Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

The post-pandemic church: who’s here and who isn’t

October 18, 2023

Lately I’ve been thinking that I wish I had a big picture view of church life in North America in the fall of 2023.

Then I realized having a big picture view is probably a pipe dream.

American religion cannot be represented with a bar chart. So Robert Wuthnow argued in Inventing American Religion. Emma Green wrote in her 2015 review of Wuthnow’s book for The Atlantic: “Not all statistics are created equal, of course. Many rely on tiny samples or skewed audiences or biased responses, or are produced by firms with a vested interest in reaching a certain conclusion.”

I hope this post offers a little more for you to know about me, our church, and maybe also yourself as you bounce your own story off ours.

Part of life in the church in 2023 is just who’s here and who isn’t.

During the pandemic, churches like ours took a very long break. We did not meet in person for almost 18 months. When I write that now, I can hardly believe that’s the case… but it is. During the pandemic, large groups of people joined our church. We designed unique ways of receiving them. The first summer we had a whole series of baptisms outdoors on the church grounds, where each of the families did their own baptism socially distanced from the other families.

 Later that summer, we hosted outdoor services in person and people gathered in circles that we painted out on the grass so that they could meet outdoors for worship but at an appropriate distance.

By the time the pandemic was coming to an end and we were gathering again in person, all of those people who arrived during the pandemic had built more resilient habits of worship, and so now that we’re back meeting together, a very large percentage of the people who join worship weekly in person are the people that joined during the pandemic or right at the end of it.

 In the meantime, a lot of our active members weren’t in church during the pandemic. They watched the services from home or took a break, went back to live-streaming churches from where they used to live, etc. Many of these members have been struggling to rebuild a habit of being in person for worship. I’m not even sure that a lot of them plan to ever be back.

 Although… people do keep coming back, so every Sunday yet this late summer there’s been at least one person or household who arrived back in worship after a year or longer hiatus. Everyone has handled the grief and trauma of the pandemic at their own pace, I think.

More intriguing to me than the standard measure for church (butts in pews) are some of the really big changes that happened for us these last few years.

 Perhaps the biggest is that hundreds, if not thousands, of people participate in the life of our church even if they don’t attend worship on Sunday morning.

 We may have somewhere between 60 and 80 people in worship on Sunday morning—small in comparison to a lot of the evangelical or mega churches around us.

But there are literally hundreds of active people in our congregational life, who contribute to what we do in a variety of ways. They give financially, so even though our worship attendance is down from before the pandemic, our actual overall giving is up.

Lately I’ve been thinking that I wish I had a big picture view of church life in North America in the fall of 2023. Then I realized having a big picture view is probably a pipe dream. Part of life in the church in 2023 is just who’s here and who isn’t.

Post-pandemic, they support the aspects of our church life that impact our community. And they literally show up and help us. The last few times I’ve asked for help on projects around the church (replacing mulch in a playground area, doing repairs, etc.) it was “non-members” who chimed in on social media and showed up to do the work.

We think of ourselves as a campus, a “community center with a chapel” within our neighborhood that many outside groups access.

Multiple organizations have been formed out of our congregation but are unique from it. Canopy NWA (refugee resettlement). Queer Camp (summer safe space for LGBTQIA youth). Ozark Atolls (Marshallese community support). The Rainbow Closet (gender-affirming apparel). Little Free Pantry (yes, as in the international LFP movement).

We’re just very porous in a way that allows for emergence.

We have people who aren’t Christian who are present in worship regularly. We have people who support the ministry of the church who never thought they would be connected to a church and really don’t actually plan to convert/join in any traditional sense, but are part of our shared mission.

Personally, serving in this context is incredibly satisfying and thrilling… and sometimes terrifying. I honestly go back and forth even on a given day from feeling like a rock star to feeling like I’m hanging from a thread that might get cut.

What’s our congregation like? Well, we are predominantly Anglo. And this is one of the struggles of the kind of church that we are in the place that we are.

It’s hard to know how to truly be more ethnically diverse.

We don’t set it as a goal to try to reach other groups. I have a problem with that way of trying to become diverse, of pursuing diversity for diversity’s sake or to appear more diverse. I’m much more interested in partnerships and mutual aid, which is why the development of our Marshallese community ministry has been a real gift. We have a significant relationship with the Marshallese community that does not involve trying to get Marshallese people to become Lutheran because we fully recognize that a majority of them have their own religious traditions already. Our Marshallese staff person is also the youth director for his UCC congregation.

Our partnership together, rather than getting us to go to one another’s worship services or to join each other’s churches, is the point.

But diversity is still a struggle. If you are not white and you come to worship with us, you are definitely in the significant minority, and other than working on reparations and striving for mutual aid with non-white congregations, I’m often at a loss how to address this particular issue.

On the other hand, if you’re queer you’ll feel very much at home. A significant portion of our lay leadership is LGBTQ, and a majority of our church staff identify as queer.

Here we are truly unique, especially if anyone has perceptions of what church in Arkansas is like.

But returning to my point at the beginning, life as the church in 2023 is also very beleaguered. We’ve lost a good number of members and some staff in the last year just because they could no longer live in this state and feel safe. They’ve moved to places around the country where they feel like their gender identity or sexual orientation will be more affirmed and safely welcomed.

It’s very difficult being the kind of church that we are, advocating for the things that we advocate for, because we stand so frequently at cross purposes with the political establishment and the religious establishment and a lot of the power brokers in our community. There’s a certain feeling of powerlessness, of everything being hard, of being so unique as to not have a lot of comparable models to work with, of not knowing whether anything we do can have an impact, whether it’s worth staying, whether we have the energy to pursue the things that we believe we should pursue.

And a very real and significant part of our church life is the religious trauma members have experienced that impacts their participation here. I can’t really spend more than a day in ministry without someone processing some aspect of their religious trauma that resulted in them leaving some other church space and eventually finding themselves in connection here.

Johann Baptist Metz, one of my favorite theologians, writes, “The church must understand itself and prove itself as the public witness and bearer of a dangerous memory of freedom in the ‘systems’ of our emancipatory society.”[i]

For Metz, the dangerous memory was of Jesus, the one who “declared himself to be on the side of the invisible ones, those who are rejected and oppressed, and in so doing announced to them God’s coming dominion as the liberating power of an unconditional love… this memory is no bourgeois counter figure to hope. On the contrary, it holds a particular anticipation of the future as a future for the hopeless, the shattered and oppressed. In this way, it is a dangerous and liberating memory, which badgers the present and calls it into question, since it does not remember just any open future, but precisely this future, and because it compels believers to be in a continual state of transformation in order to take this future into account.”[ii]

For too long, the Christian church in the West has been hyper-focused on the kinds of transformation that accrue power and influence. Those days are waning, so perhaps now is an opportune time to return to these insights of Metz, abandoning the bourgeois counter figure of hope and instead moving with the future that is the future of the hopeless, the shattered, and the oppressed?

Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Metz, Johann Baptist. Faith in History and Society: Towards a Practical Fundamental Theology. New York: Seabury, 1980, p. 88.

[ii] Ibid., 89.

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