(405) 425-5070
Inside Story
Shutterstock photo

After the pandemic, will people return to church?

Some ministers fear the attendance decline will outlive the COVID-19 outbreak.

A note on the Facebook page of the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, Ky., caught my attention recently.

It referred to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and voiced understanding for anyone staying away from in-person worship for health reasons.

Historically, Churches of Christ have made gathering to praise God on the Lord’s Day a top priority.

“However, if the reason for your absence is because you’ve become accustomed to staying away, please pray and reconsider rejoining us if you feel safe to do so,” the note said. “God loves you, and we do too, and we sure do miss all of our family and wouldn’t want it to be because someone is struggling spiritually.”

Historically, Churches of Christ have made gathering to praise God on the Lord’s Day a top priority.

In fact, a Gallup poll about 15 years ago found that Americans who gave their religious affiliation as Church of Christ were more likely than any other group to attend worship services.


Related: COVID-19 hits churches hard


At that time, 68 percent of members interviewed by Gallup said they attended services at least once a week or almost every week. Mormons were next at 67 percent, followed by Pentecostals (65 percent) and Southern Baptists (60 percent).

But amid the coronavirus outbreak, many Christians have turned to streaming church online or skipping worship altogether, as noted by the Barna Group.

The question that some concerned church leaders are asking: When the crisis is over — when, Lord willing, a vaccine has been developed and proven successful — will attendance return to pre-pandemic levels?

The question that some concerned church leaders are asking: When the crisis is over — when, Lord willing, a vaccine has been developed and proven successful — will attendance return to pre-pandemic levels?

“I expect that some people will discover that life goes on without assembling each Sunday morning and choose to avoid the stress of going somewhere on Sunday morning,” said Peter Horne, minister for the Lawson Road Church of Christ in Rochester, N.Y.

Already, John Dobbs, minister for the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, La., said he has noticed some people who feel comfortable traveling or eating in restaurants “but then are using COVID-19 as a reason not to come to church.”

“Some people will never come back to church. They’ll just watch online,” Dobbs said. “Our message now is, ‘Don’t feel guilty for worshiping at home,’ and I believe this is right. But that message will change if the pandemic does not present as a health threat in the future. I’m not sure people’s behavior will change, though. It will be interesting to see.”

Richard Akins, minister and elder of the Bono Church of Christ in Arkansas, said: “I know many of our non-attendees are out and about all over everywhere — working, shopping, eating out. But attending worship is too dangerous.”

Kathy Jacobs and Krystal Dawson greet people, distribute individual communion packs, and provide masks, if needed, at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Kathy Jacobs and Krystal Dawson greet people, distribute individual communion packs, and provide masks, if needed, at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Among Americans overall, the number who belong to a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped to about half, according to Gallup.

That’s a 20-percentage-point decline just since 1999.

“We live in a cultural environment that assumes spirituality is located in the individual,” said Jay Hawkins, minister for the Caldwell Church of Christ in Idaho. “Before COVID, there were many Christians in America battling — whether they knew it or not — against the question of why they need a church for spiritual flourishing.

“During the pandemic,” Hawkins added, “some will have inevitably found that while they didn’t go to Sunday worship, life was survivable, and they have even decided they are thriving.”

But some voice reason for hope.

Lisa Brewer, a member of the Wilkesboro Church of Christ in North Carolina, said the pandemic has afforded blessings such as an opportunity to spend time visiting other congregations’ online services and Bible studies.

“This has been an enriching experience and helped me draw closer to several friends who are members in other parts of the state,” said Brewer, whose husband, Greg, serves as a deacon. “My husband and I have been able to spend more time in Bible study, in research and in meaningful conversation with each other and close friends.”

In a new Pew Research Center study conducted in mid-July, most online worshipers said that when the pandemic is over, they expect to go back to attending religious services as often as they did before the coronavirus outbreak.

For Lisa Brewer, the COVID-19 scenario prompts reminders of the spiritual renewal seen after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

“Without being the ‘church police,’ we need to encourage folks not to forsake the assembly unless for genuinely legitimate reasons. We need to encourage folks, period.”

“I think in the long run it will be good for the Lord’s church,” she said. “Without being the ‘church police,’ we need to encourage folks not to forsake the assembly unless for genuinely legitimate reasons. We need to encourage folks, period.”

Others said the pandemic, far from inspiring Christians to stay away from worship, has sparked a renewed longing for spiritual intimacy — for hugs, handshakes and holy kisses that the threat of disease spread has put on hold.

“I think the isolation that people have been experiencing is drawing them into community, realizing now more than ever that they need God and God’s family’s to get them through this,” said Mike Miles, preaching minister for the Livonia Church of Christ in Michigan.


Related: More churches resume in-person worship, but COVID-19 brings changes


Deanna Haynes, a member of the Goose Creek Church of Christ in South Carolina, said she doesn’t worry about post-pandemic attendance figures.

“If a person truly has an appetite for God,” said Haynes, whose congregation is still meeting via Zoom, “they’ll be with us when it’s safe to return to regular church services.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].


COVID-19 and churches: More quotes

Teens wear masks during a baccalaureate service at the Manchester Church of Christ in Connecticut. The coronavirus pandemic has brought changes to such annual rites.

Teens wear masks during a baccalaureate service at the Manchester Church of Christ in Connecticut. The coronavirus pandemic has brought changes to such annual rites.

