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Study: Virus changed worship, not service habits

by Francisca Jones | January 30, 2021 at 3:08 a.m.

The covid-19 pandemic drastically changed how people worshipped during 2020, but lay members of faith in Little Rock focused on serving their communities have remained so during the public health crisis, according to the results of a longitudinal study of the city's faith groups.

The Little Rock Congregations Study, a research project led by Dr. Rebecca Glazier of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, surveys congregation members every four years to learn about the impact congregations are making via community engagement. Aided by students taking courses Glazier teaches at the university, the study also strives to help its community by providing useful insights to faith leaders and members, while engaging Glazier's students in research outside the classroom.

The 2020 survey -- responded to by nearly 2,300 people across 35 congregations -- asked about the concerns most important to faith members; which concerns they'd like to see their congregations focus on; and their own physical, mental and spiritual health. This survey was different from the previous two congregant surveys in 2012 and 2016 in that it provided personal reports to faith leaders about what concerns matter most to their members.

The survey's results come nearly a month into 2021, more than 10 months since Arkansas' first known cases of coronavirus surfaced in March. State health officials have warned in past weeks of a surge in cases post-holiday season, and as some congregations have chosen to again hold online-only services in light of the increase in cases and the colder weather.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Glazier, with the help of five graduate students who are participating as the result of a partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service, will continue making use of the information learned from the study. Among other work, the 2020 study results will inform the students as they facilitate dialogues between worship houses and nonprofits next month in an event meant to encourage collaboration among organizations and faith groups -- one of the ways the study strives to better serve the community.

Of those surveyed, nearly 72% said they were attending services last year as often as before the pandemic. More than 21% were attending services less often in the past year and close to 7% said they were attending more often. Those whose attendance at services changed both cited covid-19 as the reason for their change in attendance.

"We saw a lot of change in how people were attending worship services," Glazier said. "And we saw a lot of flexibility in our congregations as they tried to adjust and meet the needs of people during the pandemic."

People who described themselves as very deeply spiritual in the latest survey were more committed to their place of worship, attended more often and served their congregations more, the survey found.

That spiritual depth also benefited communities, Glazier said. Those who reported being deeply spiritual were much more likely to serve their communities, and to believe in the ability to make a difference and to work to solve problems in their community.

"That was a really interesting finding for us to see, that spirituality didn't just have a positive impact on their own place of worship, but that it had a positive impact on the community," Glazier said.

Ty Collins, a sophomore at the university, was one of the nine students who worked on the 2020 survey. Each student attended services in-person or through a remote platform for four or five congregations and got to know faith leaders and members personally.

Collins said the Baptist church he grew up attending in Scott believed in a close connection between their faith and community service. The church focused mostly on fighting hunger, and operated a food bank. They delivered food to those unable to come to the church. He also recalled, as a child, a Saturday devoted to helping assemble and deliver fruit baskets the church distributed to nearly every residence in the town around the Christmas holidays.

For the congregation, serving their community was a way to grow closer to God, he said.

"They were just super engaged," Collins recalled. "It's a super poor town, and they wanted to make a change, and they are still some of the most devout people that I've ever met."

Work on the study by Landon DeKay, a senior and student in Glazier's "Religion and Community" class in the fall semester, included a report on how congregation members prioritize community concerns according to income level. He won a grant from the university to continue work on the study this semester, and said he hopes that in the future more of the city's approximately 365 congregations will take part in the survey, and partner with the university to ultimately facilitate collaborations with other congregations and nonprofits for the betterment of the area.

"Our end goal is to really improve the community -- make Little Rock a better community -- and it really does start with the congregations that are already here," DeKay said. "Once we all share that same idea, then nothing can really stop us from achieving that goal."

More information about the Little Rock Congregations Study can be found at research.ualr.edu/lrcs and at facebook.com/LittleRockCongregationsStudy; Dr. Glazier can be contacted at raglazier@ualr.edu.

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