Empty pews. Taking communion at home. Zooming into Shabbat services in pajamas.
It’s been nearly three years since COVID-19 shut down the world, but the Bay Area’s 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 aren’t going to their spiritual centers as often as they did before COVID struck, according to an exclusive poll by the Bay Area News Group and Joint Venture Silicon Valley. That’s despite the fact that nearly everything has opened back up, vaccines are widespread, and hospitalizations and deaths from the virus have plummeted.
This massive shift — which has seen some congregants get comfortable with worshipping online while others have stopped attending altogether — is forcing the Bay Area’s religious institutions to reevaluate their roles as they struggle to adapt to the new needs of their congregations and try to stay relevant at a time when faith already is in the midst of a years-long decline.
“I think it has something to do with the fact that we have just experienced collectively and individually one of the most profound and challenging times we have faced in this country for 100 years,” said the Rev. Phil Brochard of All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley. “What we do know is that it has altered the ways 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 away over 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 is down even among those who stayed. Together, All Souls’ two Sunday services usually draw between 150 and 170 people these days — with another 20 or 30 watching livestreams. Before COVID, attendance was closer to 250.
Why? Religious leaders and scholars still are trying to figure that out, but they say lingering fears about catching COVID are only part of the reason. Most sanctuaries are streaming their services, even hiring new tech staff and investing in high-end camera equipment. Congregants have gotten used to the comfort and convenience of worshiping at home between binges on Netflix or in the car while shuttling kids to soccer. Brochard is trying to cater to that demand, even exploring ways to distribute a pre-blessed sacrament so online worshipers can take communion from home.
The pandemic also upended people’s long-standing habits of going to a sanctuary, and in some cases, that act hasn’t found its way back into their routine. And many people are still grieving what COVID took from them — experts say their spiritual needs have changed, and may no longer be met by attending services once a week.
The Bay Area News Group and Joint Venture Silicon Valley poll asked 1,628 registered voters in the five-county Bay Area how COVID continues to impact their lives: 55% said they’re going to their place of worship just as often, but 38% said they are going less frequently. Worship has been affected less than some other aspects of life, such as going to the movies — 60% said they are doing that less often.
But the change is clearly visible in some half-empty sanctuaries, and it comes as religion’s prevalence continues to drop. About three in 10 U.S. adults said they identified with no religion in 2021, up 10 percentage points from a decade prior, according to the Pew Research Center.
Nicky Silver, of Oakland, went to Kehilla Community Synagogue regularly before COVID, attending services and a 7:50 a.m. meditation group. Now, she does it on her computer.
“Sometimes I’m in my pajamas,” she said. “And I don’t have to get in my car at that hour.”
After carefully avoiding the virus throughout the pandemic, Silver decided to venture out and attend in-person services this year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A week later, she came down with COVID for the first time.
While she has no way of knowing if she caught it at synagogue, the experience made online options even more appealing. After nearly three years of virtual services, she also worries about her ability to focus from a pew.
“Sometimes I’ll be online and I’ll be doing my emails while I’m going to services,” she said. “I’ve lost some level of attentiveness, and I feel like I’m more distracted.”
At Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Rabbi George Gittleman is having trouble finding people to lead the many volunteer committees that make the synagogue run. Fundraising also is down. The synagogue has made ends meet by dipping into its reserves, taking advantage of a federal Payment Protection Program loan issued during the pandemic and laying off one staff member. But if finances don’t improve, Gittleman anticipates a budget shortfall in the coming year.
“The problem is we bring people together, and that’s how we do what we do well,” he said. “Creating community and connecting people with each other — that’s our bread and butter.”
Not every place of worship has seen in-person participation suffer. To make room for everyone who wants to attend Friday afternoon prayer at the South Bay Islamic Association, the San Jose mosque recently added a second time slot.
Chairman Athar Siddiqee thinks it’s because the pandemic, and the mosque’s ensuing temporary closure, gave people a renewed appreciation for worshipping together.
“It was one of those things you take for granted until they’re no longer there,” he said, “and then you realize how much you miss them.”
The mosque offers no alternative to the in-person gathering. They don’t livestream the prayers because the whole point is to pray together, Siddiqee said.
Outdoor events also are drawing more people, as some remain wary of large indoor gatherings. Urban Adamah, a Berkeley organization that merges Jewish faith with an appreciation of the natural world, has seen strong participation in its outdoor activities. The annual Rosh Hashanah picnic in September was bigger by about a quarter than pre-pandemic picnics, said executive director Adam Weisberg.
All Souls also has had success with outdoor events. To avoid spreading COVID during the pandemic, they transformed their annual advent gathering from a typical indoor church service into an outdoor event complete with a bonfire. The change of venue made it feel instantly more special, so they did it outside again this year. As everyone gathered together to listen to the sermon last month, the stars came out and flickering firelight played across the faces in the congregation.
“There is actually this sacredness in being outside and worshiping altogether that is really beautiful,” Brochard said. “We never would have known that prior to COVID.”