“There are some who came back to the building one or two times and then went back to the online worship. People miss the personal interactions that are greatly restricted right now, so being back in the same room doesn’t have the same appeal to everyone. But we don’t think we’re going to see much, if any, loss in the long run. We actually think we may see some growth, because our online worship is repeatedly being viewed by a lot of people both locally and in multiple other states who are not members here at Manchester.” — Patrick Barber, Manchester Church of Christ in Connecticut

“I don’t see any indication of our members becoming accustomed to distance worship. They appear to just accept it as the present norm. … I know the majority of our members long for our spiritually fulfilling in-person worship experience and every aspect of it. For those who may be hesitant, we’ll continue to provide the online experience option. The new post-pandemic reality is, how we will handle online membership in the future? Churches will eventually have to minister to an online community that presents a powerful opportunity to reach the community and world.” — Jimmy Stokes II, Northeast Side Church of Christ in Bartlett, Tenn.

“I am worried people will get too accustomed to unscheduled worship and will not be as concerned about congregating with their membership.” — Chandra Clark, Central Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“My conversations have led me to believe that most people will return once this virus has run its course or a solution has been discovered. Over half of our members are first-generation Christians and have had to make some big sacrifices with family and friends to proclaim Jesus as Lord. This commitment to Christ connects them to Christ’s body even in hard times. In fact, for a substantial number in our congregation, the church family has deeper roots than even the physical family. Also, there are healthy connections that have been established through our 25-plus-year small group ministry that is helping to carry us through this time.” — Scott Laird, Great Falls Church of Christ in Montana

“I am concerned some no longer see the value and importance of assembly as a family. We are working to respect those individual decisions.” — Tim Hall, Howell Hill Church of Christ in Fayetteville, Tenn.

“I think there may be a small degree of people being out the habit of attending worship. Some travel but do not seem to want to come to worship. I am always concerned people will become complacent, but when I talk to members on the phone each week, they are positive and say they are looking forward to coming back when the state opens up a little bit more and increases inside capacity numbers.” — Timothy Tarbet, New Milford Church of Christ in Connecticut


Related: Churches of Christ offering livestream worship


“Ours is a faithful congregation. The attendance numbers will increase. If we are mindful to watch for those who may have begun seeking God more earnestly during this period, then they, too, will be loved, taught and drawn to obedient faith.” — Beverly Henderson, Johnson Street Church of Christ in San Angelo, Texas

“I’m sure some are liking the option of staying at home. I haven’t had direct conversations with anyone. I am concerned. I think fewer will return. Those who are more casual in their faith may find it appealing to continue to watch from home.” — Tim Tripp, West Side Church of Christ in Russellville, Ark.

“Our giving is actually higher than usual, and our people are very active in visiting with each other online, having social distancing small groups during the week and volunteering for charitable works around our town.” — Patrick Mead, Fourth Avenue Church of Christ in Franklin, Tenn.

“It will take many months to ‘return’ to ‘normal,’ but more than likely, the composition and practices of this congregation have changed forever. But the Lord will lead us into something new. That excites me some, but the practical preacher needing-a-steady-source-of-income is apprehensive.” — Jeff Foster, Gallup Church of Christ in New Mexico


Related: Coronavirus pandemic prompts numerous Churches of Christ to cancel Sunday assemblies


“People who love the Lord will worship him with others who love him. It is hard for us who lead to not get frustrated, but we try not to. Concern is concern, real or imagined, and our getting frustrated when we were the ones who allowed for online worship seems counterproductive. We love these people and want to be all together face to face again.” — Dale Jenkins, Spring Meadows Church of Christ in Spring Hill, Tenn.

“I think some people are getting accustomed to not attending. The quality of online worship is good. It’s easier not to get up and do all the things one must do to get out of the house and get to the assembly. I am concerned that some will not come back. I am concerned because part of worship is the ‘one another’ factor, the fellowship factor that encourages us to walk the journey together. Online worship is a blessing but not a substitute for meeting together if at all possible.” — Dan Dozier, Rural Hill Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn.

“We are concerned about how this will affect our assembly when the pandemic is over. Habits, good or bad, can be hard to break. I think most congregations will have work to do to reclaim some who have drifted in their commitments.” — Steve Higginbotham, Karns Church of Christ in Knoxville, Tenn.

“Our online ‘attendance’ has actually gone up as former members who moved away to different parts of the country have been watching the online services and participating in the live chat stream. Obviously, those remote congregants will not be attending our in-person services when they resume. And we’ll likely be resuming in small steps, so at first only a small number of people in the building, with distancing, etc. It’s very hard to foresee what will happen.” — Christopher Heard, Conejo Valley Church of Christ in Thousand Oaks, Calif.


Related: As thousands die from the coronavirus, does Jesus care?


“Churches will need to figure out how to translate the online presence to an in-person presence when the pandemic is behind us. In the meantime, our online presence needs to be continually updated and intentionally engaging with online viewers. It’s a different mode of communication than an in-person sermon or Bible class.” — Jon Partlow, Sunshine Church of Christ, Minford, Ohio

“Several months of canceled services can easily become a habit. We know we will have to rebuild our live service but are not overly concerned about not being able to draw people back to the live services over time. The overwhelming value of coming together is the main purpose of church, and if we emphasize that value, we are confident people will want what only face-to-face gatherings can provide.” — Scott Cody, Maryland Heights Church of Christ in Missouri
Got a thought? Join the conversation below.

Filed under: attendance Corona church Coronavirus Covid and church COVID-19 covid19 Inside Story National Top Stories worship trends

View Comments

Don’t miss out on more stories like this.

Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.

Did you enjoy this article?

Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.

$
Personal Info

Dedicate this Donation

In Honor/Memory of Details

Card Notification Details

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.
Billing Details

Donation Total: $3 One Time