“I don’t want things to go back like they were. I want things to be better.”
Oklahoma minister Randy Roper’s words are echoed by people in Churches of Christ across the nation as they emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Roper preaches for the Edmond Church of Christ in the suburbs of Oklahoma City. The congregation, which was averaging about 1,250 for weekly worship prior to the pandemic, is one of about 12,000 autonomous congregations in the U.S. that seek to share Jesus through the practice of simple, New Testament Christianity without manmade creeds. Churches of Christ share roots with Christian Churches in the Restoration or Stone-Campbell Movement.
Even before arrival of the virus in the first few months of 2020, Churches of Christ were declining numerically in the United States. In the past decade, the number of adherents (baptized believers and their children) in the pews had dropped nearly 10 percent to 1,425,836, according to research by Carl Royster of 21st Century Christian, a publishing ministry associated with the fellowship.
Added to that were the stresses of the pandemic, which restricted in-person gathering for a cappella worship—a staple in most Churches of Christ. As churches shut their doors and moved services online, congregations endured hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.
“I don’t know that anyone can understand the impact that [the virus] has unless they have lost a loved one,” said Lynn Jones, a member of the Church of Christ in Farmers Branch, Texas. Her father-in-law, brother-in-law, and cousin all died from COVID-19.
As for coping with the profound sense of loss, Jones said, “I don’t know how people do this without God.”
Now (as of June 2021), as case numbers drop and vaccination rates rise, members are returning to the pews, based on their states’ guidelines. On the West Coast and in New England, many congregations continue to meet virtually. In Tennessee and Texas, two epicenters among Churches of Christ, many have resumed in-person, mask-optional services.
“This whole experience has brought home how much we need each other,” said Lawana Perrault, a member of the Jersey Village Church of Christ in Houston. “I miss my brothers and sisters who have not returned yet. I want to see all of them at services.”
‘WHAT IS WORTH KEEPING?’
But will the people return?
That’s the question on the minds of many ministers, elders, and members of Churches of Christ, according to a recent online survey conducted by The Christian Chronicle, a newspaper that serves the fellowship.
Uncertainty about a bounceback in attendance, paired with the declining numbers that preceded the pandemic, has many church members rethinking their in-person services.
As Sarah Stirman, a member of the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ in Allen, Texas, put it: “What is worth keeping?”
In addition to robust, four-part harmonies, Churches of Christ have been known for their adherence to a regular schedule of three main activities per week. In addition to Sunday morning worship—with weekly Communion—many Churches of Christ host a smaller Sunday evening worship gathering that allows those who were unable to attend Sunday morning to take Communion. Churches also host Wednesday evening Bible study.
Those evening activities, which some Churches of Christ already had eliminated due to declining attendance, disappeared almost entirely during the months of closures, though many congregations posted Bible studies and children’s activities online throughout the week.
The pandemic presented churches with a sort of “reset button,” and members such as James Prather of the Southern Hills Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, ponder whether or not services that were ailing in attendance pre-pandemic will return.
A more immediate concern for churches that have reconvened in-person Sunday worship is whether to resume passing Communion trays. Most congregations either ask worshippers to bring their own supplies—unleavened wafers and fruit of the vine—or else provide disposable Communion kits, which have less-than-affectionately become known as “rip and sips.”
As a result, Communion has a “less communal feeling,” Prather said, though “I’m not sure how it can be avoided, given the circumstances.”
“The pandemic has forced us to be socially distant,” he added, “and that affects our worship practices as well. What this really highlights to me is that, when fundamental parts of our worship practices break due to external circumstances, we need to be rethinking what and how we’re doing it if we want our services to stay both personally and communally meaningful.”
In a post-pandemic world, Churches of Christ “need an attitude of pressing forward, not going back,” said John Dobbs, minister with the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, Louisiana.
For example, many preachers have become adept at preparing digital services, Dobbs said, “and to give up that online presence would be a huge mistake.”
