Why some churchgoers aren’t returning in the age of COVID, and why it matters

·4 min read

The drive-through window at my pharmacy is frequently closed for lack of staff. If you want your medicine, you have to go inside. The pharmacists and techs who remain behind the counter often seem stressed beyond bearing.

I ventured into the store one day to pick up my prescriptions. A worker looked up, saw me standing in line and called out, “Paul, pray for us!” Above her mask, her eyes betrayed exhaustion and near-desperation.

Restaurants and other service businesses are equally short-handed. Hospitals say nurses are leaving their jobs in alarming numbers. More than four in 10 schoolteachers considered retiring or leaving during the 2020-21 school year. The global supply chain is breaking down for want of manufacturing and warehouse employees, among other factors.

This worker shortage even has a name: the Great Resignation.

What has gone less remarked upon—although it has been noticed here and there by the media—are the curious ways in which the pandemic is affecting houses of worship.

While church doors have reopened after lengthy closures, significant numbers of church members may not return. They too are resigning.

If they do return eventually, it’s not clear what form their future participation will take. This ebbing of participation comes on top of a long-term trend toward declining church membership.

The congregation I lead, Bethesda Church, feels like a microcosm of what I’ve heard anecdotally from other ministers and lay people.

I wonder if our church will again experience what we thought was normal before the pandemic. Sometimes, I almost forget what normal used to be.

We largely closed Bethesda to in-person services from March 2020 to March 2021. Instead, we worshiped via Facebook Live, Zoom and YouTube. In March, we went back to the building, but everybody stayed masked and we practiced social distancing.

As more church members got vaccinated, we started holding services mask-free. That blessed freedom lasted about five minutes.

The Delta variant surge hit. Cases of COVID-19 cropped up in our midst. We returned to masking and social distancing.

For now, that’s where we remain. We meet in person, but wear masks, sit several feet apart and don’t hug each other. We continue to offer our Sunday services online for those who haven’t returned physically to the building and for anyone else who’s interested.

The results of all this upheaval have been, by turns, exciting, puzzling and disappointing.

Oddly, while our building was closed for a year, our outreach dramatically multiplied—a development that was counterintuitive. We’re a small congregation, but viewership of our online services shot into the thousands. And, although we barely mentioned money, tithes and offerings shot up as well. Go figure.

But when we reopened the building in March, only about 50 percent of the members came back. Gradually that’s increased to about 75 percent.

A quarter of the folks who regularly attended before the pandemic remain absent. I miss them. They’ve expressed varying reasons for why they’ve stopped attending:

A few got out of the habit. Given a year of sleeping in on Sunday mornings, they’ve found it hard to motivate themselves to get up and moving.

A few learned they prefer watching services on their screens.

For health reasons, a few remain leery of congregating indoors.

A few don’t like wearing masks. This doesn’t seem to be an ideological position so much as a matter of physical comfort.

Meanwhile, the viewership for our remote services has now plummeted by 90 percent. Financial contributions remain quite hearty, though, despite the lower attendance online and in person. I can’t say why this is.

The ongoing health crisis is affecting everything, including churches, but we may not know for several years what all the reverberations will be.

If Bethesda’s experiences so far are any indication of what’s to be learned for houses of worship, I offer these observations:

Most people who were dedicated to a church before the pandemic will remain faithful to it. Overall, U.S. church membership was declining before COVID-19, and it may decline even more. But the faithful tend to stay faithful.

That said, the pandemic has provided alternative ways for people to worship. We now know we can worship successfully online, for instance. It might not be as gratifying as hugging each other in the sanctuary, but it sure beats nothing.

We need to love our fellow parishioners where they are and minister to them there. While we might prefer they congregate within the sanctuary’s four walls, we should employ whatever medium they prefer. Judge not. Anyone. Ever.

Whatever circumstances we face, the Lord is greater than those circumstances. God takes care of his children.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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