It is such a relief to see people resume their normal activities! Summer camps are running again, tourism is booming as weary people seek refreshment in traveling for the first time in many months, and people of all ages are beginning to do what they love again, while connecting with their friends and neighbors.
While I am very grateful for these positive changes, there is something that is still troubling me. Our average weekly church attendance in 2019 was 288. For the year 2020, that number dropped to 184. In 2021, our average attendance so far is back up a little, to 228. In 2019, we only had one weekend in which attendance was below 200. So far in 2021, we have had five weekends below 200. In 2019, we had only six weekends all year where the attendance was under 250. So far in 2021, we have had only seven weekends where the attendance was above 250, and Easter, Palm Sunday, and Confirmation account for three of those weekends. The numbers are clear. We have significantly fewer people attending church on a given week now than we did just immediately before the pandemic began.
Here is the interesting thing. No one has left the church. In fact, almost everyone has been in church at least once or twice since the pandemic began. What is happening is that it has become all too easy for our attendance to become less regular than it was before the pandemic. Our church attendance is down because we have all been shaped by bad habits over the last 16 months. In some cases, we have been sold a bill of goods that told us it was not safe to be in church. In other cases, we simply got out of the habit and good habits can be hard to develop again once we drop them. Just as some have developed long-term complications even after recovering from covid, we have returned to normal but still have residual spiritual habits that can be devastating to our faith in the long haul.
I don’t really care about the numbers. You aren’t numbers on a page to me nor to our congregation. We care about your soul and helping you to be nourished and grow in faith. We care that you be kept secure in Christ amid a turbulent world that wants you to shipwreck your faith. Attending church regularly to hear Christ’s Word, to grow in the Scriptures, and to receive the true body and blood of Christ is more important than ever.
There are two things I think that need to be said at this point. First, the pandemic is no longer a good reason to miss church. The public health situation is far different today than it was in March of 2020. As you all know, a number of effective treatments for covid have been developed that have saved many lives and that weren’t available in the early months of the pandemic but are now readily and easily available. We also have had effective vaccines that have been available for several months to any adult who wants to receive them.
Additionally, enough people have either been infected with the virus or received the vaccine that its spread in our community and state is minimal at this point. As I write this, we have a mere five active cases in our community, numbers we haven’t seen since April of last year. It will probably never be zero. You are very unlikely to contract covid at our church services. In the 13 months we have returned to in-person worship, I don’t know of a single case of covid that was linked to our congregation. But even if the worst should happen and you should get sick and die of covid, that would be preferable than for your faith to die and you to miss out on life everlasting.
That brings me to the second point. Watching services digitally is not church attendance and is not a long-term plan for sustaining you in the faith. God did not simply remain in heaven and beam down religious information to us for our salvation. Jesus came down from heaven and became a man to save you and me. He physically entered into our sin-riddled world because He knew that was the only way to save us.
Similarly, Jesus instituted His church to be incarnational. Church is not merely a time for us to receive information. It is so much more than that. The church is mysteriously the very body of Christ, joined together around His body and blood given in the Sacrament and also in His Word. The “gathering together” is not incidental to the church, but essential. And not only to receive the Sacrament, but even for the hearing of the Word. This past month we had the North Star Boys’ Choir give a concert at our church and it was phenomenal. You couldn’t experience the fullness of that music though unless you were physically present. You can listen to them online, but that’s nothing like what you could hear in our sanctuary. In certain parts of the sanctuary, you could literally feel the chords they were singing, resonating from the walls and the ceiling of the sanctuary. Livestream technology can’t capture that.
The church is like that. We need to not simply hear the information in the sermon, we need to hear it in 3D. We need to feel the hymnal between our fingers and the kids fussing behind us. We need to see the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the honored and the humble all gathered as sinful men and women and hear them all confessing with one voice our deep sin and need for forgiveness, and our eternal hope in Jesus Christ. We need to let our gaze wander up to the rafters and feel the gravity of being in a holy place, where God Himself is present with us in a way that is both mystical yet more real and abiding that even being in the presence of our spouse.
You don’t get that on a livestream. That’s not to say it has no value. We plan to continue our livestream for the time being, and it is certainly better than not hearing God’s Word at all. But it can never take the place of being in your place in the pew with God’s people. I think we know that to be true instinctively. We all can watch the Superbowl on television, but thousands of people pay a lot of money every year to be there. It’s not the same experience to watch it on the television. Not by a long shot.
I write this as a plea for all of us. Please come back to church and come back regularly. Be in the Word of God! Even if weekly attendance wasn’t your habit before, make it your habit now! You will never regret your time with the body of Christ, and nothing in the world is more important than being in God’s House. Bad habits over time lead to worse ones. It is easy after one or two years to go from attending church once a month to attending church every few months. It is easy after one or two years to go from attending worship every few months to attending once or twice a year. It is easy after a year or two to go from attending church once or twice a year to never attending. And all the while, the devil is working overtime to cut you off from Christ and to destroy your faith. Resist him, clinging to the Word of God alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Come, Christ’s feast is prepared and we’ve saved you a place. We can’t wait to see you!