Church Attendance is Down. How Far Down Is It?

Photo by Johny vino on Unsplash

The Baptist Standard has done a nice job piecing together data from LifeWay Research on church attendance trends in the wake of the pandemic. What did they find? Church attendance is down. That’s no big surprise. How far down is it?

A few key statistics:

A majority of African American Protestant pastors (60 percent) say their congregations did not meet in person last month.

Mainline pastors (31 percent) are more likely than evangelical pastors (7 percent) to say they did not physically gather in September. Denominationally, Methodists (22 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (23 percent) are more likely to say they did not meet in person than Lutherans (12 percent), pastors in the Restorationist movement (10 percent) or Baptists (9 percent).

Social distancing may be easier in churches, as most pastors say their congregation has less than 70 percent of pre-COVID crowds.

One in 10 churches (9 percent) say their attendance in September was less than 30 percent of what it was in February before the pandemic spread to the United States. Another 20 percent say attendance was between 30 percent and less than 50 percent of what it was.

A third of pastors (34 percent) say it has reached 50 percent to less than 70 percent of previous levels. For 1 in 5 (21 percent) attendance is between 70 percent to less than 90 percent.

The mainline/evangelical split isn’t a shocker. What’s sobering is the percentage declines in attendance, especially considering that most church buildings do have space to make accommodations according to social distancing guidelines and that sensible measures such as wearing masks or tailoring liturgy to limit congregational singing are both reasonable and quite easy to implement. Several churches in our area, including the congregation I am part of, have chosen to meet outside, even before the cooler temperatures of autumn had arrived. Some mornings it was sweltering, but we gathered anyway.

This survey doesn’t tell us everything, only a few tidbits about who is meeting, who is not, and a few implications. I wasn’t surprised, nor did I really care much, to be told that one of the biggest changes church leaders have made in the wake of the pandemic has been to forestall a capital campaign or a building improvement project. That means very little to me.

There are wider considerations. Not every state has had the same regulations in place; politics, I’m certain, are a factor, and there is something to be said for church leaders who have actively promoted public health measures. Some states have employed Draconian measures; technocrats have tossed aside liberty. Government can overreach, and in some places, it most certainly has.

Polity differences matter, too. Baptists people are congregational, and thus, their people are more likely to put more pressure on their pastors to meet. Methodists, on the other hand, have an episcopate structure. Parishioners in those contexts may care that there church isn’t meeting, but know their pastor serves under the appointment of a bishop and cabinet. Decisions to refrain from meeting could be more regional than they are local.

African American pastors and their churches may not be meeting due to disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on their parishioners.

There are discipleship factors as well, though they would be nearly impossible to sift. For some, the pandemic might have relieved social pressures that kept some active in church, while their normal preference would’ve been to invest their time in other ways. COVID-19, then, has been a wonderful excuse not to meet, an easy out.

Down here in Waco most church leaders I know are back to meeting in some way, shape, or form. People wear masks, remain physically distanced, and have asked volunteers to increase efforts in the areas of sanitation. That’s good. That’s wise.

But I also know that people are tired of COVID. They’re ready to get back to normal. I think it will be tough to strike the right balance, to remain vigilant, while also opening avenues for congregational togetherness, fellowship, and corporate worship.

I’ve heard some really silly biblical arguments as to why we should be gathering in spite of the risks, fatalistic accounts that negate human responsibility and involve strange and sinister conceptions of God’s sovereignty. I’m well aware that there are biblical commands to meet together routinely, and there are Old Testament commands that contain wisdom with regard to the observance of a weekly day of worship. But Sunday gatherings for worship are more the product of church tradition than they are an explicit biblical command, and the nature of our public gatherings can widely vary based on the leading of the Spirit and the needs of the community. Much more could be written on this topic, certainly.

On the other hand, some people think that it is wisest, and that there is little harm, in foregoing the worship gathering. I disagree. I think there is a level of risk, but not enough to forego public gatherings tailored to our present moment. My read on our region is that we are in a place where it is reasonable to meet together weekly, to do something. If churches aren’t meeting regularly, then pastors should be adjusting their approach to ministry, shepherding their people by reaching out, making phone calls, maybe even stopping by on doorsteps and having front yard conversations from several feet away. Zoom has limits. Physical presence matters.

