How have church gatherings changed as a result of the global pandemic? I am making an assumption here, of course, that your community has changed in some manner in an effort to connect to the needs of marginalized people, particularly the disabled/immunocompromised community (a post for another time). But most of us have not recovered the “old normal” entirely. Many carry lingering trauma from our pandemic reality that has shifted how we gather and the reasons why.
The question I pondered early in the pandemic was: “how many churchgoers would decide they’re doing just fine without weekly services and ultimately would never bother to return?”
Two weeks into early pandemic isolation we understood that we aren’t cut out to be alone. Society’s unhealthy obsession with rugged individualism was exposed as fraudulent. We are stronger together. In fact, we need each other to survive and thrive.
When weekly in-person services and community meals and events were cancelled or cut back, it was a test–or perhaps testament–to the relational strength of each particular church. Those operating through a consumer mindset, spending resources delivering weekly services centered around a great preacher and music, unsurprisingly lost the consumer attendee. Sure, when in-person gatherings slowly returned, congregations were eager see each other again. But, for most, weekly attendance has not returned to normal.
It seems the folks who had maintained an ongoing connection through the hard times returned, or, perhaps a better way to say it is, they never left to begin with. I have been told anecdotes from many churches that the core faithful have not left, but church attendance–often an incomplete metric–has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. We need each other, but something apart from the service itself kept us together.
What has it been like for your community?
I surmise average weekly church attendance will continue to decline given social trends in a society becoming more and more irreligious. This doesn’t mean traditional worship services are unnecessary, but it does raise questions on how we might adjust. Is weekly still needed? If so, does it have to be a “service” as we have traditionally conceived of it? If we are willing to let go of these things, could we decrease frequency and use the new time to serve the community to enhance meaningful connection?
Gathering for Connection
A weekly service may be all some are asking for. But those churches with little concern beyond reclaiming the weekly service as quick as possible are not focused on cultivating deep connection. In other words, returning to the “old normal” may not be a viable plan for long-term survival in a world that’s no longer looking for a service, but rather deeper relationship."Returning to the "old normal" may not be a viable plan for long-term survival in a world that's no longer looking for a service, but rather deeper relationship." ~ Rohadi Nagassar Click To Tweet
This shouldn’t sound groundbreaking. Most communities have some value for relationship. Where it differs is what that actually looks like in practice. Does simply gathering in the same space count as connection? It could, but it can also be superficial.
When I think of relationship and connection I think of spaces where I’m fully seen and, conversely, where I see others for who they really are. This type of connection is deeper than many are used to, but it’s what we need for belonging and ultimate wholeness. Are the ways that we gather building into these possibilities?
How have gatherings permanently shifted for you? In some ways, the pandemic experience is a catalyst to try new things.
One shift my church has adopted is embracing more online gatherings. I foresee us keeping this tool and building into it even further. The way online gathering points create greater access for disabled and immunocompromised folks while connecting those distanced by geography is powerful.
We need all the new ways, as well as investment into old/simpler ways, to act as the church in the neighborhood and beyond. Smaller communities that elevate gathering points beyond the weekly service ought to continue spending energy to determine how community events, smaller group meals, and other connective moments can go deeper. Maybe there are ways your church might collaborate with other like-minded community organizations to generate new relational spaces in a post-pandemic neighborhood?
We know there is a longing for safe spaces that value deep connection. But that doesn’t have to be a church service. Rather, we have an opportunity to be the church in new ways to cultivate deeper relationship that give space for each to flourish and thrive.
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