Is Congregational Worship an Endangered Species?

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I attended worship in person last Sunday. We were about twenty percent full, I would say. My church is worshiping in person these days, but we are Zooming services as well, and in fact encouraging people to stay home while Covid numbers remain high—come only if you’re able and comfortable with it. Those of us who do show up in the sanctuary are expected to wear masks the whole time. A musician sings on our behalf. We do communion with those infernal little hermetically sealed plastic cups-n-wafers. It’s all so very limited and impoverished compared to… well, remember the good old days?

Still. I go because I’m so glad to be present, with other people, in a room together. My faith these days sometimes feels as thin and dry as that little wafer. So the presence of these familiar, faithful people—even if we can’t chat over coffee after the service—that presence feels like a balm. This whole pandemic disaster has taught me—probably many of us—how very weak we are alone, how much we need each other.

Maybe you read Tish Harrison Warren’s controversial op-ed this week in the New York Times. She argues that it’s time for churches to “drop the virtual option” and get people back to church in person. She makes the case that embodiment is essential to Christianity, and she registers the desire to close and lock the online back door the pandemic has created, the one through which the formerly faithful can quietly escape.

Well, unsurprisingly, the essay set off a Twitter storm. Who is she to tell churches what to do? Doesn’t she read the news about surging Covid numbers? Doesn’t she give one single patoot for people with disabilities, for whom Zoom church has been a huge gift? The pushback is largely valid, in my view (if sometimes intemperate). I agree that Warren made a fatal error by taking a finger-wagging, totalizing, “you should do this” approach in the piece—perhaps she is under pressure to create controversy and thus drive readers to the New York Times. If so, the plan is working.

In any case, Warren is right to wonder about the future of in-person worship. In fact, I wonder about the future of congregations as the standard way of doing church. Unfortunately, though, we are dealing with trends that began long before the pandemic. The pandemic has simply catalyzed and accelerated what was already happening.

Already by 2019, for instance, the number of Americans who claimed to attend church weekly or almost weekly had dropped from 37 percent in 2009 to 31 percent. Religious affiliation is another key measure. In 2007, 16 percent of Americans did not affiliate with any religion. The number has risen steadily until now, 29 percent of Americans identify as “nones.” Some of the “nones” still believe in God, by the way. They’re just opting out of organized religion.

We could all round up the usual ecclesial sins to explain why people disaffiliate: sexual abuse by clergy, toxic nationalism and political division, celebrity culture, sexism, racism, rejection of LGBTQ+ people, just plain boring worship, etc., etc. Or we could blame “society”: people are selfish, they’re obsessed with their own consumer preferences and uncommitted to anything beyond themselves, etc., etc. For any number of these reasons, probably, a lot of people were on their way out anyway, and Zoom church gave that last gentle push out the door. Admittedly, it’s so much easier not to go to church. Jammies, coffee, rest and quiet. We’re all tired.  

Even some highly churched, “professional Christians” I know—good and faithful people, lifelong church attenders—have left the difficulties of congregational life and the inevitable disappointments of worship behind, at least for now. Instead, on Sundays, they listen online to a great sermon from a tall steeple church in another city. Or they walk the dogs in the woods. Or they just never got around to finding a church when they moved to a new town, and why bother now? I get it. Some Sundays, that person in jammies is me.

So I don’t judge these folks one bit. I don’t judge my own adult children, either, who believe the right beliefs, but these days, are not attending church. I don’t judge them. But I do long for them. I long that they might experience the beauty of congregational life and weekly worship, a beauty I’ve known all my life, in several different congregations, including my current one, even amid Covid.

Maybe this longing is nothing more than nostalgia for a simpler time, when everyone in the community dressed up in their Sunday best and walked the family to church in polished shoes and life was sunny and simple. Maybe. The truth is that things were never simple. But now we live in a time of immense upheaval in the church. We have megachurch brands and house churches and pop-up churches and online churches and YouTube content creators and spiritual retreat centers with yoga and who knows what else.

So is in-person congregational worship now an endangered species? If so, is it worth saving?

I think so. But we’ll never be able to “should” people back into the church building. And I don’t think we ought to lure people with worship pyrotechnics, either. Instead, we might have to make a clearer case about why church life matters. And also take into account the valid concerns of Warren’s critics, finding ways to include and create embodied community for those for whom in-person worship and congregational activity are hard or impossible. As ever, we have to identify the essence of our best practices and adapt that essence to our new context.  

What is that essence? Well, here are a few things I have cherished. I do want to keep inviting people into the “old” ways of doing things, but maybe we can also find new ways, especially more inclusive ones.  

