I’ve been a “church-goer” my whole life. I remember my dad polishing our shoes on Saturday evening so we would all look bright and shiny for church on Sunday morning. I remember Sunday evenings watching Walt Disney on TV, getting changed for church during the last commercial, and leaving for church just before the show ended. Going to church is what we did on Sundays. My church met in a school gymnasium, so it wasn’t about the building, but something about what we did, that made it church. Yet going to Bible study on Wednesday nights, or youth group on Friday nights, was not considered going to church.
The first Mennonite church I joined as a member was in my mid-30s in Lancaster, Pa. The sign out front said it was the Meeting House of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church. I still walked “to church” on Sunday mornings, but that sign began to shift my understanding of church.
A few Saturdays ago, I sat in front of my puzzle board, finding the right places for a lot of pieces in the current puzzle, while listening to the MC Canada “Table talk” conference on what is compelling about church these days?
I heard many good analogies and images about church—with an emphasis that church is not the building, and church is not limited to gathered worship on Sunday mornings. I heard someone in my breakout room describe the yearning in her congregation during COVID-19 to gather together, a powerful yearning to “go to church.”
That yearning to gather as Christians for shared worship is admirable. Church is a communal space where we are inspired to follow Jesus and where we might have an encounter with God. We get to sing together—maybe the only place where we sing. The weekly check-in with each other for worship keeps us grounded, preventing us from drifting away from our faith commitments.
But as Carey Nieuwhof reports, based on Barna’s current research in the United States, the pandemic is making it easier for adults to not participate in Sunday morning church, and research projects that many will not return when pandemic restrictions end: “Seventy-one percent of Boomers say they want primarily in-person church attendance after COVID is over. For Gen Z, only 41 percent prefer primarily physical gatherings in the future. . . . The changes happening right now in church attendance preferences are not just cultural, they’re generational.”
I read these stats and I wonder what proportion of adults under 50 will participate in any form of Sunday morning church in the future. Regular church participation has been dropping for decades. The pandemic is making obvious the disruptions that already exist in our church communities and is increasing the speed at which change is happening.
I have been intrigued for many years how the Be in Christ Church of Canada organizes itself around three “expressions” of church: Community churches (what we normally think of as a church); The Meeting House (for people who aren’t into church); and Reunion (creative church plant communities).
As Mennonite churches, we also put resources into creative church-plant communities in Canada, and we invest heavily in newer Canadian church communities. Our goal is not to turn all these investments into traditional Sunday-morning-worshipping communities. Our goal is to invest in creative explorations of what it means to be church together for different generations and cultures; and I think we need to do more investing and exploring. Let’s redefine together what “going to church” means.
Arli Klassen serves as Mennonite Church Eastern Canada’s moderator and is a member of the MC Canada Joint Council.