An Associated Press poll last year reported that three-quarters of churchgoers in the U.S. plan to resume regular in-person attendance as the pandemic subsides. The pastors I know, looking out at the empty seats, still have their fingers crossed, hoping that prediction will eventually come true.

 Should church-goers resume in-person attendance?

I confess that during the lockdown I rather enjoyed watching church services online while lounging in my bathrobe, sipping coffee, and controlling the pace with a remote. If something failed to hold my interest, I could surf the web in search of better music or a more engaging sermon.

I’m not alone. In the U.K., for example, church attendance averages less than 6 percent of the population. (The late poet R. S. Thomas, a priest in the Church of Wales, called himself “a vicar of large things in a small parish.”) Yet, a quarter of British adults watched or listened to a religious service during the coronavirus lockdown, and one in twenty started praying during the crisis.

As my memoir, Where the Light Fell, recounts, I’ve had a checkered history with the church. In childhood I sat through hellfire and brimstone sermons in my Southern fundamentalist congregation that barred African-Americans from entering and warned against electing a Catholic president (JFK). To recover, I spent a few years away from church before sampling a Sixties-style house church that substituted Coke and potato chips for bread and wine as the elements of communion.

Church-goers in person attendance

Eventually I settled into a more traditional church in Chicago that combined a spirit of grace with an emphasis on social justice. Moving to a small town in Colorado, however, limited my options. The church I now attend once attracted a thousand regulars; after church splits and attrition, it currently averages less than thirty. With many good reasons to drop out, or tune in remotely, I ask myself why I have returned to the rented hall we use on Sundays.

The most important reason is to worship God. The weekly gathering underscores my creaturely status, one in need of a higher moral authority. As great souls such as Martin Luther King Jr., Václav Havel, and Simone Weil have reminded us, what we believe about a Creator can largely determine how we treat fellow humans—especially the marginalized—and our planet.

Jesus summarized the entire law in two commands: Love God and love your neighbor. I may fulfill the first one in the privacy of my home, but what about the second? “If you want to grow in love, the way to do it is not likely going to be by attending more Bible studies or prayer meetings; it will happen by getting close to people who are not like you,” writes the Canadian pastor Lee Beach.

Church-goers When I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble each other, and resemble me, the more uncomfortable I feel. One Sunday I sat sandwiched between an elderly man hooked up to a puffing oxygen tank and a breastfeeding baby who grunted loudly and contentedly throughout the sermon. Church offers a place where infants and grandparents, unemployed and executives, immigrants and blue bloods can all assemble together. Where else can we find that mixture? Certainly not online.

More, healthy congregations look beyond their walls to address social needs. For all its flaws, the church still mobilizes workers to feed and shelter homeless people, adopt foster children, visit prisoners, and resettle refugees. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam noted in Bowling Alone that “Nearly half of all associational memberships in America are church-related, half of all personal philanthropy is religious in character, and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context.”

The church’s real challenge is to equip a community to serve others, rather than provide an entertainment venue—and that challenge is amplified when we no longer meet in person. I’ve noticed that sharp divisions over politics tend to fade in the background when believers join together in acts of service. Indeed, a true community can begin to take shape.

Where the Light Fell book coverAs I worked on my memoir, I came to view church, like family, as a dysfunctional cluster of needy people. I think back to members of my childhood church, who showed up each Sunday to hear the pastor threaten them with hell, punishment for sins, and an imminent Armageddon. They came in part from fear, but also because, like a family, they needed each other in order to withstand the assaults of life. Members of the working class, they didn’t sit at home evenings fretting over the fine points of theology; they worried about how to pay bills and feed the kids. When a family’s house burned down, or a drunken husband locked his wife out, or a widow couldn’t afford her groceries, they had nowhere to turn but church.

Since those childhood days, I have found grace-dispensing churches that serve needs beyond those of their members. Admittedly, the pews are less comfortable than the chairs in my living room, and the quality of the worship service can’t match the slick productions I have watched during the pandemic’s shelter-in-place period. We tend to have a sense of community, though, something all too rare in our individualistic society.




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34 responses to “Why Go Back?”

  1. Steve Gimbert says:

    Hard to find this song but worth the listen when you do especially in the context of all the comments above. It’s a low quality recording of Buddy Greene accompanied by Jeff Taylor with lyric happily added to the screen.

    You’re welcomed!

    Steve Gimbert

  2. Wayne Cole says:

    My thoughts exactly. A zoom message is simply a message. It’s not church. I couldn’t wait until churches reopened.

