'The pandemic has stretched us, but it has also validated us':
When is the last time you worshipped in-person at church?
According to a Gallup Poll, church membership in America continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup's eight-decade trend.
Then, the pandemic forced churches to close their doors last March, which caused an additional dip in church attendance.
Prior to the pandemic, Pastor Tolan Morgan at Fellowship Bible Baptist Church led a very engaged congregation.
Pastor Morgan said, "We are interactive in our worship. We are 'call-and-response' in our worship."
However, on March 15, 2020, Pastor Morgan made a difficult decision.
"It took faith to close the doors," said Pastor Morgan.
When the time came to reopen, they applied advice on how to do it best, such as, creating an online sign-up sheet, "So there would be no just popping up to the church and coming in, because we've got to contain and maintain this environment for the safety of public health," said Pastor Morgan.
On April 4, 2021, Easter Sunday, Pastor Morgan welcomed 431 people back.
However, not everyone came back.
The attendance this year is down by more than two-thirds compared to Easter Sunday of 2019, when 1,300 people worshipped under the dome.
Another congregation, Vineville United Methodist Church was a growing community.
Senior pastor Jimmy Asbell said their membership rose for five straight years, but then, the pandemic hit, also forcing them to close their doors.
Their numbers haven't been the same since.
Pastor Asbell said, "Between 20 and 25 percent, depending on whose study you've looked at, they have not been in-person and they have not turned on the live stream in a year. That percentage is out there and it is going to be harder to get them back."
They're getting creative with reaching people.
"We do updates. We've done video posts, and then we try to send things out stuff pretty regularly with Facebook and other types of social media," said Pastor Asbell.
"We have sent aid and things of that nature to those who are incarcerated," said Pastor Morgan. "We have sent aid and ministry supplies to those who are in local shelters here in our city."
In addition, those efforts to bring back the faithful are taking place at churches far beyond Central Georgia, and some are working.
Pew Research Center says three-quarters of U.S. adults who normally attend religious services now say they are "very" or "somewhat" confident they can do so safely.
That's up 12 percentage points from July 2020.
Central Georgia churches work to bring people back as pandemic improves
It gives Pastor Asbell and Pastor Morgan hope.
Pastor Asbell said, "It presents a challenge, but at the same time, an opportunity to know there is a percentage out there with no exposure. There are opportunities to reach out and get those people connected, whether again or for the first time."
"The pandemic has stretched us, but it has also validated us," said Pastor Morgan. "At the end of the day, it's your condition and your comfortability."
In a season of challenge, Morgan says people are just looking up for a sense of relief from it all.
Other churches like New City Church in Macon are embracing new small group strategies as a part of their outreach initiatives, relying on small, closed Facebook groups, providing a digital community for those who are not ready to go back in-person or for those who would just rather connect digitally.