Old South, like many churches, has been on something of a Covid-induced roller coaster ride. First, we learned Zoom and how to make it work for the church as a whole. Then, we learned hybrid, which has been more complicated than we expected. For most of this new year so far, we’ve slid back to a (mostly) Zoom-only existence, as Omicron cases have ravaged the local health care system and we’d like to do all we can to keep our people out of the hospital.
There’s been much to learn and new tricks to consider in our common church practice and imagination. Where next on this journey? How can we make the most of being the church in this new technologically driven age? Can we be the church we have been called to be, if we are split between an in-person group and a Zoom group? What do we do about our buildings, in which we now rarely gather?
The beginning of our pandemic journey was full of surprises, as many people who probably never thought they could learn how to deal with Zoom have done so and have done well. When we were considering a temporary return to Zoom for this January, as Covid numbers started to make their alarming climb, it was not a hard decision, even though it meant that we would have another Zoom-only annual meeting. It was simply another section of the ride we have been on for almost two years.
But, now that we have been on this unexpected journey of ups and downs, twists and turns, for such a long time, I’ve found myself looking back and thinking ahead: what does the future hold for our small church?
Among the troubling items on my reflection list is worship attendance. While we have maintained a consistent attendance, whether we are Zoom-only or hybrid, numbers have been low and have remained lower than before the start of the pandemic. While we can point to a few obvious sources of lower attendance— like death and relocation— there is another source that feels like one that no one wants to acknowledge or discuss. And, that is that we have a few people who have simply slipped away from the active worship life of our faith community, if not almost entirely from all aspects of our life together as a church.
We have people who are increasingly involved in taking care of family members, or are being taken care of by family, that somehow requires that worship be skipped on Sunday mornings. We have other people who have slipped away, I suspect, because they feel the pressure of living in a part of the world where Christianity is clearly losing ground— and they don’t want to be in any way associated with the dominant expressions of the faith in this area that tend to be more evangelically inclined. Over the years, I’ve had a few conversations on this topic.
It may be that we have a few people who have found, in the midst of pandemic and disruption, an opportunity to surreptitiously withdraw from regular worship attendance as well as active participation in the Old South community. We have others who still participate in the life of the church, but rarely attend worship.
This is a problem, and a potentially serious one. It’s a problem that requires a careful and thoughtful approach. We shouldn’t put people on the defensive, but it would be helpful to know more about what’s happening with those people we do not regularly see at worship— and to know from them directly. Is it Zoom fatigue or the demands of life? Or, are people experiencing a more problematic church fatigue, finding that worship is no longer something that they want or need in their life?
Worship is not simply a part of Christian faith practice; it is an essential component. That we are experiencing noticeable absences from worship is something that ought not be ignored, or explained away with assumptions. I’m not sure how I feel about what answers we may find, but the shadows left by those who no longer regularly attend worship are looming. And into those dark and difficult corners, we need to cast some light.