The Church, the future and the vow of stability
In March, the Pew Foundation reported on trends in church attendance:
… attendance at in-person services — which rose steadily from July 2020 to September 2021 — plateaued, as did the share of adults watching religious services online or on TV.
In July 2020, about four months after COVID-19 upended life in America, 13% of American adults said they had attended in-person religious services in the previous month. This figure increased to 17% in March 2021, then to 26% in September 2021, and now stands at 27%.
Over the same period, the share of Americans who say they have streamed religious services online or watched them on TV in the past month has fallen from 36% in July 2020 to 28% in September 2021 and is now 30 %.
About a third of American adults (32%) in the new March survey say they typically attend religious services at least once or twice a month. Of these self-proclaimed regular attendees, two-thirds (67%) say they have actually physically attended (in person) in the past month, while 57% say they have watched services online or on TV during this time.
Survey questions on in-person and virtual attendance can be combined to provide insight into the number of people watching services online. In place to attend in person, and how many watch online in addition to attend in person. Center survey finds that of all adults who report typically attending services at least once a month, 36% have both attended in person and watched services online in the past month, while three in ten (31%) say they only viewed in person but did not watch online or on TV in the past month.
One in five (21%) may still be substituting virtual attendance for in-person attendance, saying they have recently watched religious services online or on TV, but did not attend in person. nobody. Only 12% of self-described regular attendees say they have not gone in person or watched services virtually in the past month.
It’s hard to say exactly where we’re headed. The survey notes that the course of the pandemic itself is not yet clear. The other problem is that statistics collected before the pandemic did not always clearly distinguish between in-person and online participation. So while in-person attendance is still down, online attendance may well be much higher than it was pre-pandemic.
According to the same study, there are also considerable variations between congregations:
a majority of evangelical Protestants who usually attend church services at least once a month or say they have attended in person in the past month (60%) say their church is open and holding services the same as before the start of the pandemic. Evangelicals are significantly more likely than mainstream Protestants (33%) and Catholics (43%) to say this is the case. Among Protestants with a historically black tradition, only 21% say their congregation is open and functioning normally, while around two-thirds (65%) say their church is open but with changes or restrictions still in place due of the pandemic.
Combined with the other challenges facing the church, including political tensions, cultural shifts, shifting attitudes toward the church, and renewed denominational strife in some corners, pastors inevitably ask themselves, “How can the is the church going and how can it move forward?
I am wary of programmatic and pragmatic solutions. Churches will always have programs, of course, and there is nothing wrong with programs as such. But the programs must have an organic link with the calling of the church. Otherwise, they degenerate into gimmickry. And pragmatic strategies can fill a church (at least for a while) but filling a church to count heads has little real value and inevitably people see through such plans and – naturally – walk away.
It is also a mistake to tie the fortunes of the church to the politics of the day. There are transcendent social and moral claims to the attention of the church, these claims have implications for how Christians navigate the public sphere, and in the case of my own tradition, these claims are rooted in our baptismal vows. But civic values never coincide with the demands that the Gospel imposes on the Church. These are not the only or even the greatest claims that our baptismal vows make on our lives. And tying the church’s message and ministry to the politics of the day is never a good idea, regardless of those political beliefs.
So how is the church navigating into the future? Spending time in a Benedictine community with students, discussing monastic spirituality has shaped my thinking about this. Shaped by a vow of stability, the Benedictines commit themselves to their communities where in prayer and work (ora and labora), they await the coming of Christ. The life of these communities is not marked by withdrawal from the world, but by engagement with the needs of the world, shaped by the power of prayer and participation in the sacraments of the Church. It is not a community shaped by endless speculation about when Christ will return, but by a community whose life is shaped by conviction this Christ will return. And this return conceals, shapes and informs the way in which the Benedictine communities live.
Over the centuries – when they were at their peak – Benedictine communities are guided by the conviction that this way of living and serving is their God-given vocation. There have been times when their ranks have swelled. There have been times when they have had to deal with losses in both the number of vocations and monasteries around the world. But rather than focusing on imparting definitions of what it means to be relevant, influential, or successful, they focused on their calling.
Here also lies the key to the future of the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, constituted and sustained by the work of God in Jesus Christ, made real in the sacraments, sustained by the reading and preaching of Scripture, lived in service to the world. As my wife (who is also a priest) said, the body of Christ celebrates “the ancient mysteries” and nurtures “a modern faith”.
This effort does not need to be hidden or rote. It doesn’t have to be unimaginative or trapped in a distant century. In fact, the mission of the church depends on wrestling with the challenges that our context poses to faith. But remaining faithful to the blessing entrusted to us is at the heart of our vocation.