The long haul. It’s the long haul that matters to me. One slick, fabulous service does not a church life make. Instead, I lean hard on the faithfulness of others, showing up week after week across decades, across seasons of life. Even when I was the transient one, I depended on more grounded folk to provide a hospitable space of long-haul faithfulness for me. 

Community care. One of the most important reasons to attend a church regularly is to become a part of a church family so they can take care of you when you need it—and so you can do the same for others.  

Reorientation. Weekly worship recalibrates my imagination. I need this, all the more so in times of crisis. I need to reconnect to the transcendent reality toward which all creation is groaning. I need to remember that God is God. I need to hear God’s promises again and again.

Singing. This is such a weird practice in our culture, but what a precious heritage. For so many of us, singing seals our connection to God, heals our soul-wounds. Good music and substantial, beautiful words together make it much easier for our hearts to hear what the Spirit wants to say.

Quiet. For some Christian traditions, worship is a noisier affair, and that can be great, too. But I relish the moments of quiet listening, silent prayer. Listening together is another countercultural, spiritual practice.

Word and sacrament. Even after all these years, the Bible still speaks to me in new ways, I learn new things about the spiritual life. The sacraments nourish mysteriously and inexplicably—less so out of plastic cups, I’m afraid. Even so, showing up for the word and sacrament is a way to lead with our bodies to put our whole selves in the way of God’s actions.

Yes, embodiment is essential in our faith practices. Yes, Zoom church has been an anemic, stopgap measure and provided a quiet backdoor exit for many. But it’s also been a blessing and opened up a lot of possibilities. I do long for a return to full-on, full-throated, y’all-come, in-person worship. Meanwhile, though, can we use what we’re learning to make new, even better forms of church life?

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     Some years ago there was an article in USA Today involving a Presbyterian Church in Missouri about the importance of singing in church, particularly the well-known psalms and hymns, as they encourage us, and in particular the next generation, to sing those songs that include our basic Christian doctrinal concepts, because in music we pass along the torch of our faith to those who follow us.  So, not just in preaching, as important as that part of corporate worship is, but in music our hearts are touched by the Holy Spirit.

     That's why I believe corporate worship, unlike other means of partaking in worship, as in cyberspace or on U-tube, binds our hearts more closely together. 

It is a new social/economic world out there and the old world will not return.

Why? Because young people are learning that they don't need to be in the same physical location to accomplish most duties and many pleasures. Eating and drinking with other people might be the last to disappear. I have always hated shaking hands. A nod would be just fine. 

Debra: I too, was annoyed by Tish Warren's column. But to her credit...she posted a follow up to a number of thoughtful comments that readers sent in. Here are a sampling she shared (on Feb. 6 if you have a subscription)

 

February 6, 2022

 

I wrote last week about ending online church. Here’s how readers responded.

                By Tish Harrison Warren

 

There was a huge response to last week’s newsletter, where I argued that churches should phase out their livestream services. I received thousands of emails and other replies online, many of which were beautiful and profound. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

Readers raised important concerns and questions, so I decided to use this week’s newsletter to highlight excerpts from some of the thoughtful and helpful replies that I received.

 

Some readers responded enthusiastically to the piece and found motivation in it to return to in-person services.

 

A reader from Connecticut said: “I think the worst part of online services is that on a busy weekend I can have an excuse to stay at home. … Watching an online service while cooking dinners for the week or doing the laundry provides none of the benefits of physically being present in church. I pray that your newsletter will provide me with the motivation to get back to church!”

 

A physician in Delaware wrote: “I have enjoyed your column and agree that the emphasis on video connection falls short of the touch, smell, direct three-dimensional vision of churchgoers.

“I also miss the connection with the homeless in our church and particularly the absence of children and young people who are being seduced by the internet and away from the raw and pleasant smell of life in the pews. For me, church is community, and the Covid fear, although real, is overplayed. It can be done safely with masks and appropriate distancing. The older people in the church resist return from this fear and are probably the ones who most need it. I am 76 years old, work in a children’s hospital and with appropriate caution still am active in my community and not frightened by Covid, whose main harm is that it causes increasing community isolation.”

 

A friend in Pennsylvania whose daughter is immunocompromised reflected on why she still thinks in-person church is essential:

“I am the mother of three children, one who is immune-suppressed in order to protect her transplanted heart, and two healthy boys. We are a vaccinated family. I could not agree more with the need (and desire) for in-person worship at this time.

 

“My daughter’s life has been a process of measuring risk with benefit. When the doctors told us at the beginning of her life that she would not be able to beat the cold or flu or R.S.V. (normal childhood viruses) like other children, we knew that we needed to take the concern of transmitting these viruses with great caution.

