In August, 98% of Protestant churches met in person at least one time that month, according to the pastors surveyed in a LifeWay Research poll [PDF] released last week. But where are all the people? That's the question some of those pastors are asking.
The poll reveals that 13% of churches are drawing less than half of what they were running before the pandemic (based on January 2020 attendance); and 35% of pastors say they're in the 50%-70% range. American Family Association vice president Ed Vitagliano has a few thoughts about why.
"I think there is probably a percentage of former churchgoers who are still nervous about being out in large crowds," he tells AFN. "That is part of the explanation for why churches aren't back up to full attendance."
LifeWay's numbers support his argument. The research group's executive director explains that small churches have had an advantage in the pandemic recovery period.
"It's possible small churches are aided by perceived safety of a naturally smaller gathering, differences in technology options for gathering online, or the strength of relational connections," says Scott McConnell. "But regardless of the reasons why, in-person worship attendance trends currently look promising for small churches.”
Vitagliano suggests that "occasional churchgoers" are using the pandemic as an excuse to sleep in on a Sunday morning.
"People who were Christian in name only or loosely committed to the Christian faith would have been kind of shaken loose by COVID and the lockdowns," he offers. "Churches would probably need to make a stronger effort to bring them back into the fold."
And then there's the group of committed Christians who have discovered they could "attend" their churches virtually.
"There's probably a group of people who have adapted their Christian lives to an online format," the AFA vice president continues. "There's plenty of wonderful preachers and teachers out there, and it might be hard for your average pastor to compete."
But Vitagliano argues that it's time to show up in person. "There is also, biblically speaking in the New Testament, the need for Christianity to be lived out with other people," he says. "That is how God has chosen to work on us.
'Virtual' church doesn't cut it
Popular pastor and author John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Southern California says that, in his opinion, if you're not there in person, you're not at church.
"Zoom church is not church. It's not church – it's watching TV," he says bluntly. "There's nothing about that that fulfills the biblical definition of coming together, singing, speaking to yourselves in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, sitting under the Word of God, praying together."
MacArthur emphasizes that church isn't only a shared experience – it's interactive. "It doesn't even function unless people are mutually using their spiritual gifts for one another and meeting the wonderful fulfilment of all the 'one anothers' – edify one another, pray for one another, rebuke one another, build up one another," he explains.
That connection, he argues, does not happen in any kind of video environment. "I don't think it even happens in a – quote, unquote – 'church' where you're watching a video of a pastor."
Editor's Note: The American Family Association is the parent organization of the American Family News Network, which operates AFN.net.