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Eugene Peterson once wrote to his congregation, “It makes little difference to me whether there are few or many in this place. . . . Increasing the number of people under one roof has never been a conspicuously successful way of involving people in what is essential.”
Peterson had a deeper, more spiritual sense of what matters than I do. Even though I know he’s right, church attendance has always felt significant to me. If attendance is not exactly the thermometer to measure success with it’s at least a barometer. I don’t mean mega-attendance. I simply mean filling the space you are in. If the sanctuary seats 200 and you’re drawing 50, it feels off. I’m shallow that way.
The pandemic has created a seismic shift in church attendance. The rise of the religious “nones” has been sped up, but that’s not all that’s happening. Pastor after pastor whom I’ve spoken to recently has affirmed that attendance is down, and they aren’t sure where (or even if) their people have gone. This is complicated because many churches continue to offer hybrid worship options. The sanctuary may be half-full, but the tech person says there were 60 computers tuning in, so the pastor does some quick math and figures that at least 100 more people were “in church” than actually were in church. Nobody is particularly happy about this, but with the Omicron variant now on the heels of the Delta variant (and some future Gamma or Upsilon variant yet to mutate), there is no end in sight.
All of this would be bad enough if the pandemic existed in a vacuum without political overtones, but we all recognize our pandemic responses are politically charged. I don’t know any pastors that want their churches to be partisan, but churches taking cautious (one might even say “conservative”) public health measures have led congregants to conclude their church leaders are on the left. I am sad to say people are deciding which congregation to align with based on COVID protocols, yet I also know I’m as guilty of this as anyone—I would not join a church that pretends there is no pandemic happening. I want to worship with the vaccinated. I want to see a hand sanitizer dispenser in the entrance to the worship space. I’m even willing to struggle with those awkward communion packets with the cellophane-wrapped stale wafers and grape juice shots destined to spill on anyone without steel nerves and the steady hands of a brain surgeon.
Many whose church affiliation was tenuous before the pandemic have found they can go on fine without coming back. Some faithful attenders have found online worship to be extraordinarily convenient. Getting a houseful of children in their pajamas in front of a living room computer is far easier than getting them fed, dressed, and out the door on Sunday morning. Others have left their churches for political reasons. Others sit at home and go online to hear notable preachers not in their zip code. And here’s a new development no one anticipated—people are now church shopping by watching services online before showing up in person.
Call this the great realignment, because we are sorting on a large scale. Individuals are leaving churches and, at least in the RCA, churches are leaving the denomination. (I’ve heard enough from CRC pastors to safely say “Watch the RCA, the same thing is coming soon to you.)
It mostly feels sad to me, yet in the midst of this, I’m not sure all we need to do is lament. We will never go back to those carefree days before March, 2020. Yet is it possible something new is being born? That’s a thought worth meditating on this Advent. My daughter shared these words recently from James Baldwin. They were written fifty years ago but sound like they could have been written today: “An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are destined to discover we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, as long as we accept our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessarily evolving skill.”
How many of us are ready to accept—even though we will be exceedingly clumsy midwives—that our responsibility is to the newborn, instead of clinging to a past that is never coming back?
I don’t know what’s being born. I guarantee the journey to our new reality will continue to be bumpy. As we contemplate what’s being born, I think of Emily Dickinson saying that “consider the lilies” was the only commandment she ever obeyed. We do well to consider the lilies that neither spin nor toil and yet are arrayed in glory that exceeds that of Solomon. And consider also the birds of the air that neither sow nor reap nor store away in barns, yet are fed. Jesus said we’re going to be alright.
It’s okay if you have more social distance than previous years at church this Christmas. Remember the attendance indifference of Eugene Peterson. And take heart that something new is being born.