Why the Church in Person Will Never Go Out of Style

An Associated Press poll last year reported that three-quarters of worshipers in the United States plan to resume regular in-person attendance as the pandemic subsides.

The pastors I know stare at the empty seats with their fingers crossed, hoping that the prediction will eventually come true.

I admit that during the confinement, I rather enjoyed watching religious services online while lounging in my bathrobe, sipping coffee and controlling the rhythm with a remote control. If something didn’t hold my interest, I could surf the web in search of better music or a more engaging sermon.

I’m not alone. In the UK, for example, a small percentage of the population attends church on average. (The late poet RS Thomas, a priest in the Church of Wales, called himself “vicar of big things in a small parish.”)

Yet a quarter of UK adults have watched or listened to a church service during the coronavirus lockdown, and one in 20 said they started praying during the crisis.

Like my memoirs where the light fell, says, I had a turbulent history with the church. As a child, I attended sermons of hellfire and brimstone in my Southern fundamentalist congregation – which kept black worshipers out and warned against electing a Catholic president (Kennedy).

To recuperate, I spent a few years away from church before getting a taste of a 60s-style house church that substituted the Communion elements of bread and wine for Coke and chips.

Eventually I settled into a more traditional church in Chicago that combined a spirit of grace with a focus on social justice. However, moving to a small town in Colorado limited my options. The church I now attend once drew a thousand regulars, but after church splits and attrition, it currently averages less than 30.

With so many good reasons to connect remotely, I wonder why I went back to the rented room we use on Sundays.

The most important reason, of course, is to worship God. The weekly gathering underscores my creature status as someone in need of higher moral authority. Great souls like Martin Luther King Jr., Václav Havel and Simone Weil have reminded us that what we believe about a Creator can largely determine how we treat our fellow human beings, especially the marginalized, as well as our planet.

Jesus summed up the whole law in two commandments: Love God and love your neighbour. I can complete the first in the privacy of my home, but what about the second? “If you want to grow in love, the way to do it probably won’t be to attend more Bible studies or prayer meetings; it will happen by getting closer to people who are not like you,” writes Canadian pastor Lee Beach.

When I walk into a new church, the more like and alike its members are to me, the more uneasy I feel. One Sunday, I sat sandwiched between an older man hooked up to an oxygen tank and a breastfed baby who grunted loudly and smugly throughout the sermon.

The church provides a place where children and grandparents, the unemployed and executives, immigrants and blue bloods can all come together. Where else can we find this unique blend? Certainly not online.

Not only that, but healthy congregations look beyond their walls to meet the social needs around them. For all its faults, the church still mobilizes workers to feed and shelter the homeless, adopt foster children, visit prisoners, and resettle refugees.

in in bowling aloneHarvard political scientist Robert Putnam noted that “nearly half of all associational membership in America is church-related, half of all personal philanthropy is religious in nature, and half of all volunteerism occurs in a religious context.

Rather than providing a place of entertainment, the true task of the church is to equip a community to serve others – and that task becomes more difficult for those who no longer meet in person. I have noticed that sharp divisions on politics tend to blur when believers unite in acts of service. Indeed, a real community can begin to take shape.

While working on my memoir, I came to see the church as a family – a dysfunctional group of people in need. I think back to my childhood church members, who showed up every Sunday to hear the pastor threaten them with hell, punishment for sins, and impending Armageddon. They came partly out of fear, but also because, like a family, they needed each other to withstand the onslaught of life.

Many of them belonged to the working class. They didn’t sit at home at night worrying about the niceties of theology; they worried about how to pay the bills and feed the children. When a family’s house burned down, or a drunken husband kicked out his wife, or a widow couldn’t pay for groceries, they had no recourse but their local church.

Since that childhood, I have come across many grace-giving churches that serve needs other than those of their members. Admittedly, the benches are less comfortable than the chairs in my living room, and the quality of the worship cannot match the polished productions I watched during the periods of confinement linked to the pandemic.

What they tend to have, however, is a strong sense of community, which is far too rare in our individualistic society.

Philip Yancey is the author of numerous books including, most recently, the memoirs where the light fell.

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