Arkansas Churches Use Most Online Services, But Need For In-Person Worship Grows

Since the Covid-19 eruption, there have been many more empty benches in Arkansas, although some long-absent worshipers are starting to return, according to religious leaders.

“We have seen attendance start to increase steadily again, and there is [some] people who achieve up to 60% to 70% pre-covid [numbers]said Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, mass attendance in October was up 34% from the same month in 2020, but was still down 20.6% from October 2019.

Arkansas is hardly an outlier, according to data from LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.


“A quarter of worshipers, those attending in person before the pandemic, are not returning to church on a typical Sunday,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

Since the arrival of covid, “a lot of habits have been broken,” he said.

Numbers are dropping in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, despite the reopening of the doors, according to Bishop Larry Benfield.

“Anywhere between about 50% and about 75% of people seem to be back in person now, as opposed to before the onset of covid,” Benfield said.

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The large parishes of Little Rock and northwest Arkansas, on average, tend to do better than mid-sized parishes elsewhere in the state, he said.

Some of the smaller parishes – those of 15 to 25 people – have returned to pre-Covid figures, he added.

Like other religious leaders, Benfield is monitoring the spread of the omicron variant.

If the number of covid cases goes up, “I think you’re going to see people decide to watch worship online instead of being there in person,” he said. “So far, no congregation has talked about going online only.”

Gallup polls, which have tracked church attendance since 1939, showed that attendance in the United States fell in the first year of the covid-19 pandemic to an all-time low; so far, attendance has not recovered.

In 2019, attendance at churches, temples and mosques was 34%. By May 2021, that number had fallen to 30%, with 20% reporting attending services in person and 10% reporting attending remotely. [See:]

“We are certainly seeing attendance cut in half,” said Pastor Darrell Montgomery of Second Baptist Church in England.

“About 40 on average: it’s a good Sunday now,” he said.

Before covid, there would probably have been 70-80 on hand, he added.

It is easier to diagnose the problem than to find a cure.

“I have certainly prayed and thought about it. What’s the solution? I don’t know,” Montgomery said.


Rod Loy, pastor of the First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, is concerned about the long-term effects of the pandemic, not only in Arkansas but across the country.

“At the start of the pandemic, many so-called ‘experts’ predicted that this would be the next great spiritual awakening in America. They prophesied that as soon as churches reopened, people would flock to church, take seats and thousands would come to faith. That did not happen. Instead of a great revival, we saw a great fall, “he told his congregation in a sermon shortly before Thanksgiving.

Many “Christians in America have completely abandoned the church,” he added.

Even some at the first assembly seem to have moved away.

“We’re still at 75% of the pre-covid attendance average,” Loy said in an email Tuesday.

“Sadly, the church in America has allowed itself to be divided by the covid. The arguments over face masks, vaccines and closures have distracted attention from the mission and purpose of the church,” he said. he declares.

It is not known how many of the faithful have left for good.

“It will take us several years to see the payoff,” said McConnell of LifeWay Research.

“Many of the faithful have good intentions to come back in person,” he added.


With the proliferation of online options, calculating attendance will become more complicated.

“What we’re trying to figure out is how we’re going to count the people who come to church… virtually,” Benfield said.

The drop in attendance transcends religious traditions. Crowds are also smaller for Shabbat services.

“There is a noticeable drop in attendance, but it’s actually encouraged,” said Rabbi Pinchus Ciment, director of Lubavitch of Arkansas in Little Rock.

Given the severity of the pandemic and the threat it poses to public health, it is wise for some to withdraw from weekly services and other events, he said.

“I think leaders at all levels have encouraged people vulnerable to disease not to participate, to stay home,” he said.

At the Madina Institute and Mosque in Little Rock, the covid has made restrictions necessary according to its president, Sophia Said.

For some gatherings, attendance was capped at 10 or 15 people. On other occasions, only healthy and vaccinated adults were allowed to participate.

Technology has made it easier to participate, she said.

“We were able to reach members of the congregation who could not come to the mosque otherwise for various reasons. Now they could sit in their homes and be part of the congregation,” she said. “So we’ve expanded our congregation in some ways, which has been really good. “

But the technology cannot replicate the experience in person, she noted.

“We all need a community … How can we build a community without being together physically? It has been a real challenge,” she said.

At the Saint-Joseph Catholic Church in Fayetteville, parishioners can watch Mass via the Internet.

But it’s not the same as being physically present, noted its pastor, Jason Tyler.

“The Catholic Mass, in my mind, doesn’t lend itself as well to online or video presentation” as it is “something of a full body experience,” he said. ” You sit. You stand up. You kneel down. You might have some incense. Sometimes you even feel what’s going on. “

It is mostly a shared experience, he said.

“As Catholics, we attach such great importance to the Eucharist, to the idea that the bread and wine at Mass truly become the body and the blood of Jesus,” he said. “We want people to be in the presence of the Lord.”

Despite its shortcomings, there are no plans to interrupt the masses broadcast live.


For the 54 episcopal parishes of Arkansas, the technological changes ushered in by covid have been enormous.

“We probably had … about three congregations doing something online before Covid started. Now the majority of our congregations are online,” Bishop Benfield said. “We believe there is going to be a continued need and interest in online participation.”

With technology, closures are no longer ruled out, Benfield noted.

“[There were people] in assisted living facilities before covid that couldn’t come to church, and now they’re coming to church, ”he said.

Methodist congregations large and small have embraced the technology as well, Bishop Mueller said.

“To generalize, the churches that were doing nothing started doing something. And the churches that were online really kind of took their game to the next level.… They really honed their craft and [are] produce a service that makes people feel like they’re there, not just watching from a distance. “

At Fayetteville Central United Methodist Church, the number of faithful virtually is substantial.

If attendance for the weekend is 1,000, “probably 600 of them are in the pews and 400 of them are online,” congregation pastor Carness Vaughan said.

Before covid, attendance could have been 1,300 or 1,400 with 1,000 people sitting on the benches and 300 to 400 other people watching from a distance.

Once the pandemic has passed, Vaughan is hoping that some of the public online will transition to in-person worship.

“We would like more people to feel comfortable enough to come back to campus, but it’s good to have the option for people to pray at home,” he said.

No matter where people worship, the mission of the church remains the same, Vaughan said.

“We want to do all we can to help people experience Jesus, his love and mercy, his healing and his salvation,” he said.

Bishop Larry Benfield of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, pictured outside Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock on December 19, said most of his parishes now offer their services virtually due to covid- 19. Even after the pandemic is over, “We believe there will be a continued need and interest in the online presence,” he said. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Frank E. Lockwood)
Photo Large crowds attended a mass in Spanish at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in North Little Rock. Attendance at Spanish-language services in the Diocese of Little Rock increased from 16,339 in the October 2019 count to 9,351 in October 2020, but rebounded to 13,461 in October 2021 (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Frank E. Lockwood)

Veronica J. Snell