Hope for Living: Will post-COVID-19 church attendance move from in-person to virtual?

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By Theodore A. Griffin

In his blog post “8 Disruptive Church Trends that will Rule 2021,” Carey Nieuwhof predicts that growing churches will shift their focus from in-person gathering at a set location and a set hour to connecting.

He opines, therefore, that the requisite skill and strategy that all church leaders will have to master is that of connecting people who desire to engage from home both with the church and with one another. Virtual gatherings and small group gatherings, then, will be the future of the church.

I wish I could say I disagree with Nieuwolf’s claim. That church attendance figures have taken a catastrophic hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be disputed. Even prior to COVID-19, what Nieuwhof calls “the death of cultural Christianity” had already conspired with other factors — namely, a growing indifference, increased mobility, travel sports and weekends away, to cause either the flatlining of or decline in attendance at most churches. Statistics indicate that for 82% of pastors, even online church attendance is flat or declining as well (ChurchPlus Weekly Podcast).

In another blog post, “9 Reasons Attendance Could Stay Lower Than Pre-COVID Attendance,” Chuck Lawless cites more than one church-growth expert who has suggested that church attendance will remain lower than pre-COVID numbers even after we’re past this situation.

One of those reasons, he asserts, is that some members who were fringe attenders prior to COVID now have another reason not to come.

It is difficult to not see how this dire projection connects to the predictive metanarrative of Scripture in which Jesus predicted a waning of “the love of many” (Matthew 24:12), and the apostle Paul a departure from the faith by some (1 Timothy 4:1).

While it may not be correct to make the carte blanche assumption that the decline in in-person attendance is synonymous with the apostasy to which both Jesus and Paul alluded, it does underscore Nieuwhof’s claim that church leaders need to become more skilled at connecting people who prefer to engage virtually rather than through in-person attendance.

Nieuwhof’s prediction seems to negate the “holy expectancy” theologian Richard Foster envisioned when one or two come into public worship, which he says can change the atmosphere of a room. Clearly, Foster’s allusion to “gathered” worship envisioned in-person attendance.

However, it is hard to see how he would negate that virtual gathering of the community of faith also meant being “gathered into a unity of the Spirit that transcends individualism” (ChurchPlus Weekly Podcast).

If Nieuwhof is correct that there will be a shift from hosting in a centralized facility to facilitating connection through groups that are outward-focused and mobilized for mission, then that needs to be embraced as a welcome thing rather than something to feel threatened by.

As a pastor who puts a premium on “not neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25), I shudder at the prediction that in-person gathering may soon become obsolete.

If Nieuwhof is sounding the alarm for a paradigm shift in our approach to ministry, then should church leaders stubbornly keep plodding ahead with more of the same, or should we set our church’s sail in such a way that it catches the wind and is propelled by it in the direction that it is blowing?

The Rev. Theodore A. Griffin is lead pastor at Brown’s Chapel Wesleyan Church in Greenfield. This weekly column is written by local clergy members. Send comments to dr-editorial@ greenfieldreporter.com.