  3. Karen Watson says:

    It needn’t be either/or: services which are in-person and also relayed online include those who otherwise can’t attend, and enable the Church to know they’re still in touch and contactable, rather than fallen away. I can worship at Church in-person every week, and also join daily evening prayers (with live participation via the sidebar) with people from all the world online.
    The challenge is to motivate Christians to worship in any of them: may the Spirit move in us strongly once more in these difficult times.

  4. Scott Small says:

    Church is a community of believers in Christ. Hard to be a community sitting at home watching on screen. Screen time served a purpose when we couldn’t meet together physically. Nothing beats meeting face to face and communicating in person. I’m very glad we can meet together again in person!

  5. Marla Boone says:

    so good, thank you for writing and sharing…

  6. Philip Yancey says:

    A good correction. Thank you for representing the perspective of disability.

  7. John R Brigham says:

    We must gather together to be the Body of Christ. We can’t have eyes, ears, hands, feet hanging out all over the place. It’s just not a body without togetherness. “Our Father….” Cannot be said alone in reality. It’s just not the way He taught it. “Forsake not the gathering……and so much more as we see that day coming “

  8. Bill R. Lee says:

    I find it interesting to hear that one might “love God at home” but not love his neighbor. It would seem that loving God is obedience. Our God is a king, the most benevolent master in the world, and the only way to show love for such a being is to obey His commandments. Thanks for your commentary.

  9. Dianne Haupt says:

    My husband and I have been to our physical church twice in the last 2+ years: this past Easter and last week Sunday. It was so wonderful to greet old friends, watch a friend’s granddaughter’s baptism, and catch up after years! Not to mention the joy of live choral/music and singing hymns with my friends. It’s physically and emotionally tiring, and more time consuming, but so much more rewarding.

  10. Connie Wellik says:

    As we say in recovery, “maybe you need to fire the god you are serving, and find a new one”. This was my journey during the lockdown. I discovered a more Christlike God, who in the words of Brian Zahnd “is like Jesus, has always been like Jesus, never a time when he wasn’t like Jesus – we haven’t always known this, but now we do”. I have gone back to my local church where I served on staff for 25 years but for the relationships not the teaching. The conservative evangelical teaching and “substitutionary” worship music can seem like a burr in my shoe as I walk with God, but just for today I stay on the road to recovery to hopefully reflect Christ in the beauty of His grace.

  11. Janet Porcino says:

    Attending public worship is also a witness to the watching world that there is a Living God worthy of praise and devotion! Many are hoping it is true…..

  12. Greg Bullen says:

    Love these thoughts … I too grew up in a fundamentalist context but I must say that the fear of Hell first brought me to the Cross. I have grown a lot since 1971 and, for my wife and me, our church must be true to the Word, evangelizing the world, and making a difference in our community. We have found that the larger churches in SE Michigan are much more dedicated to social justice that the more parochial churches. We support arts programs in public school districts with limited resources, daily outreach to youth in a local mobile home park, and providing meals for families at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We also support efforts to stop human trafficking and also to provide opportunities for love and social events for people with disabilities. All of this is done in the name of Christ and the Gospel. It’s all about hard truth and ridiculous grace. When we were looking for a new church after a move, we looked at two things: the doctrinal statement and the opportunities for services.
    Community happens in person … whether the church has 30 or 300 or 3,000 people gathering together. The measures taken to combat the spread of COVID (which, by the way, almost killed me) have taken an enormous toll on us, because we were created for community. It is wonderful that we are coming out of this valley, but we need to go overboard to re-establish relationships that God uses to build others (and ourselves) up in Him.

  13. David Bannon says:

    Thank you for this timely essay. You remind me of the experience of grief counselor Harriet Sarnoff Schiff, author of The Bereaved Parent. After Schiff lost her son, she found that the daily ritual of reciting the Kaddish in her local synagogue served a surprising purpose which she had misunderstood before her child’s death. The Kaddish is essentially a prayer of worship: “Magnified and sanctified be His great name . . . May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us . . .” The congregational response is telling: “May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.” When sung, the Kaddish is thoughtful and compassionate. Mourners are encouraged to recite it for a full year after a death. Schiff found that returning to the synagogue each day somehow grounded her grief and helped her come to terms with it. The practice has a therapeutic value. It forces the bereaved to go out in public and to join with others who honor the solemn nature of the observance. This is something we seldom find alone.

