Brent Costello sat in front of several computer monitors and a sound-mixing board like a music recording artist prepping for a studio gig on Thursday, April 1.
But it wasn’t an April Fools’ Day prank for the executive pastor of Lakewood Evangelical Free Church in Baxter. The high-tech equipment was used to make video recordings viewable online.
“Last year for Easter, when we were under safer-at-home orders, the Easter service was actually compiled from a number of different recordings that we made at individual people's houses and some recordings at the church of the sermon itself,” Costello said. “And then we edited all those together into one service.”
RELATED: Holy Week - Easter Services Guide
Easter is a day of great religious significance for the roughly 65% of Americans who classify themselves as Christians, according to the Pew Research Center. Easter Sunday marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Worshippers traditionally gathered at church in person in pre-pandemic times.
Like many things, that changed a year ago, however.
Costello said of the recordings, “That was available through our church website and online for the congregation to watch in their own homes. In the middle of June, we went back to having gathered services as well as virtual services once that was allowed under the executive orders.”
Four in 10 U.S. Christians (39%) plan to go in person to church services this Easter Sunday, which is sharply lower than the 62% who say they typically go to church on Easter, according to the Pew Research Center.
“The majority of Americans who celebrate Easter … will simply stay at home during the holiday, without going out or meeting with other people,” Jill Gonzalez, a WalletHub analyst, stated in a news release.
Three-quarters of U.S. adults who normally attend religious services say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident they can do so safely, without spreading or catching the coronavirus — up 12 percentage points from July, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Of the people who will leave home to celebrate Easter, the largest share will get together with friends and family, while much smaller shares will attend church in person or have a meal at a restaurant,” Gonzalez said of the WalletHub survey about Easter this year.
Lakewood Evangelical Free Church
For Lakewood Evangelical Free, this year’s Easter services will once again be different from the previous year, Costello said.
“This year, we’ll have both gathered and virtual services. … We’ve had our doors open to have the congregation gathered and have also streamed our services via livestream for those who aren’t able or don’t feel comfortable gathering with others in person.” Costello said.
Eight in 10 U.S. religious attendees say their congregation is currently recording or streaming its services, so that people can watch online or on TV, according to last month’s Pew Research Center survey.
“I think all churches are grappling with new realities, not only of how people are attending,” Costello said. “When you’re livestreaming, we don’t have any way to know how many people are in front of each of those screens.”
As of early March, 17% of U.S. adults indicate that they have attended religious services in person during the past month, up modestly but significantly from the 13% who said this in July 2020, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I think for us physically gathering with others is something that we would hold as a biblical and a theological value. God made people to be in connection with one another,” Costello said.
According to the WalletHub survey, 47% of Americans say that religion has helped them get through the pandemic.
“The isolation that we’ve had to endure because of the pandemic has produced a lot of difficulty for people, whether it’s isolation in how they practice their faith or in other areas of their life,” Costello said.
According to the Pew Research Center, among those who typically attend services at least monthly, 65% now say they have recently watched services online or on TV, down from 72% in the summer of 2020.
“We’re grateful that our worship of God, while absolutely enhanced by being in community with others, isn’t totally dependent upon that. We can still worship, when necessary, at a distance,” Costello said.
Easter also is a big donation day for U.S. churches, as it typically has the year’s highest attendance rates — though many people may attend virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to WalletHub.
“Churches may experience fewer donations than a typical Easter, as around 29% of people who celebrate Easter plan to donate less on the holiday this year than they did last year,” Gonzalez said.
Costello said, “Our finances last year were relatively strong. We saw a decrease from what we received in 2019. But we were able to enter the year in the black and are grateful for that.”
About 76 million Americans say they would donate part of the upcoming stimulus check to a religious organization, according to WalletHub.
Trinity Lutheran Church
Paul Erdal is the lead pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church. The Brainerd church is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran group in the U.S.
“The most important thing for us is people’s safety,” Erdal said of Easter services. “If you don’t feel safe, stay at home. You can join us on the radio or we stream online as well. We have a website as well, so we’re online and also in person.”
Trinity Lutheran will have three in-person Easter service times because officials are purposely limiting the number of worshippers who can gather inside the building at any one time in an effort to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus by wearing masks and social distancing.
“The 9 o’clock is already full. I mean you can’t sign up anymore — we’re already at 150 — so you have to sign up for the 7 o’clock or the 11 o’clock service,” Erdal said Wednesday.
Americans are 23% more likely to donate more than usual to their church this Easter, according to WalletHub.
“Finances? We haven’t had a year like this. … We’ve broken records. Why is that? Well, we can only guess. I mean I don’t have the exact facts, but I think people appreciate what we’re doing,” Erdal said of the outpouring of financial support.
About 62% of U.S. Christians say they normally attend religious services on Easter Sunday, according to the Pew Research Center, and even one in 10 religiously unaffiliated Americans say they typically go to church on Easter.
Opening safely was important, Erdal said.
“We were online for a while but then we just went to in-person because we realized people can decide for themselves if they are comfortable being in-person or staying home. But we definitely want people to social distance and wear masks,” Erdal said of Trinity Lutheran services.
Erdal said the coronavirus pandemic has affected the church’s attendance numbers, which have been decreased by half.
“But the people have responded, I think, in kind. They have just been that much more appreciative of what we’re doing, what we’re trying to do. Whereas other churches have totally shut down, we have never done that except for that one month at the beginning,” Erdal said.
Faith Baptist Church
Faith Baptist Church in Brainerd bills itself on its website as “‘not a building or time of the week but a community of born-again Christ-followers.”
The church also will offer a streaming option as well as in-person services for Easter, while maintaining proper safety protocols.
“We've decided to still offer our two services mainly around Easter, which is Good Friday service and then Easter morning worship service — still in person — but chairs more spread apart, and we’re offering the option to watch online for others as well,” Senior Pastor Jim Stephens said.
A clear majority of religious attendees continue to say that various modifications and restrictions — such as social distancing, mask-wearing and limiting the number of people who can attend at any one time — are needed, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Last year has been difficult like all the other churches, making decisions on what opening up looks like, when to open up, all of those things ... and then trying to meet people where they’re at … knowing that some aren’t ready to come back yet,” Stephens said.
Stephens said church attendance at Faith Baptist Church is also down by 50% at the start of the pandemic, similar to Trinity Lutheran Church, and Faith Baptist instituted the option of online giving during the pandemic.
“We’re still not back to where we were before but closer to probably 25% decrease when compared to prior COVID attendance,” Stephens said. “Finances were lower last year than previous years. And, again, that’s probably connected to attendance and ability to have service.”