The era of the church has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic when many churches across the Western world were closed. People began checking out Internet channels to find the content they needed. Small groups turned to phone calls or impromptu meetings. Deprived of church or small group meetings, those with spiritual questions googled their way to spiritual answers (good or bad answers).
All of which means…the church has moved.
COVID-19 forced regular church attendees across the country to spend time apart. Now, as churches reopen, faith leaders worry that congregants got used to not prepping for church on Sunday as they reallocated their church time to other activities.
Is this going to be a tipping point where people who were marginally engaged choose to disengage? The answer is most likely yes, a significant number of people may not return, according to several Christian leaders.
If this exodus proves true, houses of worship will invariably suffer. Many churches already face budget shortages and program cancellations due to decreasing attendance. Many pastors were struggling with how to appeal to non-churchgoers before the pandemic hit.
For many, especially younger generations, the sense of obligation to routinely attend church is certainly not as compelling today than it was for the Boomer generation and those before them.
Beyond shrinking congregations, pandemic-linked defections could fuel a broader decline in faith-based practices. People who stop attending church find it more challenging to adopt spiritual practices at home according to some researchers. Community fosters feelings of belonging and accountability, whereas left alone our human tendency is to not put forth the disciplined effort required to get up and go to church.
So what is the solution to the decline of church attendance? Reopening churches will pose a greater challenge than closing them.
Religious leaders will need to portray a message that is both relevant and welcoming in the future to attract those who were exposed to issues surfaced during the pandemic such as death, suicide, business closings and loss of freedoms. Even some previously untouchable topics like homosexuality, abortion, politics and the afterlife may need to be discussed in order to attract an audience that has been constantly exposed to these issues in the media, if not their own lives.
Amid an ongoing pandemic, pastors risk seeming insensitive if they comment on the financial challenges imposed on churches due to shutdowns and decreases in attendance.
Fears resulting from a virus that killed thousands and infected millions increased peoples’ need for pastoring, and many churches, especially megachurches, were not equipped to provide broad-based pastoral care for their congregants. Instead of repurposing their limited staffs to personally reach out to people, many turned to social media to reach their audience.
Recent research found that around half of U.S. adults who attended church before COVID-19 hit are unlikely to return to church in the near future even if public health officials deemed it safe.
Researchers found persons to be “very” or “somewhat” comfortable dining in restaurants (62%) or going to the mall (67%) at this point over attending in-person church services (52%), according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
For the most part, faith-based leaders sympathize with people’s concerns, with numerous churches offering virtual services for the next several months for those who fear infection. Even after the most dramatic effects of the pandemic several if not most ministries will continue to offer an online ministry in addition to their church gatherings.
However, even after the chances of infection no longer are a concern due to vaccinations and herd immunity, so called Chreasters, persons who attend church only on Christmas and Easter, may turn from occasional attendees to never-attendees.
What Will the New Church Look Like?
Even after the pandemic ends, church may need to be reimagined. Many churches have already opted for social events to attract people, like offering lunches after service and organizing special events. Some are using volunteer pastors to increase the number of pastors so they can personally minister to larger numbers of people. Small groups had already been a mainstay for churches, but instead of these groups being a branch of the church, they may become the primary ministry focus.
Fewer and fewer people feel that they need to be present at church in order to be a good Christian. Para church ministries such as self-help groups, study groups, social services and discipleship ministries may be used by more people to further their spiritual development.
The effective way for religious leaders concerned about their shrinking flocks may be to offer more tailored support for groups dealing with issues, such as mental health support, drug addiction help, sexual addiction counseling, suicide prevention, and career coaching.
For a long time some persons felt unwelcomed. They may have felt that their tattoos or piercing did not conform to the typical church appearance. Some dealing with drug addiction, pornography, and sexual conflicts fear being condemned. Commonly off-limit subjects such as abortion and politics left them to rely on the oftentimes bias media for their information.
The fact remains that a spiritual community is most likely to foster an active spiritual practice. Community builds accountability, and in a social construct being with others fosters a greater likelihood of leading a morally disciplined life.
Because many became accustomed to social distancing, an online presence will probably be the new cornerstone for the church. Instead of waiting for people to enter the church foyer, church leaders will need to consider social media as their new point of entry.
In the information age post Covid people are demanding transformation, not just information. They would rather be cared about than preached at. Those churches that survive will move people toward an authentic relationship with Jesus.
Gone may be the day that the Christian community primarily shares information about Jesus or Christianity when hosting services. The event-based format used by churches proved very helpful in the past, and that forum will still help serve the masses. Entrenched church models cannot be easily changed.
The challenge is the Internet has drowned us in a sea of information. This has forced media organizations to seek novel ways for differentiating themselves from others.
Christian ministries in particular offer a highly unique service in that they can offer transformation through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, not simply information. Just as Starbucks revolutionized the era of store marketing by creating experiences and not just coffee, so the church can revolutionize the era of event based ministry by offering an experience with God.
Most who attended church in the past knew about God, but fewer knew God. Cultural shifts in an increasingly secular world have left people, especially younger people, desiring the transcendent transformation that can only be attained through an encounter with God’s Spirit.
In some way this return to experiencing God foremost, and interdependence with Christ-centered believers secondly, actually mirrors the way the early church of believers behaved as described in the biblical Book of Acts. This should be no surprise because the human desire has always been to know God as a friend, not just as a figure, and to know each other as friends, not just as acquaintances.
The post-Covid church may act differently than the denominational model introduced in Rome centuries ago. The future church will offer relationship over entertainment by offering practical, helpful and interactive ways to engage participants as family more than just as followers.
As the adage goes, people often forget what was taught in church, but they always remember how they were made to feel. Did they feel a part of the church family or did they feel like a visitor? Did they encounter God personally or just corporately? Did they feel transformed or just informed?
I think the most thriving churches in the future will not be insider-focused. They will create experiences that feel transcendent and relationships that feel like family. In so doing they will reflect the character and nature of God.
That church will grow not just because of itself, but because of how important others are made to feel being a part of it. And the success of those churches will be measured in how effectively they grow a greater closeness to God amongst their church family, and not just by counting the number of people attending.