The time has come. The time is now. Just go. Go. GO! I don’t care how. You can go by foot. You can go by cow. Marvin K. Mooney, will you please go now? — Dr. Seuss
When the covid lockdown happened, we were shocked to find ourselves stuck in our houses. But honestly, we’ve been moving toward a more homebound existence for years now, decades really. The Sears Roebuck catalog was the precursor for online shopping. Radio and television, bringing entertainment into living rooms, set a precedent for our plethora of streaming services.
Humans are drawn to access and ease, and few things provide those more readily than the internet.
Though we were headed that way, COVID certainly fast-forwarded the reality of an online world. Starting in March of 2020, we were forced to do everything from home: school, work, book club, shopping, family holidays, and, of course, church.
We hated lockdown and prayed for the day we could “go back to normal.” But at the same time, we got used to the ease and access of an online option — for some things.
Unsurprisingly, kid sports teams are running at full capacity. It is difficult to pass a basketball to a teammate via a computer screen.
School seats quickly filled up, as online education proved ineffective for most children.
Online shopping revenue continues to grow overall, though items like groceries and clothes seem to be falling back to projected pre-pandemic levels. But other things are slow to bounce back. Many office buildings remain empty or partially filled as employees choose to keep working remotely. Movie theaters are still far behind their pre-pandemic revenue amounts. Restaurants struggle to balance online ordering versus in-person dining.
Sadly, the numbers are not so good for churches either. A Pew Research study from March 2022 found church attendance recovery has plateaued since the fall of 2021. Church attendance is still lower than pre-COVID and doesn’t seem to be rising.
There aren’t easy, tidy answers for why some people haven’t come back after a two-year break. No doubt some folks simply found they didn’t miss church, either socially or spiritually. Whatever inertia had them going pre-2020 was lost, and they have floated in a different direction.
However, I believe that most of those still sleeping in on Sundays have forgotten that the church, unlike much of modern life, cannot function online.
Church isn’t unlike a sports team in that regard. The coach may post online tutorials, or the players may gather in chat rooms to strategize and socialize. But the team is not a team unless it meets on a court or a field and passes balls around. The idea of an online team is absurd.
Online church is absurd, as well. Yes, the church service can be live-streamed. Yes, people can Zoom into a Bible study. But the bride of Christ is not embodied in cyberspace. She exists in flesh and blood. There is no online version of being the church that feeds the hungry, clothes the sick and passes out cups of cold water in Jesus’ name.
Without people in the pews, churches will have to close their doors and turn off the lights. That is not good news for those who come to the clothes pantries, AA meetings, music lessons, free meals, homeless shelters, safe havens for abused women and their children, child-care centers, medical clinics or sacred spaces for solace and worship.
Absent members mistakenly assume, perhaps unconsciously, that like a -grocery store, it doesn’t matter whether people actually go inside the building or not. It does.
Koinonia, a Greek word meaning Christian fellowship and communion, has no true online equivalent. Again, imagine a sports team asking its members to bond over the internet. How much more unrealistic for the church, which believes in remembering its Savior through the communal breaking of the bread? (Remember drive-through communion?)
For an entire year, most of the Christian church went online. I’m not here to judge the hard decisions leaders had to make, but I think now is the time to remind those who haven’t returned that online isn’t the best option. Church is happening at church. The doors are open. We miss you. It is time to come back.