The months ahead could look very different, not only because of a change in weather, but also due to a change in political climate. But the losses that have taken place this year will require hard and diligent work to recoup. The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. Pray that God would raise up workers to labor in his field.

Sweet Science: Wiseman’s Boxing Gym is a Great Documentary

The past couple of days I’ve enjoyed Frederick Wiseman’s Boxing Gym, a 2010 documentary filled with fascinating characters and enrapturing sights and sounds. Manohla Davis, in a review of the film in The New York Times, wrote, “There are no frills here, just men, women and children of assorted colors, means, grace, beauty and abilities meeting among the heavy bags and peeling posters, their fists and feet drumming different time signatures.” The film was shot at Richard Lord’s Boxing Gym in Austin, Texas. Lord’s Gym has a Facebook Page. They also have a website. I took a screen shot:

My kind of place. Here’s the trailer for the documentary:

I watched the documentary on Kanopy. If you get a chance to see it for yourself, I recommend it.

In the Bag

Months ago my kid put together a craft at church, a brown paper bag with a nice drawing of Earth. I wondered what it could be. Was his class collecting food for the needy? My thoughts immediately turned toward some kind of care giving. The world is a big place with a lot of people, and a lot of needs.

I asked him what the bag was for. He explained, “If there is something that distracts us from God, from praying or reading the Bible or something like that, we can put that thing inside.”

I needed examples. He mentioned the Nintendo Switch.

Ah, the things of this world.

I asked, “If I were reading the Bible in the morning, and if you were being too loud or goofy, could I cram you into the bag?”

These are the kinds of dad jokes that are as annoying as they are endearing, serving to bind us together with the dual adhesive of distaste and love.

“All Language Turns to Silence”

pexels-photo-2618372
Photo by Juanjo Menta on Pexels.com

Word

I, who live by words, am wordless when
I try my words in prayer. All language turns
To silence. Prayer will take my words and then
Reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me,
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.
I leave, returned to language, for I see
Through words, even when all words are ended.
  I, who live by words, am wordless when
  I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen.

– Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart

Prayer can lead us through words to silence, beyond words to contemplation, and through contemplation to the Word of God. If you find yourself in silence when you pray, you have options. Stay awhile. Or keep going. God is working in the silence, and the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans (Romans 8:26-27).

I liked this little poem by L’Engle. I know what it is like to fall silent. I know what it is like to feel the insufficiency of words. I also know what it is like to be surprised by what I find in the deep quiet, a sense of being awestruck, an infilling of joy, and an experience of being delightfully “healed and mended.” I “try my words in prayer.” More importantly, though, I have been taught to find in words the capacity to “turn me to the Word.” That’s an evidence of grace, for which I am thankful.

 

The Pastor as Architect

pexels-photo-3804168
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

F&L: How should Christian leaders think about formation and desire?

JS: I think people who have leadership responsibilities should first of all shift their self-understanding so that leadership doesn’t just mean that they are the articulators-in-chief. They’re not just the ones responsible for the message, so to speak.

In some ways, leadership is really about being an architect of the ethos of a community, which means that some of the most significant influence that leaders exercise is their ability to shape the rhythms, rituals, routines and practices of a community or an institution.

As the curators of the repertoire of practices of a community, leaders need to do a sort of liturgical audit of our institutions and ask ourselves not just, “What does our mission statement say we believe?” but, “What story about being human and human flourishing is being rehearsed in the rhythms and practices of our institution?” That informs how we think about how reform and renewal have to happen as well.

The “JS” is James K. A. Smith. The “F&L” is Faith & Leadership (Duke Divinity). Professor Smith was interviewed by Faith & Leadership about his book On the Road with Saint Augustine, which I have read. I found the book to be very good. And I found this snippet from the interview to be very interesting.

