It was a haunting statement by a pastor. She was asked how her church had rebounded from the impact of COVID upon live worship attendance.
Like most, she reported that only about 65% of the pre-COVID attenders had returned to in-person worship. As she talked about where the other third of her church had gone, she assumed some were now virtual worshippers and found that format more convenient.
However, she reported on a conversation she recently had with someone who had been a regular attender prior to the pandemic. When the pastor asked about her worship engagement, the member responded simply “Oh, I swim now on Sunday mornings.”
Wow. What a moment. The starkness of that statement and what it reveals about the state of our churches and our constituents continues to haunt me.
For too many, attending worship has become a commodity to be weighed against other opportunities. Granted, many people’s lives are busier and more complex than they ever have been on Sundays. One in three in the American work force work on weekends now. Sundays no longer are the exclusive domain of the church and often are the only day of the week families can spend quality time together.
As we pivoted to providing online opportunities to worship during COVID, many attendees became comfortable enough with technology to be satisfied with their virtual worship and forego in-person worship. Others simply fell out of the habit, didn’t miss it or took up swimming.
Something fundamental has changed for the American church, and worship habits are only part of the visible manifestation of that change. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I have no doubt we will be dealing with a new way of thinking about and doing church for years to come. Between the worship upheaval, the polarization of congregations, the walkaways from ministry, and the ongoing decline of most congregations’ metrics, this is a pivotal moment for the Western church.
“For too many, attending worship has become a commodity to be weighed against other opportunities.”
We now must make a strong case for engaging in authentic community and worship on the basis of something other than habit, guilt or obligation. Those who only attended “when there wasn’t anything better to do” are probably not coming back. Convenience attenders are telling us that swimming on Sundays is more meaningful than attending church.
That’s not simply an indictment of their self-absorption, it is also a revealing indictment of what we have been doing in worship.
Now is the time to ask some hard questions about worship, technology and how we are going to gather as the body of Christ.
Some suggestions to get you started:
- What is genuinely meaningful about our worship?
- What is not meaningful about our worship?
- How do we evaluate what we do in worship?
- How can we utilize technology to create an authentic community for those not physically present?
- Is a hybrid model of worship (both in-person and virtual) here to stay?
- How might we utilize technology to engage those who are not physically able to attend on Sunday mornings?
- What does it mean that more people watch your worship service “on demand” during the week than live on Sunday morning?
- What does meaningful engagement look like for our constituents?
Blessings to you as you navigate this next season of congregational life. It is going to stretch us in ways we have not known before. It also will be a season of listening for understanding, engaging our imaginations, embracing innovative ideas and cultivating creativity.
I hope you will be able to hear the 85% of Americans who are not in a church of any kind on a given Sunday as they swim, eat, shop, work and go about their busy lives. We must find a way to bring the good news to them, if they choose not to come to us.
What will become of Sunday school? | Opinion by Mark Wingfield
They’re not coming back | Opinion by Rob Dyer
What if they don’t all come back to church? | Opinion by Jason Koon