Back in March, Iowa pastor Andrew Schmidt could tell from the energy in the sanctuary that it would be Celebrate Church’s most-attended weekend since the pandemic began.
Schmidt welcomed new members, baptized babies, and teared up as he extended his arms to pray blessings over the congregation from the stage. Even with the church split between mask-required and mask-optional services, he said seeing 390 people in the building felt “almost normal.”
It was exciting—and a wake-up call.
“Wait a minute, we didn’t want to just go back to the same things,” he later told fellow leaders at Celebrate, the biggest church in the 7,000-person city of Knoxville. “What is different for us, opportunity-wise?”
With COVID-19 vaccines making way for looser recommendations around distancing and masking, many congregations in the US have been able to get back to normal operations again. But some are not rushing to return to how things were, opting instead to rethink how and why they gather.
Across the country, pastors like Schmidt have ushered weary congregants through virtual worship setups, lonely hospital stays, funerals, job losses, intense political tensions, and relentless debates over pandemic precautions. Churchgoers making their way back through the sanctuary doors in 2021 will carry the weight of trauma and divides built up over more than a year spent apart—if they decide to return to the building at all.
During the first months of the year, fewer than half of regular churchgoers in the US made it to an in-person service, according to the Pew Research Center, though more than three-quarters said their churches had reopened.
Attendance has continued to rise, but some who once filled the rows of gray upholstered chairs in Celebrate Church’s auditorium, and sanctuaries across the country, have gotten used to the convenience of online worship—or have checked out altogether.
“We have to retrain people from the beginning on why you should bother to assemble,” said Collin Hansen, an elder at Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham and coauthor of the upcoming book Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential. “I think pastors take that for granted and are going to be surprised how many people never had that vision to begin with and never come back when the all-clear is given.”
The immediate challenge is to get people to see the church as a community requiring their involvement rather than as content to consume on their own—a problem that was widespread even before COVID-19 struck.
“The sense of deep-rooted connectedness that most Americans have to a local church is becoming more and more transactional, less and less frequent,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group.
The past year and a half, he said, didn’t just change how Christians met; it changed their hearts and minds toward the church. Barna found that a third of practicing Christians had dropped out of church at some point and 29 percent of senior pastors said they “seriously considered” quitting in the past year.
“Church leaders are going to revert to doing things the ways they’ve always known them, whereas the population in general and millennials are going to find that this disruption altered their habits and perspectives on the role and relevance of the church,” he said. “The gap between the church and society is only going to be larger as we rebuild the church in a postpandemic world.”
During nearly every crisis in US history, through wars and disasters, at least church communities could be together. In 2020, Christians faced the threat of the coronavirus, as well as the country’s compounding political and racial tensions, away from the people and spiritual practices they typically relied on.
We can no longer take worshippers’ attendance for granted. The consumer church is at a terrible disadvantage trying to just keep their attendance. Relationships or the lack thereof will determine the fate of many a congregation.