When COVID-19 shutdowns began in 2020, many pastors thought it would mean missing out on a couple of Sundays. Even in those early weeks of the pandemic, we longed to be off our couches and back in our familiar sanctuaries for worship. We imagined hugging everyone, worshiping shoulder to shoulder, walking forward for Communion, and lingering for small talk.
We know how the rest of this story goes. The pandemic extended month after month. By 2021, most Protestant churches in the United States were meeting either at a significantly reduced capacity or not at all.
Thanks to vaccines and falling infection rates, things are changing. This spring and summer, more churches will move from meeting virtually to meeting in person, from outside to inside, from sparse gatherings to fuller ones. God willing, we’ll get to a place where we can meet on Sunday mornings without the risk of spreading the virus that has dominated our lives.
But the odds are that our return won’t look like the crowded reunions we once imagined. When churches reopen, there will still be precautions, and families will come back gradually, depending on their own health concerns and consciences.
We’ll also be faced with our own mixed emotions. When my church started offering small, adapted worship gatherings last year, the first song we sang together was “Joy to the World.” I couldn’t hear anyone else, our voices muffled by masks and distance, but I felt the Spirit among us. I cried immediately. I’ve never felt anything like it. It was triumph and heartache at once.
Returning to the rhythms of worship prompts us to remember the Sundays and holidays we missed. Part of celebrating finally being together is grieving the time we spent apart.
In a body “not made up of one part but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14), we notice those who aren’t around. The empty seats are reminders of the members who haven’t returned, who left the church during the pandemic, or who passed away.
Public health experts disagree on what metrics will tell us the pandemic is over, and there’s definitely no consensus among church leaders—or even within a congregation—on when we’re in the clear. Even so, many of us will be waiting for a signal that this season of our spiritual lives has come to a close, so that a new one can begin.
David Kinnaman, who has researched faith trends around COVID-19 as president of Barna Group, worries that a year of social distancing will lead to emotional distancing.
“There will be ways in which church leaders think they’re making a bigger impact because people showed back up at the building, but people’s hearts and minds won’t be persuaded fully,” he told me, as if he knew that I myself had been zoning out on Sundays. “They’re going to be hanging back, not going to sign up, not going to volunteer, not going to give at the same level.”
Surveys suggest that even devoted people of faith will face lingering spiritual challenges. Online church viewership was spotty among casual and committed Christians alike. Daily Bible reading dropped last year as soon as people stopped connecting with their church communities. More than half of churchgoing Christians said they had not checked in with others from their congregation during the pandemic.
Just as there will likely be no giant celebration marking our open church doors, there may not be a sign beckoning us to return to serving the body. We may feel more weariness than revival. But God can prompt us in our recovery. It will be his hand that leads us, openhearted, back into the communities that we need and that need us.
Jesus himself never had a launch party for any of his ministry efforts. Instead, his invitations came inconveniently and in the midst of everyday activities: “Follow me.”
The formation of Christ’s church on Pentecost in Acts is probably the flashiest demonstration of God’s call—amazing thousands with the “sound like the blowing of a violent wind” and “tongues of fire” resting on his followers (2:2–3).
But in John, the Spirit comes upon the disciples with much less fanfare. Jesus “breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (20:22). With that, the early disciples were sent to spread God’s Word and build the church.
We now have the task of rebuilding our embodied fellowship after more than a year spent at a distance. When it comes time for us to return, let us not just fill our old seats and go through the motions, but rather minister to, care for, and pray for one another. Let us resume our places in the body knowing that the Spirit of Pentecost is within us, and maybe we’ll one day be close enough to exhale together again.
Kate Shellnutt is senior news editor at Christianity Today.
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