In March 2020, churches around the globe closed their physical doors. For months, many held services online, and church members bemoaned the loss of spiritual fellowship and social community. But as churches returned to in-person services, pews were oddly empty. Will church ever be the same? More importantly, should it be?
For the past decade, U.S. churches have witnessed an epic attendance slide. Gallup surveys reveal sobering facts about the decline of so-called “religiosity” or religious involvement in America. In 1999, 70% of respondents claimed to be church attenders. In 2018, that figure plummeted to 50%.
Then the pandemic hit.
According to researchers, the number of Americans who identified as churchgoers fell to a dismal 47% last year—below the halfway mark for the first time. As data poured in, pandemic-baffled Christians began asking questions about what exactly church should be and why they went at all.
Hardest hit during the crisis were small churches with older congregations. These assemblies struggled to adapt to virtual meetings and services.
In Maine, lockdowns withered the 164-year-old Waldoboro United Methodist Church. Even before COVID-19, weekly attendance had dipped to just 25-30 worshipers. That number dwindled to five or six before the final service this summer, says Reverend Gregory Foster.
The remaining congregants couldn’t maintain the building and decided to close. “We can’t entirely blame everything on COVID,” Foster says. “That was just the final blow.”
Lifeway Research, an evangelical research firm, says many churches lost steam when in-person services shut down. Additionally, a small but concerning number of churchgoers emerged from the pandemic without a church home at all, says Scott McConnell, Lifeway’s executive director.
“That’s a lot of momentum to lose and a lot of people stepping out of the habit” of weekly worship, he says.
Collin Hansen would agree. He is an elder at Redeemer Community Church in Alabama. He told Christianity Today, “We have to retrain people from the beginning on why you should bother to assemble.”
The Barna Group studies religious beliefs and behaviors of Americans. Last year, the group conducted a survey in the height of online services.
According to Barna, a “practicing Christian” does three things: 1) identifies as Christian, 2) makes faith a priority, and 3) attends church regularly. In 2000, polls identified 45% of Americans as practicing Christians. But in the last two decades, that percentage has dropped to 25%.
David Kinnaman is president of Barna. He points out that “committed churchgoers are now about half as common as they were two decades ago.” He adds, “This shift has major repercussions for church leaders”—namely, attracting and keeping active churchgoers.
Changing Hearts and Minds
Lockdown orders changed where and how Christians gathered. So it’s easy to blame COVID-19 for the weakening church “habit.”
The truth is that some folks have simply gotten a taste for the ease of online worship. Others may never have been believers, as in the parable of the soils, where the seed that fell on rocky ground “fell away” under hardship. (Mark 4:1-20)
Tragically, the attendance slide may also reflect a belief slide. For some folks, the pandemic seems to have changed their hearts and minds toward church. But thankfully, God can transform hearts and minds. It’s interesting to note that the Philippians 4:6-7 injunction to put away anxiety—about everything, including viruses and world events—is followed by the command to pray and be thankful. In so doing, God’s peace becomes the guardian of believers’ hearts and minds.
Teaching, admonishment, mutual encouragement, thankfulness, prayer, praise, worship—these are reasons Christians gather. Some say all such activities can happen virtually. Still more believe in-person is best. After all, the Bible says: “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.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
The future of God’s church is secure—not because of tradition or programs or even preachers, but because Jesus promises that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
However, that doesn’t mean Satan isn’t attempting to sift believers “like wheat.” (Luke 22:31-32) Pray like Jesus for unfailing faith—and for Christians who, having turned again, strengthen other Christians.