Too many Christian leaders assume their primary task is to provide people with the right information. They talk, talk, talk, teach, teach, teach, and tell, tell, tell. That is very important. But the most significant leadership task facing Christian leaders is addressing “what lies beneath.” Moderns might call it “culture-making.” The ancients called it “the cure of souls.” And you can’t just preach your way there. There is a great deal of prayer involved. There is also discipleship, or apprenticeship to Jesus, which, as Dallas Willard observed, will address any and all human problems, and to great effect.

I guess I’d say culture, as it is understood today, is the reflected sum of the overall spiritual health in a place. Culture always has a spiritual dimension, even when it is “secular.” In Christian contexts, culture includes “right belief,” or proper information about God, reality, etc. But it goes deeper, to the level of desire, want, and love. There is a difference between loving right information about God and loving God. There is a difference between adhering to right religious practices and living a life that is lived in accordance with mercy, not sacrifice. In a church, something unique takes place when law and love merge together to constitute a language, a unique expression of God’s activity, grammar, and gospel (that’s a nod to Herbert McCabe). A culture is established where people discover the life that is really life: knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one who was sent (John 17:3).

Look at how people live. That will tell much of what you need to know about what people really believe. Then, get creative. How do you romance people away from error, and instead turn their gaze toward the greater beauty that has been revealed in Jesus Christ? It won’t just be a matter of what you say. It will have to be woven in to how you live.

Show, then tell. Tell, then show. Show while you tell. Tell while you show. Trust yourself, and your people, to God, the master craftsman. Trust formation to the divine hand. Offer yourself as an instrument. And a vessel.

Spiritual Leadership is Tough

“People may think that as pastors or spiritual leaders we are somehow above the pain and struggles of everyday people,” Laurie wrote after Wilson’s death. “We are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers. But we do not.”

There is similar introspection among clergy of many faiths across the United States as the age-old challenges of their ministries are deepened by many newly evolving stresses. Rabbis worry about protecting their congregations from anti-Semitic violence. Islamic chaplains counsel college students unnerved by anti-Muslim sentiments. A shortage of Catholic priests creates burdens for those who remain, even as their church’s sex-abuse crisis lowers morale. Worries for Protestant pastors range from crime and drug addiction in their communities to financial insecurity for their own families to social media invective that targets them personally.

Adam Hertzman, who works for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, witnessed the emotional toll on local rabbis after the October 2018 massacre that killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“Somehow in the U.S. we expect our clergy to be superhuman when it comes to these things,” he said. “They’re human beings who are going to feel the same kind of fear and numbness and depression that other people do.”

– David Crary, Associated Press, “Stresses Multiply for Many U.S. Clergy: ‘We Need Help Too‘”

Eugene Peterson wrote, “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.”

Pastoring is hard work. It is challenging work. It is human work, and it is divine work. I’m not sure if being a pastor is any more challenging now than it has been in any other age. Regardless, two reminders are worth noting. First, be kind to your pastors. Second, offer them your help.

Better Than VR

Father John Misty’s “Total Entertainment Forever” is prophetic.

Imagine a world where people prefer virtual reality over embodied, physical experience. Having trouble? Just revisit the major plot line of Ready Player One, or Tron, where virtual and physical realities intersect, merge, and somehow overlap.

I don’t care much for the “Total Entertainment Forever” video. The lyrics are the juice. Father John Misty describes the world emerging before us today, a place where we date the celebrity of our choice in a virtual environment, where we are “free” to live however we want (in prisons of virtual illusion), where rich and poor are equally “entertained,” distracted by fantasy. The “nightmare” we’re invited to awaken from is our lives, preferring instead our dreams being beamed straight into our eyeballs in marvelous hi-def.

No gods to rule us
No drugs to soothe us
No myths to prove stuff
No love to confuse us
Not bad for a race of demented monkeys
From a cave to a city to a permanent party
The song closes with a proper scene. Father John Misty imagines a future society unearthing the evidence remaining from our own period, human beings “plugged into our hubs,” smiling but wasted away. We’re left to ponder whether the final line–“This must have been a wonderful place”–is uttered by our posterity in marvel or disdain.
This is a word for our times. The prevailing narrative is that any and all technology will only make human life better. There is truth in that claim, but it is not true. I’d still rather experience life in the body over being a brain in a vat.