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A large segment of church attenders have no plans to return to 'church' post-COVID

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Mike PhayIn his groundbreaking bestseller "Bowling Alone," Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam famously popularized the idea of "social capital," chronicling its drastic decline in the last part of the 20th century. "Social capital," Putnam wrote, "refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them …" For Putnam, the idea of social capital "calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations."

Putnam's prognosis was bleak: Americans are growing apart, and unless something radically shifts, the reality of genuine and nurturing community in America will continue to decline. And its collapse will not be pretty. As we look around at a society that seems to be falling rapidly into chaos and wonder what's happened, Putnam's decades-old analysis clues us into the fact that we shouldn't be surprised.

As a pastor, I'm deeply vested in a particular kind of community—namely, Christian community. But I'm not so foolish as to think that the ailments I find creeping into and eroding away at a church's sense of community are very far-removed from the ailments of the society-at-large. And I also know that a genuine Christian community—what we call a "church"—should deeply and significantly influence its surrounding community rather than be influenced by it.

But in the case of Christian community, the trends are just as disturbing. By some estimations, many churches—of all traditions and denominations—should expect an attrition rate of at least 30% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, a large segment of church attenders—and leaders, pastors and ministers for that matter—have no plans to return to "church" post-COVID. The numbers, and the felt reality, is sobering.

But for those who have been paying attention to the cultural currents of the last 60 years, this sudden mass exodus isn't surprising. Baby Boomers famously left the church in droves as they began coming of age in the 1960s and '70s, and church attendance has steadily declined from its peak in the post-war 1950s. In the 1980s and '90s, what became known as the "Church Growth Movement," actively and purposely pursued these evacuees with what has been labeled a "seeker-sensitive" model of Christianity. As a result, America witnessed the strange phenomenon of suburban mega-churches popping up throughout the United States. Unfortunately, the result of this pragmatic version—or what was often more of a per-version—of the Christian gospel was the rise of what sociologist Christian Smith labeled "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD for short).

In interviewing several thousand American teenagers, Smith and his colleagues uncovered what they took to be the unofficial tenets of a broadly held system of beliefs. MTD can be summarized as a belief in (1) a God who created the earth and watches over our lives and who (2) wants people to be good, nice, and fair, but (3) is not intimately involved with the everyday details of our lives (unless, of course, we have a problem we need his help on). Further, (4) the goal of life is happiness and a positive self-image, and (5) good people go to heaven when they die.

In my estimation, MTD is the de facto belief system of a broad swath of Americans who call themselves Christians. Unfortunately, MTD is not Christianity at all. It's actually a separate religion altogether, and a very pragmatic religion at that. In other words, it's a convenient belief system that centers on "me," doesn't require very much from me, and is useful when I need it to be.

So what does this all mean? Honestly, I'm not sure that I have the answer. But as a Christian who deeply believes in the radically counter-cultural good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ … well, I've got some thoughts.

First, we need a reorientation around Jesus. For those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, we have to answer a simple question: Am I following Jesus because he can do something for me, or am I following Jesus because he is everything to me? Your answer to this question will define what your entire life looks like.

Second, we need a reorientation around church. Following Jesus as Savior and King includes a new identity, both for individuals and for Christian communities (churches). The church, though a social reality, is more than a social reality. It's not just a place we go when it's convenient or helpful, to consume the best offerings of religious goods and services. The church is the people of God (1 Peter 2:9-10), the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:1-16), and the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:19-22). In the church is the very presence of God and the very hope of the world. Because of this, "going to church" has very little to do with what we can get out of it. If you are a follower of Jesus, you need to be in fellowship in a local church.

Finally, we need a reorientation around mission. Forty years ago, the broad missionary movement of many churches was the recovery of those who had abandoned the churches. Two decades into the 21st century, churches have to make a decision as to whether they will offer a message that caters to people's tastes (and maybe fills the pews) or a better message that brings people into relationship with the living God. This isn't a popular message, and the church should expect no less than to suffer and die for the good of our community. After all, we follow a man who did that very thing.

Mike Phay is the pastor of First Baptist Church. He can be reached at 541-447-7717.

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