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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.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 

7 Comments

  • Cathleen B Holbrook says:

    Thanks, Jeff. That was beautiful. And thanks to Amanda too.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    And it’s out of our hands. During this time of the unknown going to be born I feel like Zechariah, knowing it’s true, but mute, with nothing to say. But I have this knowledge, that I witnessed an archangel say: “I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of the Lord.” So I too wait in hope for what I can’t yet see.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Hi Jeff,
    You’ve pretty much summed up the lay of the land as I perceive it as well.
    Seeking the “new things” God is up to in our turbulent time. And joining in.
    The Great Sifting. Wheat from chaff. A time of testing so the gold may come out.
    So much we do not know. But, we know whom we have believed and are confident that He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion, as Christ comes, again and again. With deeds of love and mercy, God’s heavenly kingdom comes.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens, the earth, the sea, the dry land. And I will shake, and I will shake . . . .

  • Jd says:

    Thanks very much for this Jeff. There’s a great podcast “Empty Pews” that’s obviously directly related to your empty pews reference. One of the hosts of the podcast is a Calvin grad, now an episcopal priest. Good listen!!
    Peace and Blessed Christmas to all RJ contributors!!

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Thanks so much for this timely piece, Jeff. The James Baldwin quote is as meaningful as anything I’ve encountered for some time, especially when conversations veer toward church attendance and what the future of the church might be.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    I too, Jeff, am mostly sad.
    May they choose their church for a reason that would lead Jesus to scoot over to make room in the pew or for the fold-up chair.
    Thanks!!
    Jack
    (And come by for your book!)

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