Early on in the COVID crisis, I had a long conversation with a close pastor friend about changes in American church life occurring before our eyes. We talked about what I call “the changing sociology of Sunday,” a demographic-cultural reality that began well before the pandemic as evidenced by overall declines in church attendance and intermittent attendance by “active” church members as well.
We acknowledged that Sunday has lost much of its church-privileged status as it has come to bear an increasing array of options and demands on families, churchly and non-churchly, the result of varied entertainment possibilities and/or non-negotiable individual or family responsibilities.
Then we turned our discussion to the realities fostered by COVID and the action of many congregations in streaming services online. My pastor friend offered this anecdote: A few weeks after the worship streaming in their church, a church leader contacted him to say, “Pastor, I just love sitting at our kitchen table on Sunday morning, listening to your sermons. It is a real blessing.”
Assessing that remark, the pastor told me, “Reverend, he ain’t ever coming back.” He didn’t mean that the good church member had completely checked out; he’d simply discovered a new Sunday church option.
“Reverend, he ain’t ever coming back.” I’ve referenced that with other clergy and laity who’ve recounted similar experiences with their church members, trends that began well before COVID, but which were exacerbated by the pandemic. Many churches are already developing strategies for facing these challenges, but others seem uncertain as to how best to respond to the multiple realities that are re-forming church life in the U.S.
Then there is Christian education. Declines in Sunday school attendance, from permanent absence to less-consistent attendance, have contributed to a significant decrease in basic biblical knowledge and the absence of small group-communal-church experiences for at least a generation or two of Americans. Those changes were evident to me years ago when teaching Religion 101 with undergraduates and Introduction to Church History with divinity school students. In both sets of classes, I’d sometimes receive emails saying: “You make biblical references you think we know but some of us didn’t grow up in church and we aren’t clear about the point you are making.” Sunday school taught at least what the Bible said, if not what it meant.
In what some would call the almost-post-COVID era, congregations are urging members to “come home” to restored church programs, again with mixed results. A March 22 Pew Research Center survey illustrates the point.
In surveys conducted throughout the pandemic, Pew found that in early COVID days of July 2020, some 13% of Americans claimed to have participated in worship services in a given month. By March 2021, the figure was 17%, then 26% by September 2021 and 27% by March 2022. During that same chronological period, persons engaging in online streaming services changed from 36% in July 2020, to 28% in September 2021, and to 30% in March 2022. In 2022, two-thirds of those who claimed at least monthly church attendance said they were present in March (67%), largely the same percentage as September 2021 (64%). African American church folks indicate twice that of other communions in staying with online church viewing, at 35%.
Pew reported that of the groups that participated in worship for one month (February 2022), 14% attended online and in person; 13% attended in person; 16% participated only online; and 57% attended not at all.
In perhaps the most telling statistic, Pew reported that of the groups that participated in worship for one month (February 2022), 14% attended online and in person; 13% attended in person; 16% participated only online; and 57% attended not at all.
In a March 22 Christianity Today essay on that data, Kate Shellnutt reports, “While people steadily returned to church services in the first half of 2021, the trend hit a plateau. Going into the third year since COVID-19 (2022), congregations and their leaders are left with the reality that the people who worshiped alongside them before may not be coming back.”
Given those current realities in church life, we American Christians would do well to gird up our theological and spiritual loins and give energy and attention to these abiding realities in congregational and denominational life. Last summer, in a virtual workshop at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship annual gathering, I tried to offer a set of questions that churches might consider in confronting their present and hoping for a future. I provide them here as mere illustrations that might provoke others to better possibilities.
Together, we might ask:
Congregational identity: Who are we as the body of Christ?
- As a faith community that claims a specific (i.e., Baptist or other) tradition.
- In a specific community with particular needs.
- With a particular demographic profile.
- With certain resources for ministry, or lack thereof.
- With a collective sense of gospel spirituality.
- With an energizing/manageable mission statement.
Gospel identity: How do we tell the Jesus story?
- Ask: “Are we teaching/preaching that story effectively?
- Ask: “What aspects of that story are most important to our church?”
- Ask: “How do we invite persons into the Jesus story?
- Ask: How do we reflect the Jesus story in our congregational life?
Ministry: What is our calling in Christ to our community and beyond?
- What is our current ministry intent and action?
- What are ministry changes that need to be made/adjusted/discarded?
- Are we flexible enough to adapt ministries to rapid change or drop them when necessary?
Christian education: What is our method of gospel instruction for Christians old and new?
- Do members know gospel basics? (Do not take that for granted!)
- What traditional/non-traditional educational methods work for us?
- Is Sunday school working effectively or does it require reformation?
- Are our ministers effective “teaching pastors”?
- Might we develop new classroom/internet/Zoom/small group curriculum?
- How do we link Bible teaching to Bible hermeneutics (interpretation)?
How do we nurture religious experience (especially in a “believers’ church”)?
- How does one “become a Christian?”
- How do we distinguish justification (entering into faith) and sanctification (going on in grace) in 21st century terms?
- Are we clear on our theology of baptism and the Lord’s Supper?
- How does our church nurture spirituality in a spiritually hungry culture?
Discouraged with all this re-formation? Just remember Paul and Barnabas in Acts 16 when the earthquake opened the prison and the jailer thought they’d all escaped: “But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all still here.’” That’s the gospel, 2022, too.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.