"Will They Return?": Church After Covid
Second Life is a user-created virtual world that mimics real life and blurs the boundaries between the virtual and actual reality. There are virtual churches in Second Life where virtual evangelism and baptisms take place. Does the baptism of an avatar in Second Life count for eternity?
Not to be out done in evangelistic zeal, there are semi-virtual churches and ministries such as God TV. Their mission is “to develop a new breed of Christian media with cutting edge creativity and a spirit of excellence; to source, create and present world class anointed, prophetic and supernatural content; to broadcast relevant, highly creative programming straight from the Father’s heart filled with His glory and anointing, His power and presence, reconciling man, woman and child with God by the power of the Holy Spirit.” All of this in a disembodied virtual platform.
We have been culturally set up to accept, perhaps even prefer, virtual worship over embodied actual worship. And then the world was faced with a global pandemic where churches were all forced to go virtual for an entire year. This is about as an unprecedented disruption in the global church experience as one can possibly imagine. Few believe that it won’t have lasting consequences. What they might be is still an open question. We will soon know.
Church leaders are now facing their fears: “Will they return?” Pastors have limped through a year of pandemic-enforced virtual worship and have somehow made it to the other side. For the first time they are able to assess the spiritual damage this year of communal isolation and virtual experience has caused. They are gradually opening up with 25 percent to 50 percent occupancy now legally allowed. Yet hybrid services continue as churches gradually open up to full embodied participation. Many are now finding that their members are not returning to in-person services. This is especially true of younger members. There is no pent up demand for actually going to church on Sunday morning. Things have changed. New habits have been formed. There is little cognitive resistance to the blurring of virtual and actual reality. This trend plays into the Gnostic and overly-cognitive orientation of American evangelicalism.
This does not mean that people are not going to “church,” only that their experience of church has changed over the course of the past year. “Church” is now a casual PJ-wearing informal multi-tasking experience of brunch, The New York Times, and worship somehow distractedly combined. Virtual church has furthered the consumerist orientation of the modern worshipper. I am not immune from this tendency. I typically choose between a service in Montreat, Philadelphia, and Portland. Even within our immediate Philadelphia locale my wife and I often choose between three different churches as we were between churches when the pandemic struck a year ago. The experience of weekly church and church membership have eroded over the past year even among those who should know better. Among the spiritually deconstructing the pattern of disenfranchisement has accelerate under the virtual conditions of the pandemic. A large percentage of parishioners are slowly drifting out of their parishes (six leave for every one that joins). A Pew survey and a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that one-third or more of those who had previously attended church regularly were not bothering to watch online services. For those whose church affiliation was already tenuous, the loosening of the virtual may make this disconnect permanent. Young people are the ones most at risk of not coming back from the Covid-19 lockdowns. We live by our habits and we have now habituated an entire nation not to attend church on Sunday morning. New habits are going to have to be learned, and old ones broken and replaced. In our cultural context where the blurring of the virtual and actual have been widely accepted, this is a bigger challenge than many currently acknowledge. It is unlikely that we will easily return to the pre-pandemic normal in church attendance.
When church membership and the church experience is narrowed to hearing a sermon, it is most susceptible to a virtual abandonment. It is only when beauty and hospitality replace instruction that attendance will improve—the aesthetic experience of place and sound, food and laughter must replace the Gnostic cognitive orientation of a virtual sermon. It’s only when a full bodied investment in community is returned without barriers that embodied worship will gain value. As long as a hybrid model is available, it is unlikely that old habits that favor a virtual inertia will be challenged.
Churches did not have a good compelling rationale for church attendance before the pandemic. It is greatly weaker now. To compensate there will be a tendency to move toward greater and greater spectacle and celebrity preachers in an attempt to lure traditional church audiences. Entertainment, consumerist, individualism are significant challenges to renewing church attendance in a post-pandemic world.
The American evangelical church with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience has not equally prioritized the necessary role of communal association with Christians. We have not stated strongly enough that Christians that don’t gather regularly with other Christians 1) may not be Christian and 2) most likely will not remain Christian. Church attendance has not been seen as a spiritual social necessity. It is nice, beneficial, inspiring, and entertaining, but not essential to sustained spiritual faithfulness.
But that is not what the Scripture’s teach: “Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrew 10:25). The book of Hebrews is a book about persevering faith. In this verse, personal contact with other Christians is not merely suggested by the Bible: it is commanded. A practical reason for this was given in the prior verse. Relationships with other believers are the way to be encouraged to live out the faith we proclaim. The spiritual life is a reflection of spiritual reality which is essentially a Trinitarian community. Regular fellowship with other believers is necessary because we are essentially social beings and our beliefs and behaviors are most shaped by our communal relationships and commitments. Obedience to Jesus necessitates being involved with other Christians in worship, fellowship, and service. While this verse does not specifically say that we are to go to church every week in some legalistic fashion, it does suggest that faithful Christians stay in regular community with other believers.
The command ends with an added sense of urgency, “and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” There are numerous interpretations of what “Day” refers to. Some suggest the final judgment, others the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and others the Lord’s Day or Sunday. Whatever it means this day is clearly a time of increased danger and threat. Therefore the larger point is that as things get more difficult we dare not abandon this provision for maintaining our faithfulness—the spurring of one another on toward love and good deeds.
We live in a Trinitarian world where relational community is at the root of reality. We are intrinsically social beings. We naturally adapt to our social settings. Therefore, we dare not think of our spiritual pilgrimage as a solo journey. We are to regularly join in the company of others who are orienting their lives toward worship of God and service to others. Can this ultimately be fulfilled in a virtual worship or a Zoom encounter? This is the bottom line question. The incarnation suggest that faithful Christians are those who prize real presence by God, with God and with others. Actual presence matters. But this is an assumption that must be argued for rather than taken-for-granted today.
After a year of Covid, we have habituated church members to a virtual, disembodied, and abstract form of worship. This is a problem. If physical presence matters, then old habits will die hard. We might want to start with simple hospitality, that is having our neighboring Christian over for dinner. We need each other and we need each other to be actually present in our lives. Covid has taught us bad habits about church, but it is also spurring us to realized who we are and who we need to be for one another in real life. This is an opportunity for a timely correction.
 Tom Gjelten. “'Things Will Never Be The Same.' How The Pandemic Has Changed Worship,” (National Public Radio, May 20, 2020: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/20/858918339/things-will-never-be-the-same-how-the-pandemic-has-changed-worship/.