  14. Ralph says:

    “what we believe about a Creator can largely determine how we treat fellow humans”. I put that in my notes as soon as I read it. 👍

  15. Carol Allen says:

    You speak the truth. It resonates.
    As you mentioned in What’s So Amazing about Grace?, 12 Step Fellowships do just this: they bring disparate people together who dispense grace at every meeting.

    The Church gave the 12 Step principles to Bill W., co-founder of AA. We need them to experience the life that happens in 12Step fellowships!

  16. Micaela MacDougall says:

    I love most of your posts, but I’d like to challenge this one.

    Here is my starting premise. I have a physical disability and I am high risk for COVID. It is currently not safe for me to return to in-person services, so I continue to join the virtual service each week. Does that mean that I have less of a true community? Does my disability exclude from real Christian fellowship?

    I believe the opposite is true. Virtual services allow me to join a community that I would otherwise be excluded from. It is a failure of the Christian imagination to see only the limits of online interaction, rather than how online interaction can be used to expand the circles of community.

    “Church offers a place where infants and grandparents, unemployed and executives, immigrants and blue bloods can all assemble together. Where else can we find that mixture? Certainly not online.” Why not? All of these people can join the same virtual service, just like they can attend the same in-person service; but only the virtual service will include the disabled and the immunocompromised who are too high risk to attend large gatherings in person. In my mind, this is the essence of God’s kingdom: to make room for every kind of person, no matter how different it feels from our previous norm.

  17. Doug Ross says:

    Amen brother, I too would stay home but we do need each other. A friends Grandson just committed suicide at age 15. We need each other. At home watching tv we might find something we like. Hopefully at Church God will find us, search our hearts and find those wicked ways!

  18. Kimble Osteroos says:

    I have always needed to worship in person, not just for the fellowship, but for the presence of fellow believers. The lockdown was especially hard for me as I didn’t feel as close to God in worship when I was sitting in my living room. We found a church that met outdoors every Sunday and it was a blessing. We didn’t join that church because there seemed to be no outward focus and a lack of spiritual maturity in the body. We have found on much like the one we left when we moved from Evergreen and joined there. Worshipping in person is for me almost a necessity.

  19. Carol Benson says:

    It is just plain good to be in the midst of other believers! Thanks, Philip!

  20. DeLora Fennig says:

    I am 91 years old and I attend church, but the church forgets to include old people like me, and ‘ tune’ the service only for the young. But I will continue to attend and trust to be an example of God’s faithfulness.

  21. Marianne Ariyanto says:

    These messages are very important to me. Your book The Jesus I never knew still resonates with me. Have a blessed Ascension Day.

  22. Virginia Porrata says:

    Wow! That resonates with my experience as an older, seasoned Christ follower. While I agree that we need that community, I certainly understand why so many have left and feel no need to return. Perhaps God is doing a new thing and we can do and be the church in new ways. Great insights!

  23. Charla says:

    As always…thank you.

  24. R Jenelle Ochsner says:

    Thank you for sharing. You always make me think🥰

  25. Dr. Sandhya says:

    Why go Back? quite reflective, especially when the comforts of staying at home were listed. But the truth is we need the human touch that surpasses the internet. We need to connect and be involved with THE BODY of CHRIST not just virtually but in reality. The article made me think of a probable question that might have passed through eternity’s mind when GOD was to come down as a man. “Why go?” …and JESUS chose HIS response by coming

  26. Nathan McNally says:

    A number of years ago I read one of your columns on the back page o Christianity Today. You spoke of attending church and sitting next to a mechanic (I think) and his family. I never forgot that. I have moved to a small church. It does meet my needs except it has the potential for true “membership” as Wendell Berry spoke too. My focus is the world one heart and one neighbor at a time.

  27. Sharon says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree. We are headed back to in-person church this very weekend. My background in church and life on the timeline is right along there with you. I’m feeling so ready to share the “all of life” again with fellow sojourners.

  28. Ivan Jackson says:

    Exacent Summary of the Church

  29. Marge chesney says:


  30. Elaine Wald says:

    My church is a priority for me because Jesus loved and died for the church. We need one another to be strengthened to go out and do the work God has called us to do. Also God gave us gifts to use in the church. Do being physically with my spiritual family is primordial for me,

  31. Doug Marshall says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve spent most of my life in the church, both as a child, a member, and for 35 years as a pastor. It drives me crazy at times and causes me to worry far more than I should, but it is the place I feel called to, the place where I find life and hope, the place where I am in the presence of God. May God continue to fill your life with all His glorious blessings and continue to use you to share his love and the good (great) news of Jesus.

  32. Thank you. Like almost everything you’ve written, I test it and it rings true.


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