Church is Back, But Where Are The People?

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I’ve heard it multiple times now, “You know, once you start streaming worship services it just makes it easier to keep streaming them.” I get it. It’s far easier to do worship in your pajamas on a Sunday morning. It can be a massive job some Sundays to get all six people from our home to church. But let’s not forget: we need each other.

We’re not disembodied souls who only require an internet connection and smart device to meet our deepest needs. We can’t just upload relationships. If social media has taught us anything, it’s revealed how shallow our digital connections can be if not anchored in real life togetherness. Sadly, a lot of people are migrating to online options as a long-term solution. Beware. These low commitment, impersonal forms can be a gateway for complete drop out. There’s too much at stake to take this lightly.

The Barna organization reported one in three practicing Christians stopped attending church since COVID. As many as 32% of those who attended worship in person prior to COVID meeting restrictions seem to have not only quit attending worship, as per mandates, but unplugged online as well. Barna reports that though more data is needed, they can “for the most part, confidently interpret this group as those who have dropped out of church for the time being.” This last weekend the Wall Street Journal brought attention to this study and others in their article, the title of which tells the whole story, “Churches Changed During the Pandemic and Many Aren’t Going Back.”

As with any social behavior, this can be complicated. We should probably start with some context. There has been a steady and accelerated drop in church attendance in America for quite some time now, even prior to mask mandates and meeting restrictions. The Gallup organization has tracked church participation in North America since 1937. They say the percentage of the American population who regularly attend a church, mosque, or synagogue remained steady at or over 70% for decades. But the turn of the 21st century brought with it a steady decline. This last year Gallup reported that church participation dropped below 50% for the first time ever.

Another contributing factor is surely the emphasis churches place on the centrality of the sermon. Gallup reports that 76% of those who attend church cite the sermon as “what appeals most” for their attendance. If a faith community is reduced to a sermon, or church relegated to a mere preaching event, it’s clear this is an element that can be easily detached from the gathering. COVID has made streaming sermons mainstream. In fact, many Christians said they began streaming sermons from churches other than where they regularly attend, either in addition to or in the place of their own church’s sermons. After all, no matter how good your teaching pastor is, you can always find someone who is better.

But what if the church is more than the sermon?

This is all fine and well when we cannot meet together. Again, I get it. But there should be more to church than showing up to listen to one person talk, as important as that talk can be. Don’t get me wrong, there shouldn’t be less than the sermon. But there should be, and must be, much more.

I think this is a good time for introspection among Christians and church leaders as to the nature and significance of the community and culture of our faith communities. If we are easily replaced by a smart device it might be a sign of insufficient understanding of “body life,” the shared relational importance of our faith made clear in the New Testament.

In a day when we can personalize and customize all our interactions, at least those of a digital nature, the church forces us into relationships that don’t fit social media algorithms. The church, the embodied gathering, doesn’t reconfigure to our likes and shares and news preferences. We need this kind of community lest we end up lost down some worm hole on the Internet in an ever increasing “hyper-personalized reality.”

But it’s more than just the utility of the church in your life. You need the church, that’s clear in the Bible. What’s also clear though, your church needs you. There’s someone who needs your presence, your words of encouragement, and your fellowship in suffering. While many things might keep us from gathering for a time, let’s not forget, our gathering together is part of what keeps us through time, those good and bad times that await us all.

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