You can’t go back. Within weeks of the pandemic arriving in the U.S., we began hearing Evangelical leaders writing and speaking on this subject. A Christianity Today article on May 22, 2020, summed up this view best by saying, “Most of the “what ifs” we’re dealing with are about what the latest health department limitations are for “getting back to church.” We want things to be back like they were before the quarantine. All of us want to get back to normal. But we can’t go back. Normal doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only the future now, and moving forward means we can’t go back.”1. My question was, and still is, why not? I want to make the case that, yes, you can go back.
To be fair, there were many unknowns back in May 2020. We who were theologically trained bowed to the wisdom of our medical professionals. We now know that many of the regulations imposed, such as forbidding churches from gathering, had little impact on stopping a respiratory virus. We also know that Covid impacted primarily the aged and the previously infirmed. And now we know that many of the so-called “facts” medical professionals were advancing were not only wrong but harmful.
While we could, and probably will, argue about these policies forever, the public has decided that you can go back to normal. Have you been watching football lately? The stands are filled with maskless throngs of people. At the same time, Americans appear to be skeptical about the need or effectiveness of vaccines. The Wall Street Journal reports, “Some 11% of the U.S. population over the age of 5 has gotten an updated booster shot, federal data show, including just under 30% of people 65 and older.”2. The Government and our health authorities are having a hard time convincing people to keep getting a shot while those same people, fully vaccinated, continue to contract the virus. The bottom line is that most Americans have moved on and are acting like they were before the pandemic. They have gone back to normal, except for church attendance.
Why should they go back to attending church when we repeatedly told them they didn’t need to show up, and we made it easy for them to never show up? While that might have made sense during the March 2020 15 Days to Slow the Spread, it never made sense to say we would never go back to an emphasis on physically attending services. Yes, the First Century Christians didn’t meet in physical churches, but they did meet! The same is true for our Chinese brothers and sisters, who often meet in homes or other places rather than in a physical church. But, again, they still meet physically!
What has been the impact of our not going back? Lifeway Research recently reported on a new study by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). The study revealed that in 2021, the average ECFA member experienced a 3.0% increase in giving up from the 2020’s 2.5% increase. However, 43% of ministries and churches saw a decline in giving in 2021. When you factor in inflation, from 2020 to 2021, churches experienced a significant decrease in giving (-1.1% to –6.6%). The ECFA study concluded that one reason was that many congregants have been slow to return to physically attending church. Warren Bird, ECFA’s Senior VP of Research and Equipping, said, “Based on Jesus’s words that ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,’ (Matthew 6:21, CSB) we can speculate that the known drop in in-person church attendance corresponds with the drop in giving to churches.”3.
“We will never go back to passing an offering plate.” We now hear that from pastors across the country. Again, this might have made sense at the height of the pandemic. But the CDC, in April of 2021, revised its position on the virus to say there is no significant risk of catching Covid from a surface or object. We have observed that churches that do not pass a physical plate, bucket, or basket raise from 5% to 15% less than churches their size that do pass some giving receptacle. Jettisoning the offering might only cost you 1% to 5% of your total giving, but given the challenging economic times, can your church afford any loss of revenue? More important, if you do away with the offering time, when will you teach biblical stewardship?
Not every church or pastor agreed that you couldn’t go back. These churches are alive and thriving. Why? They made connecting people to Jesus their main priority, not Covid. The majority opened their doors early and allowed people to use their common sense. They discovered that, yes, you can go back to the way worship was before Covid. That doesn’t mean they aren’t trying new ways of interacting with people. But they have kept the main thing the main thing, and they are doing it live and in person. Pastor, it’s past time to return to normalcy by opening your church up fully and start passing the plate!