Will the people return?

July 28th, 2021

For more than 18 months since the global pandemic gripped human civilization, church leaders are asking whether and when people will return to in-person worship. The question gained new urgency this summer of 2021 as most churches phased in services in the sanctuary. A typical local church pattern included pre-registering attendance, designated seating with spacing between family groups or individuals, and required masking during in-person worship. As the COVID case count declined in June 2021, masking became optional in the sanctuary. Attendance was down in most places, significantly.

But then the nation (less than half vaccinated in most places) gathered for huge spectacles on the July 4th weekend. For example, an estimated 350,000 people gathered in downtown Nashville shoulder to shoulder, most without masks, for music and fireworks just in time for the delta variant of COVID to transmit with an efficient potency one thousand times greater than before. COVID rates escalated 400 to 500 percent among the unvaccinated, and most people know at least one person in July, fully vaccinated, who got a breakthrough infection from the spread of the delta variant.

The following curated links jump to stories during July 2021 about the impact of COVID on worship attendance. 

The answer to the anxious question for leaders--Will the people return to the sanctuary?--is necessarily delayed until the delta surge burns out. However, before the surge, anecdotal observations registered alarm concerning low worship attendance in June and July (which applies to in-person or a hybrid online environment).  It’s summer, with vacations as a factor, but the challenge for the return is still obvious. So, many church leaders are engaged in strategic thinking as they consider attractional and missional tactics to re-engage participants (not merely statistical viewers) in worship. Some churches are planning meals, fall homecoming events, house-church structures, and well-considered missional opportunities to bring people back into a shared Christian life.  

The challenges for churches posed by COVID have precedents.  The so-called Spanish Flu (which began in Kansas) killed millions of people when leaders protected self-interest and did not tell the truth about the virus.

The COVID pandemic also pulls our attention into the biblical canon, where the defining human experiences of exodus and exile are obsessed with sustaining or returning to a sacred space for worship. Most of our sacred Scripture was produced or documented from the disruption of exile, dispersion, and return into a worshipping community. A sermon from Ezra 3-6 or Nehemiah 8 is often preached when a sanctuary is built and dedicated. The context was obviously the return from exile into the second temple. This context seem even more appropriate for a sermon and worship series welcoming God’s people back home into the sanctuary for the sake of restoring and sustaining the means of grace.

comments powered by Disqus