How the Pandemic Changed Religious Outreach

The landscape for how various faith communities have reached out to non-members shifted dramatically during the pandemic.   

“The only thing is, we’re spending a lot of money on stamps.”  

Ken Loughton, a long-time Jehovah’s Witness, expressed the above sentiment during a recent interview.  Loughton volunteers 70+ hours a month of his own time connecting with people in his territory in the Corvallis area. This has earned him the title of “Pioneer” nine years running. 

Pre-COVID, he and other members — both Pioneers and non-Pioneers alike — went door to door or set up literature carts in various locations around town. This type of contact is central to their religion, hence their name. However, things changed practically overnight when the virus struck. 

Ministries & Missions 

Greg Chaffin, the Public Communication Representative for Jehovah’s Witnesses near Corvallis, said all the Witnesses paused door-to-door ministries and meetings at the Kingdom Hall — their name for the buildings in which they worship — almost immediately due to safety concerns. 

Instead of physically going out and about, the emphasis was shifted to reaching out by phone, Zoom meetings, and even snail mail. 

Similarly, Latter-day Saints — who some refer to as Mormons — on their mission stints had to adjust to COVID regulations. Landon Sumpter, an elder in the Albany Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that in some instances, those who were close to the end of their mission were given the option to go home, and their mission was counted as completed. 

Some who were on international assignment, Sumpter said, returned to the United States and were reassigned to places with fewer restrictions. All communication from the missionaries switched to being online only, depending on location. They also made sure that their contact information was included in their virtual presence, while at times conveying light-hearted entertainment and messages of love on social media sites like Instagram. 

The changes created by the pandemic looked a bit different for both groups. 

Life Before the Pandemic 

Loughton retired at 58, and that is when he began his run as a Pioneer, along with his wife and newly graduated daughter. He emphasized that devoting that time was an individual choice and said that his other two daughters had started Pioneering before he joined them. 

While Loughton resides at home doing his missionary work, Sumpter said that Latter-day Saints leave their homes. 

Most Latter-day Saints on their missions are between the ages of 18 and 25. Instead of reaching out to people near their hometown, they will attend a training center — sometimes learning a different language — and then be assigned the place where they will conduct their mission.  

They follow a set schedule, getting up at a certain time, studying at a certain time, and proselytizing between set hours. 

Loughton also likes to do his outreach at similar times each day.  

“It gave me more of a routine, and kind of a sense of accomplishment. It’s not like we’re trying to add up points or anything, or outdo somebody; it’s just that I have the circumstances that I can devote more time to the ministry,” he said. 

Before the virus shifted everyday life, Loughton would go out for a few hours each day. This was a huge connecting point for him and other members of the congregation, as different people would cover different days and his schedule allowed him to see them all. 

This also allowed him to get in more of a groove with his witnessing. 

“You’re nervous when you go out. But when you go out all the time you get rid of that nervousness. You get comfortable,” Loughton said. 

COVID Practices 

The shifts that COVID brought did not change much for Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

Letter writing is not foreign to Jehovah’s Witnesses. They will sometimes undertake orchestrated letter writing campaigns, and those who are housebound and/or dealing with weather-related limitations will write to those in their area of reach, known as a “territory.” 

The same principle applied to phone calls, and even Zoom meetings, which members were already trained on. 

“We knew how to do it before, but now we really know how to do it,” Loughton said, noting that this method saved time and gas. 

Often relying on face-to-face interactions in their ministry, Latter-day Saints had a different experience with distanced methods for outreach. 

Sumpter said that because many people on missions are young, freshly graduated people, their knowledge of technology was invaluable. However, phone calls were less like an old tool to rely on and more of a new skill to learn or relearn. 

“Social skills begin to diminish as they aren’t used,” Sumpter said, noting that phone calls are used less and less often in younger generations. 

Impact 

During the first April and May affected by the pandemic, Chaffin said that many people enjoyed having contact with another person outside their home. Some people even wrote back, expressing gratitude just to hear from someone. 

Overall, Laughton agreed, saying that there were folks who would express gratitude for social connection, especially regarding the letters, and even noted that previous people he reached out to seemed more receptive to reconnection. 

Sumpter said he noticed that for those on their mission, the public’s response pre- and post-pandemic were roughly the same, but added, “They got better after time, I think.” 

The drive for both groups, however, did not change with the pandemic. 

“We kind of feel like mankind is not well and the answer is out there with the Bible, or having a relationship with God,” Chaffin said, “and so it’s kind of like the cure for mankind. That’s why we go out and preach that message.”  

By: Hannah Ramsey