Crisis accelerates change. This suggests the COVID-19 pandemic is speeding the decline of church attendance.
Thus the question — “What if they don’t come back?” — felt pertinent to frame the discussion at an online conference Feb. 20 led by the Center for Anabaptist Leadership and Learning at Hesston College. The event drew more than 110 people from across the United States.
A Barna Group study found one in five U.S. churchgoers stopped attending church in any form, physical or digital, in 2020. At the pandemic’s one-year mark, it’s too early to draw long-term conclusions about attendance as churches reopen and vaccines roll out. Yet it may not be too soon to ask: How much has human behavior changed permanently due to COVID-19?
The smart money is on some degree of permanent change. It’s true in the business world. Consider the entertainment industry: Will Netflix kill theaters? Maybe not, but the movie business will never be the same. People now expect to stream new releases at home and choose from more options than ever before.
The church’s business model will need to change too.
Last year, churches discovered they can do a version of Netflix: livestream the worship service. It’s been a success. Some have drawn a larger audience than they did in person. There will be no going back to doing without the remote option.
But what if worship becomes just another show to stream? Your pastor (and your budget) can’t compete with Netflix.
And you shouldn’t try. The church doesn’t exist for our entertainment (although shorter COVID-era sermons do hold our attention better). It exists to be a community of Christ’s presence.
Many of us have learned to be remote church-content consumers. When that is no longer a necessity, how many will stay home by choice?
The answer depends on whether the church has produced a lot of Jesus- followers or merely an audience with attendance habits that break easily when old routines no longer apply.
During the Hesston College webinar, guest speaker David Fitch of Northern Seminary in Chicago noted that U.S. church attendance has been shrinking since the mid-1950s, when almost half of Americans went to church on Sunday.
Faced with a 65-year trend, sped up by a crisis, how shall the church respond? Fitch suggested a reset of expectation and action.
“Maybe our egos got attached to certain measures of success that aren’t there any more,” he said. “In this cultural moment, when everything seems to be up for grabs, is it possible that this is the time for a recalibration, a re- centering of our congregations?”
Fitch suggested the measure of church vitality is not the quantity but the “density” of its people (in other words, the quality of their commitment). A congregation might be wide in numbers but shallow in devotion.
Bigger is not necessarily better, nor an asset for the renewal we need.
A church that’s dense will bring a sense of Christ’s presence to daily life and everyday places: “We need to think of church differently in relation to a building.” Church isn’t only what happens once a week in a sacred space. It’s in our homes, in small groups, breaking bread together. It’s anywhere we practice our faith and reveal that Christ is there too.
“We’ve lost a sense of the presence of God at work in our lives,” Fitch said. “It is through his people that he will reveal himself, and this isn’t just on Sunday morning. Can we use COVID-19 to cultivate a renewed sense of God’s presence?”
This is the church decentralized and dispersed, the post-Christendom church. With the demise of cultural Christianity, peer pressure no longer drives church attendance. Who knows how many of the 1950s churchgoers really wanted to be there?
After COVID, with attendance habits broken, there may be a further winnowing of numbers. Those who remain will need to grow in density and devotion.
Conference presenter Michele Hershberger, a Bible and ministry professor at Hesston College, affirmed Fitch’s call for a reset.
“We need to die to the church reality we know,” she said in an email after the event. “Many of our churches were dying before COVID hit. But before the pandemic, we could hide behind new programs and the redoubling of our efforts.”
Now, Hershberger hopes we will trust the Spirit and “die to the falsehood that we can get ourselves out of this mess.”
“Ironically, the more we create programs for people already in the pews, the more dissatisfied and weak we are,” she said. “When we give, we receive. We must reclaim the biblical understanding of the church. It’s you and me, every day. The Spirit longs to help us in this.”
The church has left the building, not as a show to stream but a community to share. Our next task is to step forward as we go back.