“In the 12 years since, this has been weighed, however, with a deep conviction that we need to cultivate a life in which she can be carefree and joyful at the same time. I believe that human connection is necessary for a life of joy. And joy is necessary for our health; physical, emotional and spiritual.

 

“This is why we chose in-person learning AND in-person worship when they became options for our family. Though the necessity of being homebound was clear at the beginning, we knew that it was temporary and that a return to human connection was vital for our holistic health. This was not a decision made in spite of our daughter’s risk, but for her benefit.

“She needs to feel as close to normal as possible, when her monthly (sometimes weekly) doctor appointments tell her she’s not. She needs to participate in worship with the broken body that she has and take in the blood and body of our Lord broken for her. She needs to sing for joy with the congregation after we’ve received the Eucharist and declare hope for a time when transplants (and Covid) will be no more. We all do.

 

“Online church was a gift to us when we had no other option, but it could never replace the in-person fellowship of the saints and, in my opinion, can’t be seen as an equal alternative.”

There were readers who agree with the importance of in-person church but who have found that in practice it is difficult to attend church where they live because of a lack of Covid-19 precautions.

 

One friend in rural Virginia commented: “We cannot find a safe place to worship in our community because people won’t mask and most of them aren’t vaccinated. We tried once in the past two years to go to church in person and were so discouraged we just haven’t gone back again.”

The most weighty objections I received were from people with disabilities or compromised immune systems. They often expressed feeling overlooked even before the pandemic began and felt that online church allowed for more involvement in their church.

 

Here is an insightful response from one such reader: “I live with incurable lymphoma, a primary immune deficiency, life-threatening asthma and tracheobronchomalacia, and have to take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of my life. Prior to the pandemic, I often refrained from attending services during the winter because of the high flu risk, but almost never missed anything during the rest of the year. I was deeply involved in our congregational life.

“You say that churches have been dealing with the problem of the homebound and the sick for centuries — that’s a very romantic notion. Maybe some churches genuinely care for the sick. Here, in south Louisiana, that has not been the case when it comes to the chronically ill. That is what I’ve observed both as a caregiver and as a patient. The chronically ill are an afterthought, if thought of at all.

 

“When I asked our leadership, during the rare congregational meeting in which they included a videoconferencing component, what they were planning to do to make it possible for those of us who are immunocompromised to participate in church activities, a church leader replied in an annoyed, flippant tone of voice, that they were following all the C.D.C. guidelines. And no, our church’s leadership doesn’t care enough about the homebound to have anyone come visit us in person. If anyone needs help, they have to beg for it. It’s not offered.

“I hope you’ll consider publishing something that would encourage church leadership to take seriously the spiritual and equally deep social needs of the chronically ill and immunocompromised, and begin treating us like we matter just as much as the healthy members of their congregations.”

 

Here are excerpts from a Twitter thread by Tanya Marlow, a writer in Britain, who is homebound: “I want to push back on two areas I think you confuse: embodiment and interaction. I am embodied. I am always embodied because I have a body, albeit a disabled one. When I am in bed, watching a service, I am worshiping with my body. Please don’t confuse geographically less proximate with disembodied.

“Having an online option allows me to serve. I have shared testimony via video link and even preached sermons that way. Neither does it exclude community: Having a Zoom chat and prayer after the service is fab, and can be integrated with those in church, too.

 

“As well as pastoral considerations, there are missional ones: disabled people are a massively underreached people group and have often experienced abuse and rejection by churches.”

There were also those who sought a creative way to limit churches’ use of livestreaming while also reaching out to and supporting people who are disabled or have compromised immune systems.

 

A reader in Texas wrote: “Even as someone who’s super pro-disability rights, I don’t think that in-person and online experiences are wholly equivalent. And I agree that church members visiting homebound members is essential. (And online services likely permit churches to cop-out of these kinds of ministries.) But how do ministries to homebound members find disabled Christians who are not yet members? (Unlike many elderly churchgoers, a young disabled adult who moves to a new area likely didn’t develop the disability while at a church, and thus it would be difficult for the church to learn about him/her.)

“Why should homebound disabled Christians not have access to the preaching and exposition of the word that they receive from watching a sermon online? Perhaps a middle line should be drawn: Churches need to do better at their homebound ministries, they need to preach that — when churchgoers are able — they should attend services in person because embodiment is significant, but they also should leave services online for the disabled to access.”

 

I agree that offering livestreaming services to those with unique accessibility needs could play a helpful role as one part of more comprehensive, holistic and ongoing support. I am sorry not to have included this caveat in my original piece.

Each of these responses offers vital and needed insight as we seek to come back from Covid as a church and a society. I am grateful for you, readers, and for your interaction with these important ideas and difficult questions.

 

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].