In 2001, after the attacks on September 11th took place, church attendance spiked in America. According to Gallup polls, the average congregation size jumped up by 6% the weekend immediately following the tragedy.
Unfortunately, this growth was incredibly short-lived. The “religious revival” that some had claimed was taking place turned out to last just a few months. In fact, it is documented that church-service attendance had fallen back to pre-September 11th levels as early as November of the same year.
This can tell us at least two major things regarding how the general population of the country saw church about twenty years ago. First, it was instinctively seen as a place to go when tragedy happens. Secondly, rather than church being a lifestyle or permanent shift in personal prioritization, it was more of a Band-Aid: a way to promote healing, but ultimately fated to be cast off when things seem to return to “normal.”
I’ll make a prediction here: we will see a similar jump in congregation size when our current quarantine is lifted (and I mean that in comparison to pre-quarantine attendance, of course). I believe that some of that jump will be motivated by a similar desire for answers and contemplation of mortality that resulted in the September 11th attacks. However, I also expect that an additional motivation of a craving for “normalcy,” will be present. The need for routine and predictability will cause some people to go back to church on a regular basis or increase how often they attend.
I actually appreciate the idea that Sunday services are a place to find healing and peace in times of unrest or uncertainty.
What I do want to say is that the church now has an opportunity (a responsibility, even) to display to the world why the church (in its context of the people of God, not the physical building in which it meets) is important. To proclaim to the world that being a part of the church body, and not simply checking the box of attending a service, is so much more than a Band-Aid; it is a source of true life itself.
In the fourth chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus encounters a woman near a well. Aside from the culturally abnormal act of a Jew starting a conversation with a Samaritan, Jesus introduces something radical into this woman’s life. He uses the mundane situation of being thirsty as a springboard for revealing that what she is doing (gathering water) is a temporary fix for an earthly need, and that she has the opportunity to receive “living water;” salvation and eternal life.
The woman recites to him some of her knowledge about religious practices and the messiah. While the things she says are true, she reveals that her knowledge is incomplete: she doesn’t know that the man she is speaking to is the messiah himself.
Today, we get to tell the world that the church is not simply a place to go when things are scary, then leave when things are normal. It is not a place to hear about “right and wrong” or hope our kids get taught the ten commandments. It isn’t the place where God lives or our prayers are heard more. It isn’t even a “place” at all!
No, it is so much more. We have the joy of being a part of God’s plan for the redemption of humanity: the hands and feet of a body that has been revived and now gets to be a conduit through which the gospel and reach others.
America’s “Christianity Band-Aid” is just as useful as placing an actual Band-Aid on a broken arm. So how are you going to show the world something different?