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I attended worship in person last Sunday. We were about twenty percent full, I would say. My church is worshiping in person these days, but we are Zooming services as well, and in fact encouraging people to stay home while Covid numbers remain high—come only if you’re able and comfortable with it. Those of us who do show up in the sanctuary are expected to wear masks the whole time. A musician sings on our behalf. We do communion with those infernal little hermetically sealed plastic cups-n-wafers. It’s all so very limited and impoverished compared to… well, remember the good old days?
Still. I go because I’m so glad to be present, with other people, in a room together. My faith these days sometimes feels as thin and dry as that little wafer. So the presence of these familiar, faithful people—even if we can’t chat over coffee after the service—that presence feels like a balm. This whole pandemic disaster has taught me—probably many of us—how very weak we are alone, how much we need each other.
Maybe you read Tish Harrison Warren’s controversial op-ed this week in the New York Times. She argues that it’s time for churches to “drop the virtual option” and get people back to church in person. She makes the case that embodiment is essential to Christianity, and she registers the desire to close and lock the online back door the pandemic has created, the one through which the formerly faithful can quietly escape.
Well, unsurprisingly, the essay set off a Twitter storm. Who is she to tell churches what to do? Doesn’t she read the news about surging Covid numbers? Doesn’t she give one single patoot for people with disabilities, for whom Zoom church has been a huge gift? The pushback is largely valid, in my view (if sometimes intemperate). I agree that Warren made a fatal error by taking a finger-wagging, totalizing, “you should do this” approach in the piece—perhaps she is under pressure to create controversy and thus drive readers to the New York Times. If so, the plan is working.
In any case, Warren is right to wonder about the future of in-person worship. In fact, I wonder about the future of congregations as the standard way of doing church. Unfortunately, though, we are dealing with trends that began long before the pandemic. The pandemic has simply catalyzed and accelerated what was already happening.
Already by 2019, for instance, the number of Americans who claimed to attend church weekly or almost weekly had dropped from 37 percent in 2009 to 31 percent. Religious affiliation is another key measure. In 2007, 16 percent of Americans did not affiliate with any religion. The number has risen steadily until now, 29 percent of Americans identify as “nones.” Some of the “nones” still believe in God, by the way. They’re just opting out of organized religion.
We could all round up the usual ecclesial sins to explain why people disaffiliate: sexual abuse by clergy, toxic nationalism and political division, celebrity culture, sexism, racism, rejection of LGBTQ+ people, just plain boring worship, etc., etc. Or we could blame “society”: people are selfish, they’re obsessed with their own consumer preferences and uncommitted to anything beyond themselves, etc., etc. For any number of these reasons, probably, a lot of people were on their way out anyway, and Zoom church gave that last gentle push out the door. Admittedly, it’s so much easier not to go to church. Jammies, coffee, rest and quiet. We’re all tired.
Even some highly churched, “professional Christians” I know—good and faithful people, lifelong church attenders—have left the difficulties of congregational life and the inevitable disappointments of worship behind, at least for now. Instead, on Sundays, they listen online to a great sermon from a tall steeple church in another city. Or they walk the dogs in the woods. Or they just never got around to finding a church when they moved to a new town, and why bother now? I get it. Some Sundays, that person in jammies is me.
So I don’t judge these folks one bit. I don’t judge my own adult children, either, who believe the right beliefs, but these days, are not attending church. I don’t judge them. But I do long for them. I long that they might experience the beauty of congregational life and weekly worship, a beauty I’ve known all my life, in several different congregations, including my current one, even amid Covid.
Maybe this longing is nothing more than nostalgia for a simpler time, when everyone in the community dressed up in their Sunday best and walked the family to church in polished shoes and life was sunny and simple. Maybe. The truth is that things were never simple. But now we live in a time of immense upheaval in the church. We have megachurch brands and house churches and pop-up churches and online churches and YouTube content creators and spiritual retreat centers with yoga and who knows what else.
So is in-person congregational worship now an endangered species? If so, is it worth saving?
I think so. But we’ll never be able to “should” people back into the church building. And I don’t think we ought to lure people with worship pyrotechnics, either. Instead, we might have to make a clearer case about why church life matters. And also take into account the valid concerns of Warren’s critics, finding ways to include and create embodied community for those for whom in-person worship and congregational activity are hard or impossible. As ever, we have to identify the essence of our best practices and adapt that essence to our new context.
What is that essence? Well, here are a few things I have cherished. I do want to keep inviting people into the “old” ways of doing things, but maybe we can also find new ways, especially more inclusive ones.
The long haul. It’s the long haul that matters to me. One slick, fabulous service does not a church life make. Instead, I lean hard on the faithfulness of others, showing up week after week across decades, across seasons of life. Even when I was the transient one, I depended on more grounded folk to provide a hospitable space of long-haul faithfulness for me.
Community care. One of the most important reasons to attend a church regularly is to become a part of a church family so they can take care of you when you need it—and so you can do the same for others.
Reorientation. Weekly worship recalibrates my imagination. I need this, all the more so in times of crisis. I need to reconnect to the transcendent reality toward which all creation is groaning. I need to remember that God is God. I need to hear God’s promises again and again.
Singing. This is such a weird practice in our culture, but what a precious heritage. For so many of us, singing seals our connection to God, heals our soul-wounds. Good music and substantial, beautiful words together make it much easier for our hearts to hear what the Spirit wants to say.
Quiet. For some Christian traditions, worship is a noisier affair, and that can be great, too. But I relish the moments of quiet listening, silent prayer. Listening together is another countercultural, spiritual practice.
Word and sacrament. Even after all these years, the Bible still speaks to me in new ways, I learn new things about the spiritual life. The sacraments nourish mysteriously and inexplicably—less so out of plastic cups, I’m afraid. Even so, showing up for the word and sacrament is a way to lead with our bodies to put our whole selves in the way of God’s actions.
Yes, embodiment is essential in our faith practices. Yes, Zoom church has been an anemic, stopgap measure and provided a quiet backdoor exit for many. But it’s also been a blessing and opened up a lot of possibilities. I do long for a return to full-on, full-throated, y’all-come, in-person worship. Meanwhile, though, can we use what we’re learning to make new, even better forms of church life?