STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of my uncles says people in his church showed up in person and unmasked on Sunday for the first time since the start of the pandemic. That must be true in many churches, though they still face a dilemma of how to police COVID vaccination. Here's Blake Farmer of WPLN.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Worship online just isn't the same.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TEMPLE CHURCH CHOIR: (Singing) Thou who has brought us...
FARMER: In a produced video, the choir at the Temple Church in Nashville is singing spaced out in a parking lot. Members like 73-year-old Rogers Buchanan watched the stream from their couches.
ROGERS BUCHANAN: You know what? They talk about people staying at home and missing the restaurants and going places and travel and all that. The only thing I missed in this whole year is going to church (laughter). What little I travel and go to restaurants is not that important.
FARMER: It's the main reason Buchanan, who's a city bus driver, rolled up his sleeve to get vaccinated at a nearby church hosting a vaccination event. His preacher told him to.
BUCHANAN: He recommended everybody. So - I usually follow my pastor pretty well.
FARMER: And he said that it would help the congregation return to in-person gatherings more quickly. But even as the most vulnerable have pretty well gotten their COVID shots, Temple Church still hasn't resumed in-person services. The same's true for many congregations in the area, though government regulations aren't stopping them. Jeffrey Leath is the bishop overseeing African Methodist Episcopal churches in Tennessee and Kentucky. And while many have held vaccination events for members, almost all worship, on the bishop's recommendation, has remained virtual.
JEFFREY LEATH: I have advised congregations, you cannot ask people if they've been vaccinated.
FARMER: He says that might encourage deception.
LEATH: We're supposed to be encouraging truth. And so why tempt someone to lie? I also do not want to create a class of lepers of sorts within congregations.
FARMER: So if they want to return, he's still requiring masks for everyone, no hugs or handshakes and, critically, no singing. Unvaccinated members in the balcony doesn't feel right. But some churches are willing to draw a distinction between the vaxxed (ph) and the unvaxxed.
J P CONWAY: If you're vaccinated and would like to take your mask off when we sing, feel free. And we'll kind of spread out here on the church lawn and sing a little bit.
FARMER: Preacher J.P. Conway directs members of Acklen Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville as they begin worship outside.
ACKLEN AVENUE CHURCH OF CHRIST CONGREGATION: (Singing) Lord God almighty...
CONWAY: One thing we kept saying is, if we get the vaccine, we can do more.
FARMER: Like singing without masks, though not yet indoors or sleepaway church camp, which is on for August. Conway says he never wanted anyone to feel too much pressure, but people started volunteering that they'd gotten the shot. So he did start giving weekly updates from the pulpit like a church might do with the weekly offering.
CONWAY: We were basically telling people what percentage of our church had been vaccinated every week. And so that was an indirect way of saying, we think you should all do this.
FARMER: And they did. Psychology professor Jaclyn Spivey got the shot. After texting her husband and kids, the next message was to her preacher while in the waiting room making sure she didn't have an allergic reaction.
JACLYN SPIVEY: It was during the 15-minute window. I wanted to be added to the list (laughter).
FARMER: The running tally at church became part of her motivation.
SPIVEY: Like, not peer pressure exactly, but solidarity.
FARMER: And now 99% of members 16 and up have self-reported getting vaccinated. The pastor says he's just taking their word for it because if people are going to lie, the church has bigger problems.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "I SHALL SAIL NO MORE (NO MORE SHALL I SAIL)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.