In March 2020, my congregation had just begun to stabilize from the loss of about one-third of the congregation and staff after we voted to welcome LGBTQ believers into full membership. It had been a long, difficult and meaningful season of discernment, loss, transition, discovery and joy.
I had just returned from a vacation abroad (something hard to fathom now) when I heard the words “coronavirus” and “pandemic” used together for the first time. That first Sunday of the month we mentioned to the congregation that we would keep them up to date on any changes to our weekly routine as a community. The next week, we had an entirely online worship experience, and it would be 15 Sundays before we came home to our building.
Just when we thought we knew who was still with us and what the makeup of our congregation would be moving into the future, this great challenge came along and seemingly frustrated our progress toward a sense of normalcy.
For the fall of 2020, we had plans to re-open the building again for in-person services alongside our livestreaming and other online worship opportunities. We thought long and hard about how and why we would welcome people back into the building to worship and have constantly reevaluated our COVID response as we attempt to keep up with the changing landscape of the pandemic and best practices for our community.
We now have returned to the question that we already were dealing with before the pandemic started, the same question that many churches and ministers are asking right now: Who is coming back to church?
There is a cacophony of voices doing their best to answer this question and to speak into the confusion of mid/post-pandemic church life. Research groups like Church Answers and Pew have helped us make sense of the serious realities faced by American congregations around worship mentors and outlook for attendance. In several articles and in webinars the Rainers have suggested that we should prepare to lose 20% to 30% of our congregations. Pastors and opinion writers have offered many possible reasons for why people have stopped worshiping online, stopped worshiping in person or stopped participating in church life altogether.
Many good and thoughtful answers have been offered: Church is one activity too many for busy families; the church isn’t speaking to relevant issues or isn’t answering the questions people are asking; or perhaps many of the people we thought were engaged were not actually that connected; maybe our programs were not engaging or exciting enough; maybe the culture finally has given up on organized religious institutions.
Into the well-intentioned noise I would offer another possibility: code-switching.
Originally a sociolinguistics term coined by Einar Haugen in the 1950s to describe the practice of moving between multiple languages during interactions, the term now is used to describe how people of color accommodate the expectations of majority culture as a means of being allowed to operate in white spaces. The Harvard Business Review defined the term saying: “Broadly, code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service and employment opportunities.” This is a behavior they suggest leads to a lack of authentic relationships and contributes to burnout.
“Many of our congregants have been coming to church for years and have been code-switching to be the kind of people the church wants them to be.”
I believe that for many in the American church, code-switching has become part of the religious experience. Be it out of a desire to fit in, or a fear of being vulnerable. Maybe we, speaking as a pastor, have led people to believe that there is one acceptable way to behave (usually like the pastor).
Many of our congregants have been coming to church for years and have been code-switching to be the kind of people the church wants them to be, or the kind of people they think the church wants them to be. Then the pandemic hit, and they were able to drop the facade, and they found themselves liberated. They discovered that many of the relationships they had at church were superficial (because they didn’t really know each other) and that their church was the source of their burnout, not the cure.
How exhausting it had been to go to church and pretend to be a different person, trying to live up to real or imagined expectations. We all know the jokes about the family that fights all the way to church and then snaps into being a “perfect Christian family” the moment the doors of the minivan slide open. What about the anxiety of running into someone from church at the grocery store or at a restaurant and having to snap into church mode; heaven forbid you run into someone from church while you’re out with your friends at a sporting event or at a bar. That is way too much pressure.
And suddenly they were free, they didn’t have to fight with the kids to get up, they didn’t have to worry about what that one deacon might think of their outfit or worry that someone might have something to say about what they posted on social media that past week. Who would want to go back to that?
Here, then, are five possible solutions for churches to eliminate the need for code-switching.
First, cut out the insider language. Make church life easier to navigate. Drop the fancy names and branding and call things what they are. Cut out the unnecessary flowery religious language where possible to help people feel like they are in a space meant for them to understand and belong in.
“We need to train our lay leaders and pastors not to be scandalized when people are open, honest or confessional with us.”
Second, celebrate authenticity. Train people to cut out the Christian double-speak, no more insincere “I will pray for you” or “bless your heart.” We need to train our lay leaders and pastors not to be scandalized when people are open, honest or confessional with us.
Third, emphasize belonging over behaving. Jesus always led with hospitality. The command to “sin no more” came after the authentic encounter that credentialed such a bold demand. We should act the same in our congregations. We must lead with hospitality, love and belonging.
Fourth, reprioritize spiritual development and discipleship. With our worship having been forced online and participation limited, many of us have unintentionally shifted to a spectator model where the congregation watches the service more than they participate in it. We must do the work of redeveloping and reprioritizing our spiritual development and discipleship programing — in part to make up for lost time but also to help people take responsibility for their spiritual development and community participation.
Fifth, develop a broader or more global church perspective. We often can feel overwhelmed when trying to consider the amount of suffering and injustice in the world. In response it is easy to become myopic. We need to help our people connect with the reality of all the tragedy in the world, but in such a way as to breed connectivity, compassion and curiosity about the global church and the kingdom work being done worldwide. Make personal connections with missionaries in the field, pray for the persecuted church, get involved with justice issues and the marginalized. Developing a broader perspective on the work of the kingdom can shift our perspective from being concerned with us and “our” church (with the imperfections and difficulties found there) to a greater sense of calling and purpose.
Jeremy Hall serves as associate pastor for faith development at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga. He is a doctor of ministry Candidate at McAfee School of Theology and co-host of the Kingdom Ethics podcast with David Gushee.
Why we gather for in-person worship | Opinion by Jim Conrad
They’re not coming back | Opinion by Rob Dyer