When Rally Day is canceled: Confronting the ongoing church attendance dilemma
Half of all churches experienced an increase in worship attendance in spring 2020. At least, that's what surveys from the Barna Group suggest. Most church leaders can attest to a similar trend in their congregation. As lockdowns tightened during the early pandemic, church-goers with little else to do flocked to online worship, peaking on Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve 2020.
And then the Zoom fatigue began. As the reality of a long pandemic set in, online attendance began to wane. Even as churches reopened their sanctuaries on a limited basis, cumulative attendance continued its decline.
One congregation in my town had over 700 households join for worship online on Christmas Eve. Today, attendance is down to a few dozen worshipping online, with in-person attendance less than half of its pre-pandemic levels. With widespread concerns over unvaccinated children and the delta variant, as well as the reintroduction of mask mandates, some local congregations have opted to cancel rally day festivities in September. Some church leaders have shelved plans for grand re-opening celebrations targeted for the first Sunday after Labor Day, a day that was once thought to be the harbinger of a brighter and mask-free future.
These challenges can, at times, seem unbeatable. In a time like this, today's church leader might try desperately to reverse the slide in attendance. But the headwinds of this pandemic moment may prove to be too strong.
This may not be the time for a well-conceived marketing campaign or a revamped outreach strategy. Instead, this may simply be a time for lament, introspection, and presence.
First, grieve the losses. Many congregations have acknowledged the grief and pain associated with the widespread loss of life during the pandemic. Some have acknowledged the hardship associated with not being able to gather at the altar for communion or to gather in large groups outside of worship. Each of these merits a word of lament from a Christian community, from scriptures, through preaching, and in prayer. As congregations look towards an uncertain fall season, some are planning for a service of lament on All Saint's Day, looking to culminate the longings and losses of the pandemic in the mode of the psalmist. But in a sense, grieving the losses of the past has its limits. Our news cycle, and our day-to-day lives, are so imbued with loss that individual lament has become habitual. We might, therefore, require something more than collectively grieving what has been lost. What we really need now is an expression of the specific type of loss that comes from unrealized hope.
So we acknowledge the pain that comes with unmet aspirations. Now more than ever, our churches are communities with an uncertain future. When 2021 began, we saw a glimmer of hopeful expectation on the horizon, a tantalizing promise that the fall could bring a restoration of what had been lost. In January, I saw an opportunity for churches to innovate, to come up with a new way of doing ministry, and being church community that could be fully implemented come September. The delta variant has tamped down these opportunities. The growth we had anticipated in September may be far less than what we had hoped for. While some churches are moving ahead with their plans, others are expressing dismay in that these predictions have proven unreliable. At best, our grand reopenings in September will be cautious and tenous. Through scripture, preaching, and prayer, we are called not just to lift up the losses of the past, but to confront the unrealized hope that so many of us carried into the new year. Just as the psalmist lifted up the laments of a people in captivity without a clear future, so to must we lift up the concerns of those whose plans and aspirations have crumbled in a second pandemic summer.
Finally, we must reflect on why we feel so pressed to grow. In this season, many church leaders may find grief and frustration from declining attendance in a season where we had once anticipated growth. In this environment, it is appropriate to wonder why we had put so much emphasis on "post-pandemic" growth. This is a time for all of us to revisit our relationship with growth, why we see increased numbers as our key performance indicator for the healthy congregation. As churches without a clear future, growth is not up to us. This is the time to reflect on the mission and purpose of a congregation. In our capitalist cultural context, growth is often viewed as the end or purpose of all organizations. This season of unrealized hope offers us the opportunity to break that cycle, to reflect on God's call, and to orient our communities accordingly.
Attendance may be down, and Rally Day may be canceled. But God remains at work in our communities. The call of the church, which is seldom synonymous with growth, remains in place. Though the future may be uncertain, it is a future that belongs to God. For that, we give thanks amidst our lamentation.
@ryanpanzer is the author of "Grace and Gigabytes." An advocate of innovation in the church, he is a skeptic of growth for the sake of growth.