A recent survey reported that the majority of churches in America are recording higher “attendance” numbers for their online weekend services during the days of COVID-19 social distancing than they had for their regular gatherings.
The widespread use of internet-based technology, via platforms such as Facebook Live and Zoom, has allowed many churches to broadcast their sermons, and sometimes musical ministry, to a wider audience than would usually meet in their buildings on Sundays.
The relative ease of live streaming and video recording has given churches of all sizes the opportunity to reach out, quite effectively, into their own communities, and to a much broader viewership.
Plus, the wide usage of social media outlets, such as Facebook and Instagram, has given many people of all ages the chance to stay home on Sunday mornings, to sleep in, and still “attend” church services. In fact, some researchers are reporting that many Christians are watching more than one church service online each Sunday morning.
One result of the current pandemic situation may be larger church audiences, but less active participation. People are watching church services on the internet but are much less involved in key metrics than they were before. Financial giving is trending significantly down, and many ministries have also been suspended.
For example, although some churches are providing children’s and youth ministries online, there is less need for adult volunteers to serve in those capacities since there are no weekend programs scheduled. In most churches, this virtual ministry allows workers to simply stay home.
Ministry during Social Distancing
Pastors and other church leaders have risen to the occasion and have used initiative and creativity to reach out to their communities and to minister to their constituencies during the days of quarantine when most churches were not gathering in person. Clergy members are to be commended for their ingenuity and willingness to, in some cases, learn new technology in an attempt to reach the largest number of people each weekend.
The facts are in: Churches have launched new ways of connecting with people, and church members are enjoying their newly found Sunday schedules. The convenience of worshipping at home in front of a computer, tablet, or television has become what many are calling the “new normal” of church life.
That fact is causing many church leaders to think about the possible answers to a specific question, “Will people come back to active, in-person church attendance following the COVID-19 crisis?”
Ministry after Social Distancing
A specific answer to that question is probably quite uncertain now as pastors minister through the current realities of this pandemic. However, one national news organization reported that the U.S. “Department of Homeland Security is asking churches… to start planning (now) for life after the coronavirus, when worshippers can be together again.”
It’s hard to tell what church ministry will look like after the current practice of social distancing. Anecdotal evidence seems to point both ways. There are some saying the new habit of watching church services at home will continue after the current stay-in-place orders are lifted. Others believe that Christians will miss the fellowship with other believers and will crave being with them in person.
Why People May Not Come Back to Church
Here are a few reasons why many people may not return to their routine of regular church attendance.
1. People enjoy worshipping at home. The relaxed atmosphere of being at home with their families may have a long-term appeal for many customary church attenders. It is not an exaggeration to say that the current stay-at-home philosophy may have allowed some to watch worship services in their pajamas. Some believe that a significant number of regular church members may want to continue this casual practice even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
2. People don’t feel safe in public places anymore. The media has done a great job of convincing people to be afraid of public places with crowds of people. Residents have been told to wear face masks in public, to have at least six feet of distance between people, to use hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes regularly, and to wash their hands often. Younger generations are already struggling with anxiety and the current health crisis may make people quite leery about going to any public meetings in the near future.
3. People like the freedom to watch services on their own schedule. Another already common practice in the United States, even before this pandemic, was the practice of many to participate in other activities and functions on the weekends instead of making the commitment to regularly attend church services.
Although other activities are limited now as well, people seem to appreciate having more time available on weekends for other leisure pursuits. Having church services posted on websites and social media apps allows people to watch church services whenever it works in their personal and family schedules.
Why People Will Want to Come Back to Church
There are also some key reasons why believers and visitors may want to come back to church after the coronavirus restrictions are relaxed.
1. People will miss connections with other believers. The current isolation from other people is likely to cause some to crave interpersonal connections with others. The extended time of social distancing can permit loneliness to develop in some, so perhaps Christ-followers will desire to be present in church buildings once again to renew times of fellowship and interaction with other believers. This may be especially true with younger generations for whom strong connections with peers are very important.
2. People will respond positively to connections made during coronavirus situation. Many pastors and other church leaders have worked hard during the COVID-19 scare to communicate the gospel and the love of Christ to the largest number of people possible. Churches of all sizes have effectively utilized technology, especially social media platforms, to minister to church members and to reach out to unchurched people in their own communities.
Some churches also developed creative ways (such as food distribution to the needy and making grocery or medicine runs for shut-ins) to demonstrate their willingness to serve in their own neighborhoods. These methods, especially during a difficult time in this nation’s history, will undoubtedly yield some evangelistic results for the church. Recipients may indeed choose to visit those churches once the current shelter-in-place directives are relaxed.
3. People will have a greater sense of commitment due to living through a crisis. Some church leaders believe that the coronavirus epidemic may, in fact, be good for the church. Churches have had to figure out ways to fulfill their mission without the opportunity to gather in large assemblies. The emphasis upon a growing level of true community in small groups, in lieu of big gatherings, may continue to be a significant priority in the church’s future.
Plus, the current widespread use of technology to communicate God’s Word will likely go on when the pandemic ends. Perhaps a renewed spirit of dedication has also emerged which will carry over to a new reality for the church. God’s people have had to be innovative and resourceful during the pandemic, and conceivably that level of commitment may continue once churches are back in their buildings.
The Church Is God’s Work
No one knows exactly what the church will look like once the current practice of social distancing is over. Some are predicting difficult times ahead for churches. Others are saying the church will come back stronger than ever.
The important thing to remember is that the church is God’s idea and it is His work in the world today (Matthew 16:18). He is certainly able to take care of His church and help the church weather whatever circumstances life may throw at it.
Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is also the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. He is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.GoingOnForGod.com. Mel has written 13 books on various aspects of youth ministry, including Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for the Church. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.