Congregational Church of East Rockaway, things have taken a similar turn, with attendance indoors decreasing.
“We used to have 160 members before the pandemic, and now we are down to 25, which is a difficult concept to grasp,” said the Rev. Mark Lukens, noting indoor worship only recently came back. “We don’t want anyone to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. It’s a tumultuous time, and the important thing is that people need the gospel and we have to get it to them, even if it’s online.”
Understanding how to use online platforms to run his services was no easy feat for Lukens, who described his experience learning how to run technology and virtual platforms as an uncomfortable and constantly changing learning curve.
“At my ripe age of 65, it wasn’t easy for me, but I’m pleased I can keep learning,” he said. “The sooner this pandemic is over the better, but in the meantime, we will do whatever God calls us to do.”
About two months ago, East Rockaway Church of the Nazarene opened for the first time with indoor services. Typically, the church had 180 children and adults showing up for regular services before the pandemic. Now, only about 65 people attend each Sunday.
“We know that when a vaccine is discovered, things will go back to normal,” the Rev. Stephan Hurkens said. “We are thrilled to gather in-person again and we are just trying to remain positive while praying for a vaccine.”
Around March, when the state guidelines required many houses of worship to switch to solely virtual platforms for their services, the Rev. Stephan Leung, the pastor of Edge City Church in Lynbrook, had been preparing to launch his new church with its first indoor service. However, he never had that chance and his church only had the opportunity to start off virtually and has remained online.
On Sept. 13, Leung opened for the first time.
“The fact that we never ever had the chance to meet in person prevented us from having a big start or launch,” he said, adding that he regularly had about 30 people participating in online services. “We are hoping our church can expand once we start meeting in person and we are excited to see faces in person, while continuing our live streams weekly.”
Even with the changes that many houses of worship have made by beginning to host services, Harold Kislik, the president of the Hewlett East Rockaway Jewish Centre, said that his congregation will not follow suit and will not open until at least the winter. The HERJC has held a few outdoor services on Saturday nights to make up for the lack of indoor services.
“In order to follow state, county and CDC guidelines, a lot of things that we normally do during services cannot happen, such as, meeting after and before service, and there are also limitations on singing and we cannot sit near each other, ” Kislik said. “We are also not having indoor services because many people who attend our services are elderly and we don’t want to attract people to a dangerous situation and many of our congregants have stated that they are just not ready to come back in that way.”