Let’s not go back to the way things were, suggests columnist John Stackhouse.
As Covid-19 restrictions relax, are people coming back to church?
Well, why should they?
Many former churchgoers tell pollsters they do not intend to rejoin their former congregations. They might still stop by virtually, so to speak, by visiting the church’s website once in a while. But a significant minority won’t be back to the pews.
Church leaders worry and wonder about such reports. And it is certainly tempting to blame the worldly preoccupations of so many Canadians, including churchgoers, for interfering with people’s spiritual welfare. Hockey, soccer, shopping, hiking and even household chores command our interest and our time on a busy weekend. Why bother making the effort to go to church anymore?
In my university’s first-year course called The Christian Way, which we require every student to take, I describe Christians in two main images – disciples of Jesus and children of God. The Christian Church therefore can be helpfully viewed as both a school and a family.
I ask students to discuss with me what local churches would be like if they were serious about education, about training – like you’d find at a responsible university – and what those churches would be like if they were serious about corporate connection, about true community – as you’d find in a healthy family.
If church is just a kind of mood lifter, you can accomplish that merely by a brisk walk or a game with the kids.
The students quickly offer a variety of suggestions, each of which immediately challenges the norm of pre-Covid-19 Christianity in Canada. For church-as-school, "sustained, adult-level instruction" always comes up first. "Expectation of homework!" they usually suggest. "Tests to see if people are truly learning the material" is always a favourite.
As for church-as-family, "practical caring for each other" is basic. "Keeping track of each other, to find out how everyone is actually doing" is a challenging one. "Taking responsibility for every person’s welfare, not just letting individuals opt in or out, participate or not, as if they were merely going to a movie theatre" seems obvious – and revolutionary.
Most Canadian churches, we must acknowledge, would not qualify as institutions of impressive learning nor as societies of close, substantial fellowship. Søren Kierkegaard indicted the bourgeois religiosity of his officially Christian Denmark two centuries ago as he wrote, "This is Christianity – in the same sense that a touch of nausea and a little stomach ache are cholera."
Why would people come back to church, having gone through more than a year of Covid-19 absence and finding their lives are not much diminished by missing weekly attendance? If church is just a kind of mood lifter, an hour of feeling better, and you can accomplish that merely by a brisk walk or a game with the kids, why attend anymore?
You know what institutions have survived Covid-19 quite strongly? I can think of two that most people value more than they used to, that most people strongly support as public and private life become less dominated by pandemic protocols – schools and families.
If our churches were more like schools and families, if we were in earnest about producing capable disciples of Christ and authentic children of God, what genuine Christian wouldn’t fully and gladly participate?
Yes, the central reason to go to church isn’t to learn how to be a mature Christian nor to enjoy life in the community of the Spirit, but to encounter God. Perhaps, however, the church has taken too many cues from scenes in the Book of Revelation and not enough from the rest of the New Testament.
Transformative encounters with God for most of those early Christians took place as they trained in the school of Jesus and participated richly in the family of God, as well as in "the breaking of bread and prayer" (Acts 2:42).
Many of us have been longing for things to go back to the way they were before this coronavirus ravaged the world.
I remember the state of the Canadian church back then. So do you. Going back to that means going back to something all too easily discarded when things get difficult.
Let’s work for something better. Let’s work with the Holy Spirit to produce churches that can survive the next pandemic.
And also the Judgment Seat of Christ.