By Aaron Earls
COVID-19 revealed unknown strengths of many congregations, but the pandemic also exposed some significant issues among churchgoers.
As churches innovated new ways to reach members and attendees explored new discipleship practices, worrisome isolationist tendencies appeared among some churchgoers.
Thinking about the duration of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, 41% of regular churchgoers say they checked on others in their church, and 38% say people in their church have checked on them, according to Lifeway Research. Stop and sit with those numbers for a minute.
In the middle of one of the most isolating and traumatic events endured by our world, only around two in five churchgoers took it upon themselves to see how other people in their church were doing. Most people in church faced the hardship of the pandemic with only those in their home, which made things even more difficult for single or widowed churchgoers.
Think of all the unexpressed fears, heartaches or concerns present among believers who have suffered through the past year removed from others, including the more than three in five who say no one from their church reached out them. But think also of all the birthdays, graduations, marriages and other life moments that have also gone unnoticed among our church families, as we’ve been socially and, unfortunately too often, spiritually distanced since the beginning of 2020. We have not wept with those who weep or rejoiced with those who rejoice.
Would those moments of pain and times of celebration have gone unnoticed during the pandemic if Christians had been faithfully practicing biblical community before COVID started?
The vast majority of pre-COVID churchgoers say they will be regular post-COVID churchgoers. As a February 2021 Lifeway Research study found, 91% of churchgoers say once COVID-19 is no longer an active threat, they’ll return to in-person worship services at least as often as they did before the pandemic. But a return to church services alone probably won’t correct the issues.
This isolation view of the Christian life did not suddenly emerge during the days of social distancing. Around two in three U.S. Protestant churchgoers (65%) say they can walk with God without other believers, according to a 2019 Lifeway Research study. Contradictorily, in the same study, 75% say they need other believers to help them grow in their walk with God.
In another 2019 Lifeway Research study, 78% of churchgoers say they have developed significant relationships with people at their church. Yet less than half (48%) agree they intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow in their faith, with only 19% strongly agreeing. In other words, while four in five churchgoers say they have “significant relationships” with others in their church, four in five also admit they have room for improvement in using those relationships to aid the spiritual growth of others.
In our personal quiet times, we read Scripture to help us grow in our personal relationship with Jesus. In a good faith effort to call individuals to faith in Christ, we have often falsely understood and taught the Bible through an individualistic mindset. We have ignored the communal aspect of Scripture, as the books of the Bible were mostly written to groups of people rather than individuals.
In 1 Corinthians 3:16, when Paul asks, “Don’t you yourselves know that you are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” We often answer that question individually, instead of understanding the “you” in the verse to be plural. But, as an argument for unity, Paul is using the fact that the Spirit lives jointly in the Corinthian church and collectively they are God’s temple. (To help your church grasp this, maybe encourage them to consult the “Y’all Version” that substitutes “y’all” for every plural you.)
In addition, there are close to 50 “one another” commands given to followers of Jesus. We are to be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50), forgive one another (Col. 3:13), love another (John 13:34 and several other places), serve one another (Gal. 5:13), pray for one another (James 5:16) and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), among others.
We cannot live the Christian life in a solitary manner. Individual Christians cannot function alone to accomplish our God-given directives. The follower of Christ must be in community with other believers. This may have looked different on a practical level during the pandemic, but the commands did not cease to be true then and must be exercised now as we emerge from the pandemic.
In many ways, churches want to return to a sense of normalcy. We want to gather in person, shake hands, give hugs and sing without the worry of passing along a deadly disease. But this season also grants us the ability to change things and not return to an unhealthy normal.
Perhaps during YouTube worship services or Zoom Bible studies, many of us realized we need more. We need to be in community with other believers. As much as the pandemic times were “unprecedented,” this moment of re-emergence also is “unprecedented” and allows us the opportunity to correct some previous mistakes.
How can your church correct the isolationist tendencies at work in your congregation and be a different, more united congregation moving forward? Try these six steps.
Evaluate everything. Take this opportunity to examine every aspect of your church’s ministry. What lessons can you take from pandemic practices? What changes can you make to ministries or programs? What has stopped being effective and was only continuing to exist because “we’ve always done it that way”? Put everything under the microscope.
Prioritize community. Instead of filling the church calendar with programs, why not leave space for gatherings and fellowships? Have a church picnic. Plan a small group breakfast. Encourage people in your church to spend time together outside of a structured environment. Relationships often form and deepen in those spontaneous moments.
Teach biblical truth. Use teaching time to speak about the necessity of being together. Talk about spiritual gifts and the inability of a church to fulfill God’s calling without everyone joining in. Make sure your people know the scriptural importance of being and serving together.
Lift up small groups. As you are talking about the biblical truth of provoking one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24), point to small groups as one of the best ways that can happen. Use the pulpit to point to the classroom. Help people understand that by simply listening to a sermon, they cannot grow spiritually as they should.
Encourage discipleship. What would it look like for the people in your church to take the next step of discipleship? Maybe that’s moving them into small groups, but maybe that’s asking them to commit to a closer form of discipleship like one-on-one or one-on-two or three. Help your congregation take the next step in deeper discipleship with others.
Model accountability. As church leaders, are you involved in the community of your church, plugged into a small group, participating in interpersonal discipleship? Not only does this encourage others in your church to follow your lead, it’s also good for your soul and ministry. A Lifeway Research study of former pastors found many were prioritizing their image and several were not regularly meeting with someone to share their own struggles.
The pandemic revealed an already present issue among U.S. Protestant churchgoers, but it also granted churches an opportunity to correct that issue. As we move past social distancing, we should also leave spiritual distancing behind.
This post originally appeared at Lifeway Research.
Published June 24, 2021