According to the best research, it takes 60-70 days to form a new habit. In 2020, most churches in America discontinued live attendance worship services for three to nine months. That’s plenty of time to form a new habit.
The Slow, Reluctant Return to Church
Sociologists and historians will be unraveling the ramifications of the 2020 pandemic for years to come. I will leave them to their important work. The immediate challenge for me is to grapple with the massive ramifications of the pandemic on the way we do life together.
Statistics offer some hope for churches.
A March 9, 2021, poll by Lifeway Research found that 91% of churchgoers “plan to attend worship services as often or more often than before COVID-19.” According to the National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project, “in-person attendance had recovered to 57% of the pre-pandemic numbers” by April 2021.
Then there’s the “Not-So-Good” News.
According to Lifeway Research, 6% of churchgoers said they would attend “less often” than they did before the pandemic, while 2% said they would attend “rarely,” and 1% percent said they would “never” attend. In other words, while church attendance is slowly recovering, church leaders shouldn’t expect everyone to return. Almost 1 in 10 won’t.
In light of these findings, there are two questions that should be addressed: (1) Why are 1 in 10 Christians not coming back to church? (2) Why should they (or anyone, for that matter) come back?
Why 40% Have Not Returned
There are many reasons why people are not coming back to church. I will mention only the top three. [Side Note: I am not including those who have switched churches. This article is concerned only with those who have decided not to return to any church).
1. Lingering Covid-19 Concerns.
Nineteen months after the first Covid cases were reported in the U.S., the Delta variant of the virus is wreaking havoc on many communities.
My city, for example, is a hotspot for Covid cases. Although the variant is primarily impacting a smaller portion of the population (the unvaccinated), the ICUs are still full, medical personnel are still exhausted, and the media is still exploiting the virus to sell tickets to their nightly commentaries.
We are reminded daily that the pandemic is not over and a number of “at-risk” Christians are not ready to live as if it were.
I support their decision and encourage them to continue worshipping online until they feel safe enough to return.
After months of inactivity, quarantined from social interaction, it takes a while to get going again.
In physics, inertia refers to “the property of matter by which it retains its state of rest or its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force.”
It took a direct and strong external force (the pandemic) to stop our forward momentum. It will take an equally direct and strong force to get that momentum back.
As a side note, there are a number of factors that contribute to our lethargy:
- We are grieving our massive losses (i.e., jobs, finances, relationships, family, and friends).
- We are unsure of our future.
- We are torn apart by the political divide.
- We are paralyzed by massive culture shifts.
- We are exhausted from our frantic pre-covid pace and have no desire to return to it.
- We are emotionally drained by the new challenges.
Ironically, the one place that should provide a solid grounding for the challenges ahead — the church — is the very thing some are choosing to jettison before moving forward.
It’s akin to a skydiver feeling like he’s carrying too much weight on his back so before he jumps, he decides to get rid of the parachute. The ride will certainly feel lighter, but it won’t end well.
3. No perceived added value.
In economics, added value refers to “the difference between the price of a product or service and the cost of producing it.”
The vision of my church is to develop people who bring healing and wholeness to the community and beyond, even as Jesus is transforming them.
The way we accomplish that is through spending time in the Word of God, worshipping weekly with our church community, giving generously to the cause, and serving regularly on the mission field.
It’s a steep price.
Church members are willing to pay the price of attending, giving, and serving because they value what they are accomplishing together, recognizing that it is far greater than anything they could do alone.
Suppose, however, we stop perceiving that value. What if we no longer feel that the church is helping us to change the world? Do you think we will continue to pay the price of attending, giving, and serving?
For some churchgoers, Covid-19 disrupted the inertia of their churchgoing activities. In their new resting inertia, they began to reevaluate whether their prior participation in church added value to their lives.
Most have concluded that it did, and are slowly returning. Some are unsure and are exploring new ways to practice their faith. Others still have concluded that it didn’t and will not be returning.
In my next blog post, I will offer seven reasons a return to regular church attendance is essential for every Christian.