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COVID has shaken churches

The pandemic has contributed to the decline of cultural Christianity

Pastor Greg Foster preaches at Waldoboro United Methodist Church in Waldoboro, Maine, on June 20, 2021. Lack of attendance during the pandemic led to the permanent closure of the church a week later. Associated Press/Photo by Robert F. Bukaty

COVID has shaken churches
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According to some reports, in-person church attendance is still down by 22 percent, compared to when the pandemic began in March 2020. But how much of the decrease is traceable to COVID? And could there be a silver lining to the numbers?

Long before most people heard the term “coronavirus,” many churches were in decline in Western societies. This decadeslong downward trend, compounded by lockdowns and quarantines, provided more than enough momentum to end attendance for those whose reasons for going to church were grounded only in religious habit. Since 1999, the number of Americans who belong to a church has dropped dramatically, and those identifying as religious “nones” have increased commensurately. Catholic church attendance is down 20 percent since 2000, and mainline Protestant churches have struggled for decades. 2020 was the perfect year for the cultural Christian to leave the church without much notice.

COVID infected our bodies but may have spiritually disinfected our churches. By the end of March 2020, only 7 percent of churches met in person across the country. At that point, many were forced to reevaluate if the Sunday morning priority of worshipping at church would continue. In many cases, it did not.

In some churches, the lack of discipleship, personal touch points, and deeper community throughout the week was immediately apparent. After all, if a church member could slip away unnoticed, even in a pandemic, something is amiss. The building many had relied on to buffer their faith wasn’t available. What was left? If there was little commitment in the first place, what point was there in going back? The exodus and church shutdowns are disheartening, but for the long-term health of the church, they may bring a necessary cleansing. If God “cuts off every branch in me that does not bear fruit,” (John 15:2), this was one way of allowing that to happen.

Decades ago, going to church wasn’t much of a question for most families. Churchgoing was the national norm. These days, however, cultural Christians have literally left the building. Those who remain are more likely to be serious about their faith. “Cultural Christianity is burning up,” said author and pastor John Mark Comer. “All that’s left is a resilient, super robust discipleship to Jesus.”

To be clear, we should find no joy in Christianity’s sudden decline, but COVID illuminated the weakness of American Christianity. In his book Faith for Exiles, Barna Research President David Kinnaman found that only 10 percent of 20-something Christians qualify as “resilient disciples”—meaning they attend church regularly, believe in the authority of Scripture, commit to Jesus personally, affirm the resurrection, and want to “transform the broader society as an outcome of their faith.” Compare that with 38 percent who are “habitual churchgoers”—but do little more than show up.

COVID infected our bodies but may have spiritually disinfected our churches.

Before COVID, many congregations could pretend things weren’t that bad. Now, we must wrestle with reality and prepare for what the loss of cultural Christianity really means. In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases Matthew 3:12, writing that God is going to “clean house” when it comes to this world. “He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God,” Peterson wrote. “Everything false, he’ll put it out with the trash to be burned.”

It’s God’s sovereignty, and in texts like Matthew 16:18, that we can take comfort. Ultimately, Christ will preserve his church. Jesus says, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

In the case of a global pandemic, the local church is suffering significant declines in attendance. But the true church—that worldwide community of believers we belong to—hasn’t lost a single soul. Once you are genuinely part of the church, the family of God, you are part of it forever.

While some parts of the West may be hemorrhaging churchgoers, churches in other parts of the world are multiplying. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is set to exceed 460 million believers by 2025, and the Asian Christian population follows a similar path. The church is so much bigger than the United States. The losses here in the West are replaced by those resilient brothers and sisters God is using to build the global church.

There are definite downsides to lower rates of church attendance. We know, for example, that those who attend church regularly are happier, healthier, and more generous than the average nonchurchgoer. Churches are a cornerstone of society and fewer people attending them will harm both individuals and the communities they inhabit. But we may well have a better sense of how many Christian believers actually gather for worship.

We will soon enter our third year as a world in pandemic. Our churches have had time to reset; our priorities were given plenty of time to shift. Churchgoing Christians are, in all likelihood, more committed to their faith than ever before. Attendance may be down in some churches, but devotion is up, and we must pray that the church will be set afire like we haven’t seen in a long time.

Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women. Ericka hosts the Worth Your Time podcast. She has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Christianity Today, USA Today, and more.

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