The Corona Virus global pandemic has disrupted every aspect of “normal” life for people all over the world. Economic problems have overwhelmed some families as businesses have suffered and jobs have been cut. And of course, the tragic loss of so many people; way too many. I have personally ministered to families who have lost a loved one to COVID and countless other families who have had someone in the hospital, unable to be with them during their suffering. It is all so overwhelming and gut wrenching. Holidays have not been the same, school and work have been challenging, sporting events have been, well…strange. Also added to the “strange” category… attending church. So many people are faced with the dilemma best stated by the 1982 song from The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?” Do we continue to stay home and worship digitally or do we take the chance and actually go to church this week? The majority of churches have done a great job mitigating the spread of infection, but in spite of our best effort there continues to be a risk in attending church.
Let’s face it, there are some people who need to stay home during this pandemic. For the elderly and those with underlying health issues it is too much of a risk to be around people. I would never guilt people in this category to come to church every week, it would be foolish and life-threatening for them to attend. As I write this article infections are climbing in many areas of our nation leading some churches to go completely online. It is a hard decision for church leaders, because we have an obligation to both feed and protect our sheep. As the pandemic continues we all have to make the best decision for ourselves and our family.
The question that most church leaders are asking is, “What will my congregation look like after the pandemic ends?” Most pastors will admit that they are anxious about the current state of their church. Thankfully giving remains strong according to most of the church leaders that I have spoken with, but how will this pandemic effect the local congregation in the future? Church attendance during the pandemic is dramatically down, but how will this translate to future church attendance once the pandemic is over?
Barna research has revealed, in their state of the church report, that 32% of practicing Christians have stopped attending church (both in person and digitally) completely since the pandemic began and another 18% are attending multiple churches digitally each week.“One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19” Article Found at https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/
Think about that; a third of Christians have stopped attending church. Combining those numbers together is even more troubling, especially for pastors. In total 50% of respondents have either stopped attending church or have participated in digital church hopping since March. One pastor told me privately, “I don’t even know who my congregation is anymore.” The study also shows that 50% of Christian millennials have stopped attending church, meaning they have stopped engaging in church activities completely. This is what keeps pastors up at night. It is difficult to assess the current state of a congregation during this time because digital attendance is not easy to measure. On a brighter note, Pew Research Center found that the large majority of people plan to resume pre-pandemic attendance practices after the pandemic is over. When you consider that most churches faced declining attendance pre-COVID, the fact that most Christians plan to eventually resume church attendance brings only some measure of relief. Bottom line, the pandemic will have lasting results on most churches.
Here is my plea to those reading this article: Eventually, when it is safe, you must come back to church. You must. You need the spiritual encouragement that only a Bible-believing, Spirit-filled congregation can provide. I am reminded of the writer of Hebrews strong words in 10:23-25: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Notice how the writer ties together our confession of hope, our love for other believers, and our eschatological expectancy with the assembling with other believers.
While I am thankful for the digital opportunities provided for us during this pandemic, I also recognize its limitations. In other words, we cannot enjoy the full experience and benefit of church membership watching a computer screen. Briefly, let me share with you 4 reasons why you must, eventually, return to in-person worship.
- You were made for Christian community. No Christian is created to live in isolation. We don’t function well in spiritual loneliness. Referring back to the Hebrews text, the writer reminds us that as we meet we “stir up one another to love and good works.” The Barna group states, “What we do know is that churchgoers, even those who have stopped regularly attending worship services during the pandemic, want support from a church community. Practicing Christians across the U.S. are seeking ‘prayer and emotional support’ (68% who have moved churches during COVID-19, 52% who have stayed at their same church) and ‘a Bible-centered message of hope and encouragement.’” Prayer, emotional support and a message of hope; these things cannot be found through standard community assistance programs. Sure, some secular programs can offer emotional support, but often miss the mark on enacting long term assistance. These basic human needs are found most thoroughly and effectively within the context of a local church.
- You have spiritual gifts that are given for the benefit of the church. An important aspect of stirring up one another to love and good works is the proper use of spiritual gifts. Paul reminds us, “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” (1 Corinthians 12:7.) He further explains, “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” 14:12. I recognize that some gifts can be used whether the church is meeting in person or digitally, but when it is safe we must come back together in order to edify one another in person. There is nothing more beautiful than people serving together within the context of a local church, using their gifts for the glory of God and the edification of each other.
- Nothing replenishes a soul like Christian fellowship. The Greek word is koinonia and as a believer, you need it. What is koinonia? It is the highest degree of fellowship as Spirit-filled believers become regular partakers of experiencing life together. In Philippians 1:5 it is referred to as the “fellowship of the gospel”. All true churches are places of authentic existing: people with people, sharing, encouraging, inspiring, laughing, crying and holding one another accountable. (Galatians 6:2). And perhaps this is what the pandemic has robbed us of the most, authentic fellowship (koinonia). While we are thankful for Zoom, livestreams and Facebook we must admit that it isn’t the same. No one can reach through your computer screen to hold your hand when you are grieving and place their arm around you when you need a word of encouragement. There are thousands who have not had a single touch from another believer since all of this craziness began. It might take a thousand gallons of sanitizer, but eventually we must come back together for handshakes, hugs, and old fashioned prayer huddles.
- Spiritual Growth is hindered when disconnected from Christian community. Just as plants thrive in a green house, so do Christians grow spiritually as they meet together on a regular basis. Can we grow spiritually watching church services and attending Bible studies from home? I believe so and I hope you are, but you must admit it just isn’t the same. There is something about being at church, worshipping next to other believers, experiencing the passion of the sermon, and being with people who encourage your spiritual journey. We are better when we are together and spiritual growth is encouraged as we are around other believers. Bonhoeffer reminds us, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” (Life Together, p.20.) “As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” Ephesians 4:16b.
1 in 3 Christians will not return to church after the pandemic is over. This is unacceptable and furthermore, it is unbiblical. You need authentic fellowship that only a community of faith can provide. While COVID-19 is a present danger we should be careful and do what we need to do to protect one another, especially those most vulnerable. If you must, stay home for now, but eventually when it is safe to do so, you must come back to church. Your spiritual vitality depends on it.