It’s been almost 22 months since the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, a catastrophic turn that upended life as we knew it.
Almost overnight, offices emptied out, businesses shut down and schools and churches were forced to go online, if at all. “Fifteen days to flatten the curve” turned to months and then a year as health and political officials worked furiously to get a handle on the evolving crisis, especially when there were more questions than answers.
Over time, response to the pandemic turned political as “red” and “blue” states attacked the virus in disparate ways – simultaneously incurring both wrath and praise from critics and local residents. Depending upon the month, one approach seemed more effective than the other.
As we approach the two-year mark of a virus blamed for over 800,000 domestic deaths and well over 5 million worldwide, the vast majority of Americans are learning to live with the threat of the evolving illness. Travel has rebounded, sport stadiums are filling up, restaurants are busy again and the vast majority of schools are open for in-person learning.
At the same time, one key and vital area that seems to be lacking in the rebound is church. According to the Barna Group, attendance is still down between 30% and 50% prior to the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020.
It might very well be reasonable for vulnerable people to avoid gathering in large groups in times of a highly contagious virus. But what about all those who readily go to restaurants but are still reluctant to go to church?
The accessibility and convenience of online worship is something of a seductive option for many – and an inexcusable habit for most. It’s one thing to partake of online worship while traveling or when genuinely sick. It’s a whole other to sleep in and catch the replay later Sunday afternoon.
“I have to admit we haven’t been back,” someone recently told me. “We’ve just gotten into a habit of watching from our couch.”
Scripture makes clear we’re to “not neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
Of course, it’s possible to worship virtually – but it’s not the same as gathering together as one body.
Pastors and church leaders are walking a tenuous line – trying to encourage members to return to their buildings but also not come across harsh or judgmental while doing so. Nevertheless, empty pews and dwindling attendance are demoralizing and detrimental to the long-term health of congregations.
Christians must prayerfully consider the issue for themselves – but this much is certain: If you’re going to school, sporting events and restaurants but not church – and claiming you’re doing so to protect yourself against the virus—you might want to prayerfully reconsider your priorities.
People of goodwill have robustly debated the way forward in these uneven and uncertain times. By now, there’s a good chance you’ve developed your own strategies and opinions. But regardless of where you’ve landed regarding the use of masks, vaccines and other therapeutics, Christians should be of one mind on this one key truth:
The local church is one of God’s many gifts to us, and a significant and powerful one at that. As believers, we must support, revere and champion it – and do so by gathering together to worship whenever possible. That’s because we need communal worship like we need air to breathe and water to drink.
And for one reason more.
“Christian, like snowflakes, are frail,” said the late pastor Vance Havner. “But when they stick together, they can stop traffic.”
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