ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — This Sunday, many will celebrate Easter, a holiday where Christians commemorate when Jesus rose from the dead. But the way people celebrate Easter hasn’t been the same since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In fact, churches, in general, have altered the way they hold services.
“We pray that you’d be with us and those who are watching online, and I pray, God, that we would just honor you tonight, in the name of Jesus we pray, amen,” said a worship leader at Wednesday night service at Elevated Church in St Petersburg.
“Prior to COVID, our average attendance this time of year… over two services would have been about 240 people,” Lead Pastor Eric Shonebarger told ABC Action News. “We're up to, I would say 80% of those numbers in attendance, and then our streams make up the difference but the streams are real hard to quantify.”
Before 2020, Elevated Church had one, wide shot camera at the back of the sanctuary to broadcast service online, but when the pandemic hit and they shut down for three full months, it was all hands-on tech.
“That became multiple cameras that became video switching, how do we run audio and try to get reasonably decent quality? And these are all skill sets that are I mean, you guys know from television, it's incredibly difficult to master,” Shonebarger explained.
The task became so big that they had to hire a full-time tech director costing about 10% of their budget that year.
“I was brought on to basically work on, be able to work on all the technology stuff, the live stream, the social media stuff, and video editing,” said the Technology Director Caleb Ford.
It’s not hard to believe that Ford manages a tech team entirely of teens.
“The camera control stuff is through an x-box remote, they are in their element up there with technology,” he explained. “Our youth group did grow during the pandemic because they were getting involved.”
According to Lifeway Research, by April 2020, 97% of Protestant churches had online live streams. In addition, 45% of Americans watched a Christian church service online during the pandemic, 15% of which did not attend church before.
“The difference the internet's brought is, you know, we're not a large church, we’re a medium-sized church, right?” Shonebarger exclaimed. “So you figure two to 300 people, and we have people watching us in Tennessee or you know, Ohio or New York.”
For their annual Easter block party last Saturday, they hosted more than 500 people outside of the church, and this Easter, they’re expecting the biggest in-person Sunday service since before the pandemic.
“I would expect our attendance numbers will go up about one and a half times what they normally go up and then I would expect online views to do the same,” Shonebarger said.
While bible studies are still on Zoom and about 20% of the congregation is still remote, the challenge for churches going forward is engagement.
“We're seeing that like attention span is just kind of low,” Ford said. “Like it's it's — everything is like scrolling, so if you don't catch their attention right off the bat, they're going to scroll past you.”
“Instead of watching 20 to 30-minute services, you're gonna see much shorter bites,” Shonebarger added. “Everything's getting shorter. So I think how we interact with people is going to get shorter on the teaching front, but my hope is, is that the frequency will go up.”
Most churches are meeting in person this Easter.
Elevated Church has three Easter services: 9 a.m., 10:45 a.m. and a Spanish service at 2 p.m.