As internationally COVID-centred lockdowns have been wound down, most churches have expected to see their folk flock back into the building, back into onsite church. But onsite church seems to be down in terms of onsite numbers - possibly to 2/3rds of pre-COVID levels in the United States, down to 1/3rd in some British churches. Of course, many churches have adopted a hybrid model in the meantime and so are looking to see whether the missing folk are more comfortable at home or watching the service at another time of day - but there is quite a bit of anxiety flying around about why regular attendees of onsite church before the pandemic have decided not to come back to onsite church post-pandemic.
Church seems to be down in terms of onsite numbers - possibly to 2/3rds of pre-COVID levels in the United States, down to 1/3rd in some British churches
So a church where I was leading worship/preaching/presiding at Communion last week, had about 25 people in the congregation. Now that was less than expected because they had had a COVID outbreak in the Church and two families were affected. So when I went to speak to the tech team afterwards who were live-streaming the service to YouTube, I wasn't really surprised to find about 40 people watching online. This figure might grow to 100 or so by the end of the week.
WHY ARE WE JUST COUNTING ONSITE ATTENDEES?
When we come to count congregations, we need to consider who is counted in and who is left out. Traditional ways of counting church congregations would suggest 25 people attended my service last Sunday. But that's actually a misrepresentation of the congregation. In fact, 65 people attended synchronously and it may be that 125 attend asynchronously by the end of the week. That's a huge difference when we are counting the congregation. Why don't we count that number - the number of people attending both onsite AND online, rather than just the "bums on pews" number?
Are we saying AGAIN that you only count if you are able to be physically present in a building at a specific time?
Haven't we learnt that the body of Christ is bigger than our onsite attendance: that we need to include those who cannot get to onsite church because they are at work, or because they can't fit easily into our timetables, or are unable to attend because of their life circumstances whatever they may be. People with disabilities, long term illness and the elderly have too often been marginalised by this kind of rhetoric.
The body of Christ is made up of all the people seeking to follow Jesus.
I know that statistics boffins in the church will point out that you can only count the heads you see and that too often YouTube/Facebook figures are just guesstimates - how do you know people were really watching online and not doing something else? How do you know how many were watching on each device?
But we need to turn that around for onsite attendance too - how many were dreaming of Strictly; how many fell asleep; how many wished they had stayed at home; how many were scared witless about their energy bills?
Bums on seats isn't a good way to measure the impact of our local churches. We need to find new ways of measuring impact and the health of our congregations.
BUT HOLD ON!!!
We do need to find those better ways, but perhaps its not quite time to do that yet. Let's let the dust settle before we start rewriting church attendance guidelines.
One of the reasons for relatively empty churches may well be PFS - pandemic fatigue syndrome. We have all gone through so much.
Our members are tired out by the stress of living through a pandemic. It's not surprising that they might be attending less regularly. Perhaps they need a rest and some relaxation. Perhaps, they need some comfort and to be like those sheep in Psalm 23 - let by God out in the pasture. How are we helping them to engage with church online or onsite? Are we catering for their need to relax? Are we shortening services? Are we providing for a healthy amount of Bible and discipleship material? Are we offering healing and recovery sessions? Are we providing "soaking" sessions where people can come and soak in the presence of the Spirit?
WE"RE ALL TIRED OUT!
But also our ministry teams are tired out by pushing on in ministry both online and onsite throughout the pandemic. Of managing to cope with a pandemic AND keep on doing ministry AND coping with deaths in the congregation, in their families, in the wider community AND trying their hardest to provide support for the local community. Innovating new forms of church is hard work when you have been doing it every week for the last 20 months.
How do we acknowledge the tiredness? Where is the space for lament? Where is the time to rest in God rather than be like hyperactive rabbits with unending battery supplies. Perhaps it would be better to move Lent to Advent. To have a period of quiet reflection and thoughtfulness. To lament the dead, to mourn for the planet which we are killing (to walk through the valley of the shadow of death), to care for the sick, and provide space for our people to relax in God, to lie down in green pastures, to be led by the still waters, to have our souls restored.
DOING LESS MAY BE DOING MORE?
Rather than filling ourselves with emergency strategies for refilling the church, why not make use of the spaces to let people relax a bit more and to recover from all they have been through:
Could we rewild the church - bring in plants, comfortable chairs, blankets for elderly knees, heaters for chilly winter evenings and a cold drink for the summer nights?
Could we expect less - rather than put on a full one hour of worship why not offer smaller portions - 15 minutes of:
visual engagement where people can pop in for some services and soak up the experience
biblical content where we do some teaching for 15 minutes
spiritual content such as a short compline service or online communion to close (or open!) the day.
Be interactive - allow people to share with one another about how they are, how they are engaging with God, who they are praying for
Be simple - allow people space to grab hold of what we are saying rather than be tired out by complexity
Let's give things time to settle back into a new and probably hybrid routine