Susan* walked into her church after a long stretch of watching services online during the pandemic.
What drew her off the sofa and back in person was a personal invitation from her pastor to attend a special meeting after the service.
With plenty of space between Susan and other attendees, she sang praise songs through her mask. Susan was amazed at how powerful it was to worship with fellow believers again, and sensed the presence of God in the room.
Later at the meeting, that elation disappeared. Susan’s heart sank as her pastor openly shared how difficult 2020 had been for him and the staff. He was more transparent than she’d ever heard.
They missed their people. They needed their people.
Nine months into the pandemic and she had no idea how discouraged he and others were. Streaming her church service week after week, she honestly hadn’t thought about how they felt.
Sinking in her seat, Susan contemplated why she hadn’t returned earlier. She wasn’t in a high-risk group, and her church had taken special safety measures. Susan realized that—like many people—she’d been afraid to go back at first, but had just gotten comfortable watching the online service in her pj’s.
With regret, and love for her church staff, this revelation changed her heart.
Susan would be back in person. To be there for them—the way they always were for others.
A Pastor’s View
In upstate New York, Pastor Jim Wolford watched the snow fall as he recalled the year’s challenges and pondered the future of the church in America. Wolford also serves with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) to connect with area churches for Decision America Tour events.
Sharing his desire to spread the Gospel, Wolford acknowledges the last year has been tough on pastors and staff.
And not just because pews are half-empty.
>> Have you given up on church? See Billy Graham’s encouragement to return.
“Pastors sometimes feel like they’re caught in the division over masks in our culture, the division politically,” Wolford explained. Trying to keep people united at the cross, he says, is trying in itself.
Many churches are exhausted and most are working harder than before COVID-19 hit. Wolford is also concerned the coronavirus is adding to Americans’ apathy about church.
Having to navigate issues with the coronavirus, “it’s amplifying the problems we already have with nominalism and lukewarmness,” he said. “And casualness about faith, about church attendance, about witnessing.”
These concerns are reflected in the numbers. A Barna study found that as of September 2020, one in five churchgoers say they haven’t attended a service since the pandemic began, either in person or digitally. Notably, health concerns and a lack of access to technology are possible factors.
“Some, I’m sure, have fallen away altogether,” he said.
A Need for Revival
Driving his wife to an appointment, Pastor Brian Stowe reflected on what the outbreak has revealed—a lack of passion in many Christians.
“There really is a need for revival,” said the pastor of First Baptist Church of Plant City in Florida. “We’re praying that God is going to use this … to really get folks’ attention to seek Him again.”
It starts with getting back in church, stressed Stowe, who also serves with the BGEA as a field organizer for Decision America Tour events.
Stowe is fortunate—about 70 percent of his members have returned and the other 30 percent watch online.
“There is something unique about being together as a body,” he confirmed. “There is the presence of Holy Spirit with the body [of Christ].
“It’s somebody looking you in eyes and giving you a warm greeting, letting you know that they’re praying for you, love you. And you’re encouraging others.”
And though Stowe’s church is more full on Sundays than not, there are still gaps.
“We’ve had a great struggle with trying to get volunteers to come back and serve, especially in children’s and preschool ministries,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Not yet.’”
But even during these extremely challenging times, there are eternal triumphs. In Wolford’s church, six teens made decisions for Christ after being invited by friends.
That’s very encouraging, he noted.
“There’s something about in-person church that doesn’t translate to online services,” Wolford acknowledged. “The presence of God is there in a way that you can’t replicate over the phone or over a computer.”
Don’t misunderstand, he urged. “I’m all for technology and the advantages it lends us in crisis. But as a general rule and an ongoing reality, the church needs to meet together.
“We are being built together to be a dwelling place for God in the Spirit. We need to gather to do that.”
*Name changed for privacy.
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