The long-awaited “Freedom Day” arrived on 19 July. At last… freedom to sing… freedom from Covid restrictions. Now we can really regather as church.
How did your first Sunday go? Did you see people flooding back? I suspect, for many of you, that was not your experience.
As I speak to church leaders there appears to be a fair amount of apprehension and uncertainty about the whole question of how will church regather, how many will regather and what will church actually look like going forward. A number have already expressed concerns that even though churches have been gathering for a number of weeks, and in many cases months, numbers are way off what they used to be. One elder commented that his in-person congregation was down by 50%, one pastor, who pre-Covid could gather around about 90 people, commented that at the moment he had no more than 20 in person, with many, but not all, still choosing on-line. Yet another pastor commented that, for all intents and purposes, he has a new church. Most of his former congregations are choosing to connect online still via Zoom whilst new families and enquirers are happy to gather in person on a Sunday morning.
Whilst these examples may be a little extreme, I suspect that your church, like many other churches, is experiencing reduced numbers coming in person, a reluctance to gather by a significant number of other people who still choose, for one reason or another, to connect via Zoom plus others that you know have been lost because either they have gravitated to another church or drifted away from church altogether.
What is the prospect for regathering? Will we ever get back to pre-Covid numbers? Should we even be thinking about getting back to pre-Covid numbers?
Covid has provided churches with an ideal opportunity to do some stocktaking. To seriously ask what it means to gather together and what it means to be church, an opportunity for a reality check to help us better understand where we are at, where we need to get to, and what it will look like to get there.
The truth of the matter is our Sunday numbers will not be the same as they used to be. Commentators are saying that on average churches may expect to lose roundabout 20% on average. Whilst there will be those who take every opportunity to regathered in person, there will be those who for health reasons will choose to be more cautious and will continue to connect electronically. There will be those who have grown accustomed to the convenience of connecting online and will prefer to be allowed to continue to do so. There will also be those, for whom the church was more cultural or consumer-based who will cease to attend. These factors plus the already present infrequency of commitment to Sunday gatherings will mean that our in-person services may well look smaller for some time.
This is not to say that things will always stay that way, but I think we need to be realistic. There will be those who drift back, but there will be those who won’t. We will need to work hard and patiently with folks to regather and rebuilt.
We also need to embrace the truth that connecting digitally is not simply an expedient that we employed in order to continue to “do church” during lockdown but it is something that is here to stay. For many, connecting digitally may be the front door into church. That’s not to say that ultimately, they will not gather in-person but initially, at least, that’s how they would choose to gather.
Hybrid church may be the biggest legacy that Covid has left us.
Hybrid church extends way beyond simply the Sunday gathering, but that’s maybe a topic for another article.
John Jenkins (Regional Co-ordinator, London & SE England)