For several Sundays now, a few worshippers have been present in person in the sanctuary of my congregation, and it looks as if the switch from the all-virtual service of the past pandemic year to a hybrid may be able to start to accommodate more people in person as time moves along. (The photo here today is one I took of the second worship service available to a small number of worshippers in person at my church two Sundays ago.)
I hope we'll slowly build back to regular attendance, but our church has added necessary extra technical equipment to allow us to continue to offer worship via Zoom, Facebook Live and a live-streaming option through our website.
So, will we ever be back to completely in person? I doubt it.
But as this Religion News Service story reports, "A study of 1,000 U.S. Protestant churchgoers found 91% said they planned on returning to in-person worship when it is safe to do so. The study from Lifeway Research, a nonprofit affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, suggests churchgoers are eager to return to pre-pandemic worship practices."
Well, they may be eager, but it's already pretty clear that post-pandemic life for congregations of almost every religious tradition will be different going forward. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.
One matter to take into consideration is that people stuck at home with health or transportation issues can continue to participate in worship, in educational classes and in other programming that should -- and probably will -- continue to be offered virtually. Beyond that, my congregation has found that former members who moved out of the city sometimes have joined us for various virtual events, including worship. And they'd like to continue to do so.
Still, there's no question that one of the re-learned lessons from the pandemic is that we are built for relationship and that relationship happens in a more natural and more nuanced way when people are together in person. For instance, it turns out in that in person you can't simply shut off your video feed so the people you're with can't see you and read your body language.
Beyond the matter of attendance at worship, classes and meetings, of course, there are the spontaneous relationship-building things that happen when people are together in person -- the spur-of-the-moment invitation to lunch, the hug of comfort for someone in grief, the recognition that a girl you taught in second-grade Sunday school now is in her first year of high school and is on the edge of womanhood. More than all of that, choral and instrumental music central to worship in many traditions simply loses a fair amount when it's not heard in person.
The question is whether congregations are prepared for new beginnings. And, trust me, new beginnings are considerably more complicated than we imagine. But they can bring joy and hope. And if we need anything after this past year, it's joy and hope. And a few in-person hugs.
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'PURITY CULTURE' AND THE ATLANTA MURDERS
Mark Silk, a wise observer of all things religious in the U.S., writes this thoughtful column about the so-called "purity culture" taught by the church of which the confessed Atlanta shooter was a member. There is much troubling about what this congregation and similar ones teach their members, and it's long past time to explore the ways in which diseased theology can contribute to violence -- and what we can do about it. In fact, the last two chapter of my new book, are about exactly that. So I invite you to read Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email me at email@example.com if you want to arrange to get an autographed copy. (P.S.: Here is a piece worth reading by someone who grew up in a church that told him pornography would lead to violence -- the excuse the Atlanta shooter has trotted out. The author of the piece debunks that theory.)