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Going 360: Future of houses of worship post-COVID

What's the long-term impact of worshipping from home?
Houses of worship 360
Posted at 7:18 AM, Aug 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-29 19:43:10-04

KANSAS CITY, MO — If you're a person of faith, it's almost a certainty that at some point in the last two years, you worshiped from someplace other than your usual congregation.

The pandemic forced houses of worship across the world to shut their doors, and many have only just fully re-opened in the last few months. But what is the long-term impact of all those at-home sessions, on people, and on those buildings?

KSHB 41 is taking this story 360, talking to:

  • Faith leaders from multiple traditions, on the importance of their buildings
  • A lifelong churchgoer, who has decided to keep worshiping from home
  • A woman who is thankful to be back in a church building, and the value she finds in in-person worship
  • The founder of a new church in KC, where meetings include a mix of worshiping in person, and worshiping in small groups in homes

Father Paul Turner is the Pastor of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, one of the more well-known church buildings in Kansas City, Missouri, thanks to its golden dome.

"It's not the tallest building on the skyline, but it is the flashiest," Turner said. "The cornerstone was laid in 1882. You can tell this building was constructed for over 1000 people to be in here at a time."

Turner says the beauty of the building is one of the things visitors reference the most.

But it's future, like so many church buildings, is not as easy to see.

A Gallup poll this spring showed that roughly four in five Americans say their lives are at least somewhat, if not completely, back to normal post-COVID. But a poll from Pew Research around the same time found that only two in three regular churchgoers had returned for in-person services.

The need for a building in which to worship is universal.

Imam Dr. Abdelhamid Algizawi leads the Islamic Center of Johnson County, a mosque that was basically closed to people for almost two years during the pandemic. Muslims are called to pray five times a day.

"It's highly recommended to do it at the mosque,” Algizawi said. “You can do it at your work, you can do it at your home…we as Muslims have flexibility in our religion."

But Algizawi remembers a night during the height of COVID-19, when the building was closed, and he got a lesson in just how much it meant to people.

"The first night of Ramadan, I see a family came with their mats, and prayed outside in the parking lot,” Algizawi said. “I was crying at this moment. A mosque is a part of the Muslim's life. They cannot keep away from the mosque."

Father Turner said the feeling is mutual in a Catholic church.

"It's sacred space, so it's a place designated for divine purposes," Turner said. “It's not just coming into the building, but having the entire experience of the Catholic mass: its rituals, its sounds, its smells, you just don't get in some other type of environment."

That other type environment, for so many people of faith, looked the same no matter their tradition: a screen and a couch.

That was a big transition for April Shields, who has gone to church her whole life.

“I was the little girl with the frilly socks and the lace, and the Easter speeches,” Shields said.

She's now a member of United Believers Community Church in Kansas City, Missouri. But this church lifer, says she's staying home on Sunday mornings now.

"This is my sanctuary, this is where I have peace, and I can come and no one is going to disrupt my peace while I'm here," Shields said. “I've really learned during this entire thing that self-care is really important. It's not just going to get your nails done or your hair done, it's about taking the time to rest."

While virtual church is not a term that many people were familiar with prior to the pandemic, houses of worship all over the world have now made significant strides in the way their presentation is done for people who are watching online.

"And if a church doesn't do that, I think it's going to miss out on a significant number of people who aren't coming back in person, or who may never start going in person because it just wasn't a part of their experience,” Adam Hamilton said.

Hamilton is the lead pastor for Church of the Resurrection, one of the largest United Methodist Congregations in the world. Thousands watch their services online.

But Hamilton says even in a time when church attendance is declining, online can't be the only offering.

“We used to do the, ‘Here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up and see all the people,’ and I think it's about community," Hamilton said. “[Churches] are hospitals, and they're healing centers, and they're places of love and community and warmth, and if a church stops doing those things, and stops sending it's people out to serve, it's going to die."

Susan Paynter began practicing her faith less than 10 years ago, so a significant portion of that part of her life has been at home. She says she was extra thankful to return to St. Andrew’s Episcopal when she got the chance.

"To be able to see and touch people that you love that you haven't seen in so long, it was kind of electrifying the first time we came together again," Paynter said. "I don't see the buildings becoming history necessarily, but I do see other ways where church could find expression, other than buildings."

Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Congregation B’nai Jehudah took that thought one step further — churches, mosques and synagogues have to be aware of what people need from their worship services, no matter where they are, and be ready to provide it.

“When film got cheap enough that people could take pictures of their own, there was a real worry if paintings would continue, and yet, paintings have continued,” Kramer said. “They're even more unique, they're even more special. You get something out of prayer when it's just you, when it's the personal prayer. It's feeding different pieces of our soul that we need fed in different and unique ways.”

So what might the future look like for houses of worship? A new church in Kansas City, Missouri might offer a clue.

In 2022, Numa Community Church began meeting. Their members meet together in a rented space two Sundays a month. But on other Sundays, they gather in assigned small groups in people's homes.

“You get really lost in a crowd of 1,000 people, but in a group of 100 or so, you really get to know and form relationships,” Numa Pastor Joe Ratterman said.

Right now, there are no plans for Numa to open its own building. The goal was to offer something different, because moving forward, Ratterman says people of faith need to be open-minded about what's possible.

“I think an emphasis on less centralized gathering, and more of an emphasis on smaller expressions of church,” Ratterman said. “I love what the pandemic did for the church. I love that it caused us to ask the big questions about why we do what we do, and what’s most effective at reaching people.”

The University of Kansas Religious Studies Department recently began the Religion in Kansas project, an extensive research project, which includes the Faith in the Free State podcast. Members of the department, and that project, joined Taylor Hemness for this month's edition of Faith in KC, which you can watch by clicking here.

As part of KSHB 41 News' commitment to providing context and depth in our reporting, we've excited to share our latest project, which we're calling 360. This project takes stories and topics that our communities are talking about and explores different perspectives on the issue. You can be a part of the process by e-mailing your ideas and thoughts to us at 360@kshb.com.