Back in March, Iowa pastor Andrew Schmidt could tell from the energy in the sanctuary that it would be Celebrate Church’s most-attended weekend since the pandemic began.

Schmidt welcomed new members, baptized babies, and teared up as he extended his arms to pray blessings over the congregation from the stage. Even with the church split between mask-required and mask-optional services, he said seeing 390 people in the building felt “almost normal.”

It was exciting—and a wake-up call.

“Wait a minute, we didn’t want to just go back to the same things,” he later told fellow leaders at Celebrate, the biggest church in the 7,000-person city of Knoxville. “What is different for us, opportunity-wise?”

With COVID-19 vaccines making way for looser recommendations around distancing and masking, many congregations in the US have been able to get back to normal operations again. But some are not rushing to return to how things were, opting instead to rethink how and why they gather.

Across the country, pastors like Schmidt have ushered weary congregants through virtual worship setups, lonely hospital stays, funerals, job losses, intense political tensions, and relentless debates over pandemic precautions. Churchgoers making their way back through the sanctuary doors in 2021 will carry the weight of trauma and divides built up over more than a year spent apart—if they decide to return to the building at all.

During the first months of the year, fewer than half of regular churchgoers in the US made it to an in-person service, according to the Pew Research Center, though more than three-quarters said their churches had reopened.

Attendance has continued to rise, but some who once filled ...

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