A SIMPLER CHURCH
In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic flipped the conventional wisdom of church growth on its head.
Worship services at megachurches became super-spreader events, too dangerous to attend.
But the majority of Churches of Christ in the U.S. have 100 members or fewer. Declining, rural congregations that meet in facilities much larger than what they need suddenly had the ideal setup for socially distanced worship. Many of these congregations broadcast their services on Zoom or Google Meet and were able to reconnect with members in senior care centers and former members who had moved away.
Meanwhile, larger, urban congregations conducted Bible class activities online. Some divided into groups of two or three families and met in homes.
“Small groups are having an interesting resurgence,” said Jeff Walling, who directs the Youth Leadership Initiative at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. “More and more people are asking the question, ‘Is this more what God intended than 1,000 of us all standing in an auditorium, all staring in the same direction?’”
And some are asking, “Why have a church building at all?”
In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Dabbs was recording a sermon for the Auburn Church of Christ in Alabama, where he served as minister. If the 400-member congregation couldn’t meet in a building, he thought, “what about 10 to 15 in our yard?”
Backyard Church was born. It began as an outdoor gathering of a few families from the minister’s subdivision, spaced apart and masked. A few were members of Dabbs’s congregation. Most weren’t.
After the initial closures lifted, the members of the Auburn Church of Christ returned to the pews. But Backyard Church kept growing, and in October 2020 Dabbs made the prayerful decision to step away from the pulpit. He now focuses on Backyard Church full time in addition to his duties as editor of Wineskins, a faith-based publication.
The congregation is determined to not buy a building, he said. Instead, Backyard Church may plant new churches that multiply across the backyards of east Alabama. The pandemic has taught them not to cling too tightly to future plans, Dabbs said, and to be open to the opportunities God provides.
For Churches of Christ, which seek to emulate the first-century church, house churches have a scriptural appeal.
“I think the first-century church often followed the home model,” said Kenneth Fatula, an elder of the 50-member Berwick Church of Christ in Pennsylvania. “It seems that larger congregations must be careful to identify members by name as individuals, not just as numbers and revenue sources.
“I think it’s time to evaluate what constitutes assembly and why we do it,” Fatula said. Churches do not “gather to worship,” he added, but are instructed to “live lives of worship,” as the apostle Paul urged in Romans 12:1.
Ben Pickett remembers when churches measured the success of a ministry event primarily by the number of people who showed up.
Now, “if the event happens, it’s a win,” said Pickett, executive minister for the West Houston Church of Christ in Texas, which averaged 700 worshippers on Sundays prior to COVID-19.
“In many ways, we’re like Israel in the wilderness,” Pickett said. Questions about the long-term effects of vaccines on church life and the emerging new normal are hard to fathom.
“We don’t know where this thing is going to end,” Pickett said, “but we know that God is leading us.”
One benefit of the pandemic might be that it has forced Christians to rethink what the word church means, said Jessica Knapp.
“I don’t think we will ‘go back’ to church the way it was any time soon—and I think that is potentially a good thing,” said Knapp, associate campus minister for Ambassadors 4 Christ, a campus ministry in Tucson, Arizona.
Students who took part in church “out of habit” may not return, she said, but those “who need Jesus and know it, will be in the group, stronger and more connected than before.”
Knapp added, “I see the need to redefine what it means to be a church. Are we a family who see each other for a quick bite on Sundays, or are we a community that shares life together, sees one another, and communicates in multiple modalities across platforms, regularly and often?”
As they ponder changes and mourn losses, members of Churches of Christ see the Lord at work through the tragedies and trials of the pandemic.
“Things may never be back like they were, but it was God’s will, and in some ways that’s what we need,” said Viveca Thompson, a member of the Church of Christ of Sweet Home in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Speaking to her brothers and sisters in the faith, Thompson said, “Sometimes, Church of Christ people, God has to get our attention. And he got the whole world’s attention.”