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  • Writer's pictureIan Sutton

Will They Return?

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

Return from Exile. Hebrew people returning to Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile.

Two months ago we published a post entitled COVID-19: The Church’s New Normal. The theme was that the pandemic had forced a reduction in church attendance because people were not able to assemble in person. Remote services and meetings helped control the decline. Indeed, technology opened up a new way of communicating that will remain. Nevertheless, the pandemic had a adverse impact on overall attendance, membership and participation.

That post was written at a time when the pandemic was declining but still required severe restrictions on in-person gatherings. Since then, most churches are almost back to normal. The buildings are open, congregations are assembling and people are mingling with one another. Some restrictions are still in place, particularly with regard to the shared communion cup. Nevertheless, church life is back to normal.

Well, almost back to normal. We are not yet seeing people return in pre-pandemic numbers. One reason for the slow return may be that people are still feeling cautious. After all, many church members are elderly; they remain concerned about picking up an infection, even if they have been vaccinated. But there is a concern that attendance will never return to pre-pandemic levels.

On June 29th 2021 David Sharp of the Associated Press published an article Millions skipped church during the pandemic. Will they return? In the article Sharp quotes leaders from a wide range of faith organizations. The short answer to his question, “Will they return?” is “No”. The step change decline in attendance that occurred during the pandemic appears, at this point in time, to be permanent. One survey suggests that the drop will be around 7%, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the actual number is considerably larger.

Earlier posts in this series showed the following chart for membership in the Episcopal church.

Episcopal Church membership decline.

Credit: Ian Sutton

Membership in the Episcopal Church has been falling steadily at a rate of about 3% per annum over the course of the last three decades. A straight line projection shows that membership hits zero around the year 2045. (Other denominations report similar trends.) Although the curve will exhibit some type of asymptote or dog leg before that date, the trend line is ominous. If attendance and membership have fallen even further during the pandemic then the situation will become even more worrying.

A related problem is that the membership is growing older — the “gray hairs” are not being replaced by young people in leadership positions. It was suggested in the earlier post that one reason for the relative lack of youth engagement is that the church does not “speak to their condition”. We need to identify the issues that generate passion among younger people and to organize appropriately.

The problem of declining membership is, of course, one that has occupied many of the finest minds in the church for decades. But the pandemic has created a sense of urgency.

In addition to the many other causes that are put forward for church decline, it is suggested here, and in other posts in this series, that two factors deserve particular attention.

The first factor is that, during the pandemic, the church had nothing special to say. Church leaders acted responsibly and followed the rules and guidance from secular authorities. They also provided comfort and support during difficult times. (For example, my church organized a daily, on-line morning prayer service — something that had never been done before.) Nevertheless, churches merely acted as responsible citizens; they did no more than most other organizations. To reiterate,

The church had nothing special to say during the pandemic.
Ugo Bardi – professor of Chemistry University of Florence. Author of the Cassandra blog and holbionts.

Ugo Bardi (1952- )

Ugo Bardi, an Italian chemistry professor, had this to say about the church’s response to the pandemic at his post 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church.

It is curious that such an old and resilient institution <the Roman Catholic church> was demolished by such a humble creature as a virus labeled SARS-Covid2. But that was how it happened. Faced with the virus threat, the Church found nothing to say, nothing to object, nothing to propose. It meekly submitted to the superior power of the state.
So, in Italy, this Christmas the state ruled that the traditional midnight mass was to be held at 8 pm. Of course, it is hard to believe that a virus could infect people at midnight but not at 8 pm. On visiting a church, you would find someone at the entrance pointing a laser gun at your forehead. You saw the benches with places crossed with red tape. Instead of holy water fountains, you would find bottles with disinfecting solutions. People hiding their faces in front of God just like Adam had been hiding from God in the Garden of Eden. And, finally, the final insult was the virtual mass, with the priest turned into a 2D image confined in a little square on a screen, virtually blessing virtual believers.

Bardi’s comments are to do with the catholic church in Italy. But they apply equally well to the church worldwide. I am a member of the Episcopal church, and reside in the diocese of Virginia (USA). We do not have a traditional cathedral building in the center of a large town. Instead, we have an open air shrine called Shrinemont located in the mountains of the wester part of the state. It’s a beautiful area — here is a picture of our “cathedral” in normal times.

St James the Less church at Shrinemont.

Credit: St. James the Less Church

And here is a picture of the same cathedral last year.

Pews at Shrinemont blocked out due to COVID restrictions.

Credit: Ian Sutton

If the first factor in the church’s accelerating decline is its lack of a message during the pandemic, the second factor could be that the church is not speaking to the concerns that people, particularly young people, have as to what is going on in the world.

The pandemic is not the only major news item. Climate change is starting to really bite. It’s happening now, it’s getting worse, and people are frightened. For example, the recent heat wave in the Pacific Northwest is unprecedented. The following headline and image is taken from a Washington Post article. (116°F is the same as 46.7°C.)

Heat dome in Pacific Northwest. Record high temperatures.

Credit: Washington Post

The deeper message here is that science and technology have failed — they have created a world where conditions are getting worse year by year, and there is no solution. (As we stress throughout this site, we face predicaments, not problems. Problems have solutions. When the solution is found and implemented the problem goes away. Predicaments do not have solutions. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. Climate change is a predicament. If we had taken action decades ago it is possible that we could have maintained our current way of living, but we didn’t take action, so here we are.)

So far, the church’s response to the virus has been to develop new ways of communicating and to help people who are have been adversely affected. But the church authorities have continued to cede leadership to the secular authorities. But maybe the tables have turned. If science and technology have indeed reached an end point — a point where they have created predicaments that they are unable to solve — then maybe the church and people of faith have an opportunity to step up and to put forward new ways of understanding the world. This in turn could lead to new ways of living that put us more in harmony with the natural world. If this insight is correct, then we will need a new theology, one that speaks to people who feel as if they are in their own Babylonian Exile.

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