Saturday, May 8, 2021

Survey says: When it is safe. . .

As most of you know, the shape of the Church post-pandemic has been on my mind a great deal -- perhaps it is an occupational hazard.  In any case, I am not the only one thinking about the lessons (good and bad) learned from COVID.  Lifeway is one organization with its fingers on the pulse of things (at least from the Protestant side of things).  According to their study of 1,000 U.S. Protestant churchgoers, a surprising 91% said they planned on returning to in-person worship -- with the caveat -- when it is safe to do so. Therein lies the problem.  When is it safe and how do you determine this?  Lifeway Research says churchgoers are eager to return to pre-pandemic worship practices but little more than half of those who wish to return actually attended in January of this year.  And about as many as want to return to in person worship watched livestream instead.  Perhaps as more and more are vaccinated, this will translate into more bodies in church.  We will have to wait and see.

About the only good news is that only 5% of churchgoers switched churches during the pandemic and only 3% changed churches because of moving.  There has been a large number of church hoppers among Protestants and perhaps the pandemic will slow it down.  We will see.   The bad news is that although some congregations will trim back their online services as the situations change, most congregations will continue the hybrid model.  Some of them are convinced that their impact is greater with online -- especially if they think they have a new or different audience for their online offerings.  Perhaps the online contributions from their viewers will sway their decision to keep the hybrid model or the lack of that financial support encourage them to go back to in person only.  We will see.

One thing is sure.  The pandemic will not help and will probably speed up the decline Protestant congregations are already experiencing.  I am not sure what this will mean for Lutherans.  We are not quite Protestants (like Baptists or mainline) but that has not made us immune to the same kind of numbers decline.  In the end, a lot will depend upon what people are returning to -- a memory they are trying to recreate, the same old preference driven style emphasized worship of the past, or a compelling sense of God's presence speaking through the Scriptures and sermon and bestowing His grace in the Sacraments of confession, baptism, and the Eucharist.  If people are to return and remain there, the only thing that will draw them permanently is their awareness of and anticipation for the efficacious words and gifts of Christ.  Anything else will not be strong enough or dependable enough to keep them there.  What we should learn is that technology, borrowing worship styles from others, and constantly changing what happens on Sunday morning is not a strong enough glue to hold our folks.  They need nothing less than to know and rejoice in the God whose presence bestows the riches of the grace and favor won by Christ's obedient life, life-giving death, and triumphant resurrection.  It will require that the preacher learn to speak again the strong language of Scripture in addressing sin and death with the forgiveness and life that we have received in Christ.  And, it will need the congregations to focus on what happens on Sunday morning -- for if this is not the source and summit of the life of God's people, nothing else good will follow.  And if we do all of this and the Church still declines, then it is God's will and not our well-intentioned but flawed efforts that will have killed it.


1 comment:

Carl Vehse said...

Here's a link to the March 9, 2021, Lifeway article, "U.S. Churchgoers Say They’ll Return Post-COVID," including a description of the methodology for the survey, which was conducted on February 5-18.

Here's a link to the complete survey, "Protestant Churchgoers’ Views on Church Participation during COVID-19."

When Lifeway asked the leading question, "When COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people’s health, which best reflects your plans for attending worship services at your church in person," with the following group responses:

23% of those surveyed said they would attend church more often than before COVID-19
68% of those surveyed said they would attend church the same as before COVID-19
Baptists: 27% claim they will attend more often than before COVID-19
Lutherans: 17% claim they will attend more often than before COVID-19
Methodists: 16% claim they will attend more often than before COVID-19
Evangelicals: 28% claim they will attend more often than before COVID-19
Southerners: 27% claim they will attend more often than before COVID-19
Northeasterners: 16% claim they will attend more often than before COVID-19
Midwesterners: 19% claim they will attend more often than before COVID-19