A lot has changed with respect to church service attendance since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and some of these trends are likely to continue this year.
Many believers are still navigating the precarious balancing act between in-person gathering and online streaming, while some are looking to switch churches or denominations this year. Others have stopped going to church altogether.
There are those who attend multiple churches, often via virtual platforms—a practice which intensified last year.
In the summer of 2020, just a few short months into the pandemic, more than one in three practicing Christians—those for whom church engagement is a priority—were streaming services from churches other than the one they were formally committed to.
And while this trend is relatively recent historically speaking, the phenomenon of church hopping and shopping began well before the pandemic—with nearly two in five churchgoers reporting regular attendance to multiple churches back in 2019.
A friend told me recently that when the pandemic first forced churches online, she began streaming services from a church across the country because she had always enjoyed the preacher’s style and his books. But once her county allowed gatherings again, she returned to attend her home church in person. When I asked her why, she said she came to the realization that “watching a service is great, but it isn’t church.”
While we may not all agree on that statement, it is worthwhile for us to discuss what constitutes “church” and what sets it apart—as well as how and why we are called to commit faithfully to one. Whether they acknowledge it or not, some Christians primarily consider the following three elements when it comes to reassessing their church commitments:
1. What’s most comfortable?
2. What’s most agreeable?
3. What’s most entertaining?
Unfortunately, the underlying forces driving some church searches are the basic tenets of individualistic consumerism, born out of an assumption that “church” is primarily a product package of goods and services, designed and marketed to achieve customer satisfaction.
The problem today, as Carl Trueman notes, is that “we all live in a world in which it is increasingly easy to imagine that reality is something we can manipulate according to our own wills and desires.” Unfortunately, this modern mindset has filtered into our ecclesiology—into the way we understand and embody what it means to be the church. But this instinct is not new.
Decades ago, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial” (emphasis added).
It can be worthwhile to pursue a thoughtful and prayerful search for a faith community in which we meaningfully belong. But when it turns into a search for a church according to some perfect or hypothetical ideal, we may have gotten off course.
A healthy local church, Mark Sayers argues, should see themselves as “a disparate and dishevelled group of very ordinary people, crying out to God … who fall at the feet of Christ and are filled with His presence, who become infectious agents of the kingdom in the world.”
We see this dynamic at work in the story of the early church—an example that can guide us toward asking better questions in our search for a church community.
First, the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word for devoted is defined as “devout persistence; a willingness to stay and remain loyal.”
As we seek out a faith community where we can belong, we should ask the question “Is this a church I can commit to?” before considering “Is this church comfortable?” Placing our comfort before commitment treats church as a mere form of leisure, which may lead to our spiritual stagnation, veiled beneath a thin layer of ease.
By contrast, offering our devoted commitment to a local church—despite its inevitable flaws and shortcomings—can help us weather the significant storms of life and faith in the long term. And this is the sort of genuine comfort we all truly long for and ultimately need.
Second, early Christians “had everything in common” (Acts 2:44, emphasis added). Communion was a lived and embodied value for these ancient believers, not simply a hypothetical concept. Yet today, when we ask the question “What do I have in common with these people?” we’re essentially asking, “Do these people agree with me?” The difference is stark.
In the book of Acts, commonality was about sharing the burdens of everyday life. They “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (2:45). In other words, the tangible needs of others drove the church toward true communion.
Especially given our current culture’s politicization, some people today seek commonality via alignment on various social and political issues rather than offering their skills, talents, and resources for the common good of the community.
We expect to discover perfect commonality that already exists rather than working to achieve real commonality through service. In the words of Edwin Freidman, we are becoming “a [society] of ‘skimmers’ who constantly take from the top without adding significantly to its essence.”
But a strange and wonderful thing happens when we lay ourselves down for the literal good of those in need. Divides can be bridged, and unexpected unity forged, when we surprise those on the opposite side of the aisle with acts of selfless care and a willingness to go above and beyond to serve others in times of need.
This is why the church, at its finest, is what the theologian Scot McKnight calls a “fellowship of differents.” When we focus our energies on attending to needs in the congregation rather than trying to sway opinions, we are much more likely to find true belonging.
Finally, early believers “continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). The word glad in the Greek is far more exuberant than its English counterpart. A better way to understand it would be “joyful.” The early church gathered with genuine joy.
What has always been fascinating to me is the simplicity of the setting of first-century church services. The believers gathered around the Scriptures, teaching, prayer, and a meal. Nothing flashy, nothing novel. In fact, Strong’s Concordance indicates that the word sincere actually means “simple.” In essence, the early church gathered daily in “joy and simplicity.”
So instead of asking, “Is this church entertaining?” what if we began with a different question: “Is this church a community filled with gladness and sincerity?”
In other words, does this community embody a joyful simplicity—born of a longing to gather around the Scriptures, teaching, prayer, and genuine connection with one another—regardless of how spectacular its external adornments look and sound?
No amount of entertainment or hype can provide the meaningful rapport that happens when people do the hard work of developing real relationships with one another. If the early Christians met together every day and broke bread in one another’s homes, what makes us think we can generate dynamic relationships by programs alone?
Despite today’s trend of church hopping and shopping (and its valid critiques), the search for a healthy church community can often be a noble pursuit. Many of us have good reasons to leave one church and seek another. In the worst situations, some have experienced pain, trauma, and abuse at the hands of broken leaders.
I’ve heard and encountered many such stories throughout my time in the local church. But I am always moved beyond measure when I see those who’ve been hurt continue to believe that belonging in the church, where we can pursue holiness and wholeness together, is still possible.
We can rewrite the story of our own family of faith—despite the pain caused by so many churches and leaders today—by remembering and embodying what the local church was always meant to be at her finest.
As broken, sinful, insecure, frail, and flawed as we are, you and I can do this work together by relying on God’s grace and his immense power and strength to simply be the church—fully, graciously, sacrificially.
Jay Y. Kim serves as lead pastor at WestGate Church. He’s the author of Analog Church and Analog Christian and lives in the Silicon Valley with his wife and their two young children. You can find him on Twitter at @jaykimthinks.