Several recent church studies and surveys boil down to this: American churches are at about 60% of their pre-COVID on-site attendance. That means 40% of former church attendees have not returned to a relational connection with other Christians. Although 20% are watching services online, another 20% have completely separated from the congregation of believers. This has left a spiritual vacuum in the lives of millions of Americans and has inflicted a serious injury on the soul of our nation.
During the COVID lock-down, most churches cancelled gatherings of their members for several months. During this closure, congregants of larger churches had the advantage of preexisting online streaming of services. Many smaller churches quickly produced online capability for their members. Before long, faithful church members throughout the country became comfortable sitting on their couch or recliner in their pajamas with a cup of coffee watching the services. Worship leaders were singing and pastors were preaching to an empty sanctuary except for video cameras. This technology, although far from ideal, was a godsend to both church leadership and church members. But it also had a downside.
When COVID subsided somewhat, and the nation began to open its doors again, churches also began to open and regroup initially with some level of precautions involving masks and social distancing. After several weeks, most churches were back to a semblance of normal operation. What wasn’t normal was that only about half of the pews or chairs were filled. Half of the congregation was looking around wondering where the other half went. Research shows that a few are still not comfortable with indoor crowds, since the pandemic has not yet fully ended. A much greater number have grown too comfortable with watching services from their home and are still in that mode. And, the hard truth is many have simply gotten out of the habit of church, actual attendance or on TV, and can’t get motivated to return. Being an online church member or avoiding church altogether can become addictive, but it comes at a price, spiritually and socially.
The first and foremost reason for choosing physical presence at church services is that the Bible clearly and emphatically teaches it. Hebrews 10:25 reads, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another, and so much the more, as you see the day (of the Lord) approaching.” Acts 2 describes the first Christians’ commitment to the early churches, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…All believers were together and had everything in common…Praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Those Christians were not exercising their faith in private or watching services online. They were following God in establishing the model He intended for doing life together and furthering the Kingdom through the church.
Prominent pastor and author, Rick Warren, describes the five biblical purposes of the church: outreach (evangelize), worship (exalt), fellowship (encourage), discipleship (edify), and service (equip). None of those purposes, meant to grow us in our relationship with the Lord, is realized by avoiding church gatherings with the possible exception of being somewhat edified by internet. Private Bible study and prayer is necessary, but does not fulfill the need for reaching others, worshiping corporately, fellowshipping, and ministering collectively. God made us to be social creatures serving Him together, and nowhere is that better accomplished than in the church Christ established.
Furthermore, I believe the prosperity, health, and moral foundation of our country ultimately depends on God’s favor. Surely, everyone would conclude that America, the greatest nation in history, has declined in all three categories over recent years. The nation’s wandering away from God for decades became a mass exodus during COVID. The only way to reverse this potentially fatal national degeneration is to turn back to God. That can only be done through nationwide repentance and revitalization of the church. The first step toward that must be recommitment of the 40% that dropped out. They must reactivate with their church. America won’t survive with a permanent 40% decrease in church attendance.
If you are among the 40% of Christians who have not been active in your church recently, let me strongly urge you to have a conversation with God about that. Then let Him help you sort out what is keeping you away from meeting with your fellow believers on a regular basis. If you are of the 60% who are faithfully attending church as you did before COVID, let me strongly urge you to reach out to those you haven’t seen for a while and encourage them to join you at church this Sunday. It’s time for everyone to get back into church.