Today, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns seems, at least to most of us, like an extended nightmare of yesterday. However, some of the ways that our lives changed have stuck with us. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans working primarily from home has tripled since 2019. Many people will never go back to full-time commuting, nor do they want to (though there are signs of a reset on the horizon).
Another change, one even more consequential for individuals and our society, is the large-scale exodus from in-person church services. According to Pew Research, though nearly all houses of worship had resumed regular, in-person services by this time last year, disappointingly few Christians had actually returned. There's the church, there's the steeple, open the door ... but where are the people?
Researchers from the Survey Center on American Life and the University of Chicago found that, last year, one-third of Americans admitted to never attending religious services, up from a quarter of Americans before the pandemic. They also found no lockdown-induced surge in atheism nor drop in religious affiliation. Instead, for the most part, "religious identity remained stable through the pandemic."
Apparently, large numbers of people who once identified as Christians have decided they no longer need to attend church. While COVID-19 may have been the impetus behind this exodus, the root causes are preexisting and go much deeper. Too many Christians think of church as they would an event, concert or TED Talk, optional experiences that can just as easily be consumed remotely.
When combined with pastors and leaders who view the core purpose of church as evangelism rather than discipleship or worship and are therefore willing to do whatever seems to "work," success is just as easily measured by logins and views after the pandemic as it was by attendance numbers and growth size before the pandemic.
Much is behind these shifting numbers. First and foremost, God continues to prune and winnow his Church, seeking the health of his beloved. The broader cultural shift away from truth claims and anything that smacks of traditional morality has only intensified in recent years. And we should at least consider the possibility that the decline in both numbers and influence is, at least in part, a self-inflicted wound.
Like C.S. Lewis' famous image of making mudpies in the slum when offered a trip to the seashore, we've baptized (and watered down) the habits of the world in place of the riches provided in the testimony of Scripture and the God-ordained practices of the Church. Why would our neighbors be drawn to warmed-over versions of the world's leftovers?
To use a pair of homespun metaphors, the kind of bait used determines the kind of fish caught. Or, more prosaically, what you win people with is what you win them to. After decades of appealing first and foremost to whatever people want and editing to whatever they think, we've essentially discipled a generation that will only follow a Church that leads where they want to go.
In every age, a true and real Christianity finds much to critique as well as to affirm. If we aren't willing to challenge the sacred cows of our day, if we aren't up to preaching what Tom Holland called the "weird stuff" of our faith, we will find (and perhaps even now we are finding) that no one is interested in what we have to say because we aren't saying much worth hearing.
Our embodied and relational nature, which required an embodied and relational salvation, is one of those things. Thus, the author of Hebrews warns his readers not to forsake gathering together "as is the habit of some." And thus, when the Apostle Paul sought to explain the relationship between Christ and his Church, he invoked marriage. The love between a husband and wife symbolizes the love Jesus has for his Bride. The profound "mystery" to which Paul refers is the total union (body and soul) between the Savior and his saved people.
Our lives in Christ are just as physical as marriage. If you wouldn't try a purely virtual relationship with your spouse, you shouldn't try a virtual relationship with Christ or his people. Both require and deeply involve our bodies, and Christ could not have made this any clearer than he did by placing a family meal at the center of Christian worship, commanding us to "take and eat."
Unless limited by a health issue, attending a house church or using creative sanctuary furnishings, Christians should always choose pews over couches. And churches should choose the truth claims and practices of Holy Scripture over market-driven research.
From BreakPoint, Feb. 16, 2023; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.