There is a lot more space on the pews at many Edmonton-area churches these days, as many have not returned to in-person services.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton represents 122 parishes and missions and celebrates mass in 16 languages, but participation in those masses isn’t what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Father Jim Corrigan estimates only about 60 per cent of congregations have returned to in-person services.
“If we were used to having 600 to 700 people here for a Sunday celebration, maybe our number is more like 400 right now,” he said.
“Will we ever get back to where we were? I’m not sure.”
Corrigan, the pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park, Alta., believes people’s routines changed while they were at home more during the pandemic.
“It’s easy to get out of a habit once you’re out of it. Tough to get back in the groove,” he explained.
With fewer people sitting in the pews, donations are also down.
“It for sure has had a negative impact on the resources available to our parishes, and the extension of that to the Archdiocese,” Corrigan said.
But he added that the revenue did not drop in tandem with parishioners, because many continued to give while unable to attend mass.
Catholic churches also tried to make changes to address the shortfall.
“I think every parish made changes with their employees and personnel — to downsize,” Corrigan said. “So while the income may not be what it used to be, the expenses aren’t quite what they were either.”
But he notes there is a silver lining to the pandemic, and that’s the move to livestreaming services.
“One thing we’ve learned is, even prior to COVID, there were people that were not able to be at mass: the older, the health challenged, the mobility challenged,” Corrigan said.
“We continue to livestream and we trust that those who can come to mass will eventually be inspired to do so.”
The church is trying to appeal to people on the platforms that resonate with them.
“We’re definitely using social media: Facebook and websites, Snapchat — everything we can to market who we are,” Corrigan said.
READ MORE: How COVID could change religion in Canada forever: ‘There is no going back’
Christmas services provided hope that people could return soon.
“Our 4 p.m. Christmas Eve mass was jam-packed like the old days,” Corrigan said. “It was a joyful moment.”
But he believes in order for congregations to grow each Sunday, they need to be welcoming and make people feel at home.
“This is a sincere and open invitation to come,” Corrigan said.
“We miss you and Jesus would love to see you visiting him once again.”
At Grace Lutheran Church in Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood, the faith community has been around for nearly a century. Services have been held in the current building since the 1950s, but the pandemic hit the church hard.
Eric Decorby is Grace Lutheran Church’s executive director.
“We didn’t have much, digitally,” he said. “So within a week it forced us to get our livestream up and running and had everyone attending services online.”
Like the Catholic churches, Grace Lutheran is still livestreaming its services today.
In person, the church also remains COVID conscious: bottles of hand sanitizer are strategically positioned at the entrance.
“People are welcome to wear masks if they choose,” Decorby said. “We have additional cleaning in place. We’re really trying to make it as safe as possible.”
But the impacts of previous public health restrictions are still being felt every Sunday.
“Pre-pandemic we were averaging 200 people per week,” Decorby said. “We had three services: two in English and one in Nuer for our Sudanese congregation.
“Now we’re averaging 80 to 100 people a Sunday in our services, then probably 50 to 80 watching online.”
The drop in participation saw the church lose a pastor, as well as one mass a week.
Grace Lutheran is currently sharing its large building with various community groups, including the Oliver Community League and Narcotics Anonymous.
“It would be great if people were coming to the building for something else and then realize this would be a great place for them to come for services,” Decorby said.
He added he is not sure exactly how to turn things around, but is trying to rebuild activities for children and youth.
“Maybe church as it was for the past 100 years is a little different now. We can still be effective and still do good things, but they way we do them might have to change a little bit.”
At least one local church is bucking the trend, however. Evolve got its start just before the pandemic, hosting services in The Rec Room in South Edmonton Common.
Evolve offers a contemporary celebration of Christianity.
“I would say we’re a living room and not a rock show,” said lead pastor Jono Zantingh.
He says his congregation has doubled to between 500 and 600 followers.
“We were sort of caught off guard, everybody’s just bringing friends and bringing family,” Zantingh said with a smile.
He attributes that success to offering hope and kindness when people needed it most.
“You come out of the dark of the last couple years and there’s this void of relationship, void of community, void of real meaningful friendships,” Zantingh said. “And I think the church has an opportunity to meet that need.
“Our people, they’re not just friendly, they’re willing to become friends. There’s a big difference, I think.”
But when the pandemic shut down businesses like The Rec Room, Evolve lost its home.
Zantingh eventually rented a warehouse to livestream services from, and eventually leased the church’s current home in the South Edmonton Research Park.
When only small groups were allowed to worship, Evolve held intimate micro-masses — seven or eight of them each Sunday.
“It was literally 15 people, right in the middle of this room,” Zantingh recalled.
“We just sat in a circle and we prayed together and opened scripture together, talked about what was doing on in people’s hearts and minds. We addressed fear and we addressed anxiety.”
He says those tight-knit services attracted a number of families, including some who didn’t have a church community before the pandemic.
“The beautiful, overwhelming response is from people who are new to faith,” Zantingh said.
“(These people) are saying, ‘This is changing my life, this is the hope I’ve been desperate for, this is the community I’ve been searching for, this is the family I didn’t think was possible.’ That piece has been worth all of the pivots.”
Zantingh says he hopes Evolve is a space where people feel comfortable asking questions about faith too.
And just like the other churches, Evolve also has some members who continue to take in services virtually. Zantingh hopes that with time, everyone feels comfortable returning in person.