COVID and Traditional Churches

There is much fear and worry in ecclesiastical circles about the lasting impacts of COVID and virtualized worship on the future of congregational ministry. This article references a prediction by leading church demographic and data purveyor Barna Group, that 20% of congregations will close. One in five congregations are at risk to close in the next 18 months, partly due to the effects of COVID.

The hand-wringing is not entirely unwarranted, but in my opinion what we’re talking about in all of this is an acceleration of a pre-existing, pre-COVID trajectory. I remember a prediction by a denominational leader years ago that just in our part of the world (US Southwest) there would be a decline of up to 50% in the number of congregations in our particular district by 2050. It might once have seemed like a far-fetched prediction, but between COVID and skyrocketing cost of living particularly in California, it hardly seems unlikely.

Christianity in America will not die. Not all individual congregations will die. There will continue to be a minority of mega-churches with thousands of active members. There will continue to be far more smaller congregations with less than 200 members. But a great number of very small congregations will close. They were going to close anyways, barring a miracle, but they’ll close sooner because of COVID. You don’t need to be a Barna researcher to puzzle that conclusion out.

Because of COVID and declining giving rates. Because of COVID and the final realization of many traditional church members of what has been the case for a while now – they don’t perceive a need for a church building and the scant programs most small congregations can barely afford. The greying of traditional mainline denominations has been noted for decades, but as long as those aging members were coming (and tithing), many doors could and would stay open. But with many older Americans frightened to go out of their homes let alone assemble at church in a group for worship, and with those fears likely to linger on quite a while after the Coronavirus is no longer a pandemic those traditional denominational congregations are going to start shutting down.

This is further accentuated by the realization of many Christians that they can tune in to live-streamed services from literally anywhere in the world. I have members who, in addition to listening or reading my weekly sermons, tune in to a German-language service from Germany. Others tune in to live-streamed services from larger congregations with a technology staff and the equipment to do live-stream well, to say nothing of a bevy of musicians and choirs and vocalists to further enhance the experience. Members of smaller congregations may find these more robust services more enjoyable and beautiful, and if their ties to their in-person churches have weakened (or were already tenuous pre-COVID), this extended time of suspended services might finally sever the habit of gathering weekly in person for a small and perhaps not-overly inspiring service, whether because of music or preaching!

Not all of this is bad, it simply is. Hard and difficult to be sure, but not necessarily terrible. It means we are in the midst of a shift in what Christian worship life looks like, a shift somewhat unprecedented since early in the Church’s history. The shift from being an underground or outlawed religion to being a state religion was massive but in what was presumed to be a positive way. The shift away from congregations prioritizing a large communal worship space will be a challenging and unpleasant one for many because we assume any decrease in size to be negative, a sign of failure. We see no strategic advantage in closing a congregation, even though we’re used to businesses making such decisions all the time. This double-standard is confusing at best.

Making a strategic decision to rework ministry is not a bad thing. It’s Biblical (Matthew 10:16). But the vast majority of the congregations referred to in Barna’s prediction will not close strategically. They’ll close because they can’t keep doing what they’ve always done any longer. They will close feeling as though they’ve somehow failed, or God has somehow failed them. And that’s both sad and wrong.

Christian communities need to rethink not only what they need in terms of space but what the relationship of those spaces are to the community around them. The national trend towards decreasing Christian worship levels is not going to change any time soon. Which will leave more and more congregations with more and more space to take care of – space they either aren’t using themselves or are leasing out to others to use and to pay the bills no longer payable by member giving alone. All of which ultimately leads discussions of buildings and property and leases to eclipse discussions of mission and ministry. Again, it isn’t that this isn’t already happening on a wide scale, but COVID is going to accelerate it dramatically.

Not all of these changes will be for the good. Assuming digital church is somehow adequate or even good is dangerous and misguided even if it’s convenient and popular. Worship together, anchored in the ancient command of the Sabbath, is inherently a call on us away from our lives and schedules. It inherently places everything else in our lives in a subordinate role, at least nominally. Anything that upends this more than it already has been upended is ultimately not faithful or obedient, even if people like it. I’ve argued for a long time that Christian communities need to rethink their definition and expectation of the Sabbath, and that it might even be worth considering worship on a separate day of the week so the Sabbath can truly return to the day of rest and a direct consideration of the providence of God more fully.

At the root of all this is not COVID, but rather a continuing realization that many churches are unable to make the Christian faith relevant to life as a whole. They are unable to foster a Christian world-view, and instead settle on a much narrower view of the faith centered on participation in worship and weekly programming. In a world brought closer together by technology and with directly adversarial attitudes throughout educational systems, young Christians need to see how faith connects all of their life together, rather than just being something they do on Sunday mornings. If our culture was ever somewhat homogenous, it certainly isn’t now and believers of all ages need to be equipped to understand this and see how their faith in the resurrected Son of God is more than sufficient not simply to cope with the world around them but to make sense of it as well.

Yes, churches are going to close. This is sad at one level but perhaps necessary at some level. As those churches close, I pray the congregations that remain are able and willing to reconsider some aspects of what it means to be the Church in the 21st century. Not that we abandon doctrine or worship or anything like that! But perhaps the way we physically conceive the Church to be needs to be revised, and perhaps this is a good thing that can challenge the cultural perception of the Church as antiquated in everything from their carpeting to their doctrine. The Gospel always remains the Gospel and the center of Christian life and practice. We just need to be willing to trust that as we make adjustments on the periphery.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s