The Rev. David G. Elliott, pastor of St. James AME Zion Church, discusses challenges and methods of handling services through the pandemic.

Houses of worship have been seeing a steady decline in attendance since the year 2000.

According to Gallup News, churches, synagogues and mosques report only about 47% of Americans say they attend worship services or are members of a congregation in comparison to 70% decades earlier.

With the pandemic, those numbers went down further with social distancing and other precautions. As things open up, ministers say they are optimistic about people returning to church, despite declining numbers.

And while churches in Goldsboro used different methods, they all said they kept safety first during the pandemic.

Both St. James AME Zion Church and The Bridge Church followed government guidance.

“We believe in our government, and we believe in following the law when it doesn’t conflict with doctrine,” said the Rev. Jim Gillikin, executive minister of The Bridge Church. “So we had a short period where we closed for about 10 days. But we reopened with limited seating.”

Gillikin said they cleaned everything and even used a special spray in the air between services to make sure those who wanted to come to service were comfortable knowing they were coming to a sanitized environment, whether it was at the 9 a.m. or the 11 a.m. service.

They cleaned and sanitized between each service, wiping down everything from seats to doorknobs. While there was seating for 1,200 in the sanctuary, with social distancing, they had 300 seats available.

There is a hospitality area where hand sanitizer and masks are available for those who want it.

The Rev. David G. Elliott, pastor of St. James AME Zion Church, said his church took every precaution cleaning the church as well.

Elliott says their reopening is a slow process.

“We are going through three phases of reopening,” Elliott said. “We are starting off with a limited amount of people. We are in the first phase now. We are taking their temperatures, making sure people have a mask.”

Elliott said that while some may think so, COVID is not over. The second phase of reopening, which he expects to be in August, will allow more people in the sanctuary.

The final phase should be in September when things are closer to normal, but still with precautions for the comfort of parishioners.

“We take the temperature of everyone who comes in,” he said. “We hope that people will be comfortable with showing us their vaccination (card), and if not, that is all right because we still mask up. We offer the presence of God whether or not you have been vaccinated.”

Historically, many in the African-American community don’t trust vaccines given out by the government, Elliott said.

“So we try to show that as we move forward we try to respect people’s decisions,” Elliott said. “I have conversations with people who have talked about times the government breached our trust.”

Elliott said it is important for them to know their opinion is valued.

“They aren’t just people who are non-vacs,” he explained.

“They are legitimate community members, business owners, who recognized the slights against African Americans, in particular.”

Both Elliott and Gillikin said it is important for churches to meet people where they are.

Gillikin said they had one family where one member of that family did get COVID and they let members know. It was at that time when the church shut its doors for 10 days and members could follow on social media.

“COVID is a wicked disease,” Gillikin said. “I have a mother-in-law that is 90 years old, and my mom and dad are in their 80s. We know we have to protect our older generation and everybody who comes here.”

But Gillikin said long before anyone heard of COVID, their church embraced electronics and members had the ability to watch services online and give their tithes and offerings online as well.

“We may have changed the method of how people got the gospel, but we did not change the gospel,” he said.

In fact, the percentage of donations has gone up since more people are using electronics, he said.

St. James uses multiple digital programs to spread the gospel. They made services available on YouTube and Facebook.

Elliott said he understands some may have become comfortable at home having service and just send their tithes and offerings.

“For worship that is acceptable, but when it comes to ministry — being part of the community — staying home is not as conducive,” he explained.

“Christianity is not an individualistic religion. We are a communal religion. You can be at home, read the word at home, watch us at home, but we need community.”

Elliott said it is important to stay connected to each other.

“The Bible says how good and pleasant it is for brothers to fellowship and dwell amongst one another,” he said. “We try to make it so that people are drawn back to the ministry.”

He said that is why they involve people in the choir, spoken word ministry, dance ministry and other things that get members involved. He said by being involved in a ministry, a person will be inclined to come back and serve in that ministry.

“For some people that is enough,” Elliott said. “For others, they want to see the proof of safety so they will be more comfortable. They will make their way back in when they see the safety protocols are being adhered to.”

Gillikin said he feels encouraged that usual members and new members will come to church to worship.

Elliott said he believes that the church must work in the community to show love and God will give the increase.