I was recently having a conversation with one of my family members about worshiping during a global pandemic. As the conversation kept going, I think he could feel my internal angst bubbling to the top. It’s been a strange time for everyone. Our routines have been utterly upended, and we don’t know what the next week or month will look like.
That uncertainty has affected local churches and their leader in some significant ways. The church I serve has been open for ten weeks, and we have learned a lot over that time. I assumed I knew what would go right and what might go wrong, but I’ll now admit that I’ve been wrong in most of my predictions. Churches have learned (and are learning) that nothing is predictable. Everything and I mean everything, is wacky. So throw out the manuals and guidebooks, we are venturing into uncharted territory.
Here are a few examples of the wacky reality of COVID church.
Our giving is not only good but has actually gone up from last year. Though unemployment is up and stock prices have fluctuated, by the grace of God our folks have continued to send in their tithe. Mind you, this is a church that only had two families do online payments before the pandemic, everyone else sent in checks!
Our formation is more accessible than ever but with lower attendance. We have consistently offered classes and social events on Zoom, thinking that people had more time on their hands. For the most part, a majority of our folks have not attended. We’ve found that after using Zoom all day for work, there is no interest in getting back on the computer for church events. It also doesn’t help that we have to compete with Netflix and Hulu for people’s attention.
Our online viewership has stayed constant though we are offering in-person worship. For a small church, this is amazing. We’ve had up to 50 people come through our doors on a Sunday and yet we’ve been able to keep another 20 or so viewers on Facebook Live.
Unpredictable In-Person Attendance: We have had as many as 50 on a Sunday and as low as 18. You never know on a given Sunday how many will turn up. I think many of us clergy assumed that people would flock back to church to receive the Sacrament and get back into the rhythm of churchgoing. If there was one constant in their life that they’d need during this time we assumed it was church. We offered three services on Sunday instead of two because we assumed the masses would be ready to come back. We never got close to hitting our capacity.
Our volunteer pool has shrunk: Because we are an older congregation many of the folks we rely on aren’t coming to church. We are using the same three or four people to help with worship on Sundays, and our ability to participate in outreach opportunities is severely limited. I’m genuinely concerned that some of our volunteers will experience burnout in the coming months.
Our outdoor service has the largest attendance each week. Who needs air conditioning? Grab a lawn chair and find some shade. I assumed people would come back to church because they missed worshiping in the sanctuary in their favorite pew. I learned years ago that space, especially in a liturgical setting, is very important. Episcopalians typically love the beauty of their worship space with the candles on the altar, the organ playing in the background, and the grand processions up and down the aisle. I’ve learned that’s not totally true. In the backyard of the church, we have a small plastic table as an altar, battery-powered candles, and no music. And yet it’s our most popular service. If we are forced indoors due to rain our attendance shrinks. Our people prefer to worship outside right now.
Some of this is good news, other parts are bad, but almost all of it is strange—it doesn’t make any sense. Many church leaders are experiencing similar oddities in their own context, and they’re having to find ways to adjust to this new reality. As we continue to reckon with the present difficulties it’s hard not to have some lingering questions about the future. The biggest ones are: What will be the lasting impact on our churches post-pandemic? And what if a significant percentage of people never come back?
Now please understand that I’m not talking about those over 65 years old or who have underlying health conditions. I have explicitly told those in my parish who fit into this category that they probably shouldn’t come to church right now. Though we are doing everything possible to keep people safe the risks are just too high for a number of our people.
It’s another group that I’m really worried about. It’s the people who are out and about, going on hikes, and having meals at local restaurants with friends. It’s those people who I see on social media have returned to some semblance of normal life, and yet they haven’t returned to the church.
This is not supposed to make anyone feel guilty, but I just want to point out what I see. I’m not the only pastor who has this worry. I have talked to several clergy who have a similar fear.
A typical church member (pre-pandemic) might’ve come to church once a month or once every six weeks. It is so easy to fade away from church when attendance is that infrequent. For many, the mentality when it comes to church is: “I can take it or leave it.” And if given the choice, with the conditions we are living in, some will simply leave it for good.
Many clergy friends that I’ve talked to believe that every church will lose a handful of members. We just won’t ever see them again. Some may one day end up in another church, but more than likely this time away from church has given them the excuse they needed to finally walk away.
Bigger churches can absorb that loss better than others. A congregation of 80 or 90 active members, like mine, can be greatly affected if we lose even ten or twenty percent of our parishioners. Losing even a small chunk of members could have long-lasting effects on these churches.
Another question that both big and small churches have had to answer is the role of virtual worship and if it’ll become a permanent part of Sunday mornings.
What if online services aren’t the (perfect) answer?
The worry here is not that our members will completely leave the church, but as long as services are streamed online we won’t see a good number of them. Over the past few months, many of us have gotten comfortable watching church in our pajamas while sipping on a cup of coffee. It’s more convenient to stay at home than to make the effort to come to church. Having get kids dressed and ready is another hurdle that you don’t have to climb if you watch from the living room.
But we all know that “watching” is different than “worshiping.” When I watch something, I’m taking things in, but I’m not actually participating. Worshiping forces us to drop to our knees in prayer, it calls us to stand when we hear the Gospel proclaimed, and stretch out our hands to receive the Body of Christ.
The people who have come back to in-person services have told me that watching the service was nice, it’s what was needed during the stay at home order, but it was so hard for them to feel like they were worshiping. They came back to church because where they worshiped and how they worshiped mattered.
So in some ways, "place" does in fact matter. Sitting in the churchyard is very different than watching the service on the back porch. And I believe worshiping with other people is an important factor too. Though we are spread out and masked-up we are still participating in corporate worship together. We cannot minimize the importance of place, space, and fellowship with other people, even amid a pandemic.
And so, for many churches, or at least my church, I know we’re going to come out of this pandemic smaller than before. A pastor friend of mine said that his church has gone down by 35 percent and yet they’ve never been stronger. More people are involved than ever before, and some have taken on new leadership roles.
We may come out smaller, but we may end up being stronger than before. I will fight tooth and nail to get every person back, but there are only so many phone calls, texts, and letters that I can do. People know that we are open, they know that we care about them, but at some point, the ball is in their court.
We may not see some folks for another few months, maybe a year, maybe never again, but I’m grateful for those who have stayed. I’m grateful for our older members who have learned to use Facebook and YouTube to connect with the church virtually, yet they long to return once there is a vaccine. I’m grateful for our members who have come back to worship with us in-person so that we can share in the sacramental life of the church.
We may not know what the future holds, but we can be confident that no matter what, the church will be around. And that may be just enough for us to keep us going.