The phenomena of those who have chosen not to return to church has been the subject of speculation as numbers have dropped dramatically in church attendance. Even long time church attenders are absent and have indicated that they don't intend to come back.
A case can be made that in many cases, this reflects either poor theology (I don't need church or I can get what I want online when I need it) or low spiritual commitment (I can do my spirituality without the church). Certainly Covid sped up the tendency among church goers that Sunday is a day off and church is an option but not a priority.
Covid's fallout thus reflects the loss of those whose faith was less than robust, who may have been church attendees by habit or tradition or many who simply find the church irrelevant to their lives.
My take is that while the above is often true, that the church itself is largely responsible for people not returning post Covid. It has itself to blame and it should cause major reevaluation as to the purpose, message and engagement of the church. So here is my take on dwindling church attendance in the post Covid world.
We have failed to teach and live a Biblical ecclesiology. We have lost a Biblical theology of the church. The Scriptures have a theology of church that has been lost because the church has not taught it or lived it. Scripturally, the church is a gathering of God's people to worship God in community, be encouraged and challenged by God's Word, in community, care for one another in community, and engage in God's work in the outside world together as God's people are released into their gifting to live out their unique God given calling and legacy.
Instead we have made worship services about us rather than about God. The focus is on meeting our own needs rather than being focused on the worship of our creator. Certainly that needs to be done in culturally sensitive ways but still it begs the question as to whether the focus of the service is on us or on God.
We have failed to teach and live out the "one another" aspect of the Christian life. Here is where in the words of Scripture, male and female, Jew and gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, people from every background, culture and language become one in Christ. The Gospel is the great leveler as the Spirit knits disparate people into one- body that is the local manifestation of the body of Christ. None of this happens in isolation. It happens in authentic community. It happens as we are forced to grapple with what it means to be part of the body of Christ and to move from autonomous independent individuals to people knit together by the Holy Spirit. Quite simply, that does not happen in isolation but in community, sometimes messy community. If we understood God's plan for the church, diminishing our commitment to the church would not be an option. But we don't.
We have substituted feel good teaching for transformational teaching. Many messages from the pulpit today can hardly be differentiated from the self help section of books at Barnes and Nobles. There may be great advice there but Scripture is meant to teach, instruct, rebuke (where necessary), train us in righteousness and challenge our thinking, relationships, hearts, actions and priorities. Too little of our preaching does that these days. In traditional settings it is theology without application. In non traditional settings it is often self help without theology. This is the fault of the church.
If I want self help, the You Tube channel, a podcast or a book will suffice. I don't need church for that. If I want theology and Biblical teaching that forces me to think Biblically and allow the Holy Spirit to transform my life, I need the church because all of this is done most powerfully in community with other believers. This is not about entertaining folks on Sunday mornings but engaging people in a common experience of worship, prayer, Bible teaching with our fellow pilgrims.
We have changed ministry from that of living out our God given wiring and gifting meant to reach the world to volunteerism within the four walls of our churches. Don't get me wrong. The church as an organism needs the best of what each of us has to bring. We are all fellow ministers working to grow together and it is as we use our gifts that the body of Christ is built up into what it is meant to be (Ephesians 4). Note again the emphasis on community.
However, the call of God on our lives goes beyond serving coffee on Sundays. It goes to a lifestyle where we are intentionally using our God given gifts on a 24/7 basis, not only inside the four walls of the church but in the world where we live and work and play. Yet in many ways the church has defined ministry as what happens within its four walls and in doing so has downplayed the strategic call of God on each of our lives to be His representatives in a hurting and broken world. In doing so we have diminished the important work that God has for each of our lives whether we are school teachers, janitors, salespeople, executives or wherever God has placed us in life and work. We have failed to help Christ followers understand the way that God wants to use them in a fallen world.
We have allowed "information" about the Christian life to trump "relationship" in the Christian life. If the Christian life is primarily about information, we can find that commodity in many places. But that is not the teaching of Scripture. It is in community that we grow as we learn to love disparate and different people. It is in community that I learn to care for others and be the hands and feet of Jesus. It is in community that I learn the humility of working and living with others. It is in community that I learn to put my spiritual maturity to the test: to forgive, work together, use my gifts for the common good; be encouraged and challenge others. Count up the "one another" statements in the New Testament and you get the picture. Even Jesus, our greatest example, chose to live life in community with twelve other individuals so say nothing of the many hundreds of others who were part of His larger community.
We have allowed church size to substitute for church health. I am not a critic of large churches. Many become large because they are healthy. I am a critic of the drive to become large as if the size of our congregation is an indication of health. I would rather see small churches who lived out a Biblical ecclesiology than a large church that did not. Church health results in transformed lives. Church success is the life change of its people through the Holy Spirit and living in community where we must put our theology into practice.
My conclusion is that the church itself is responsible for much of the fallout from our Covid period. In that sense, Covid can be a wake up call for the church and call us back to become missional communities once again that engage people in community for our transformation and His glory. It is worth thinking about.