Five Metaphors That Describe Why In-Person Attendance at Churches Will Grow in Importance

You’ve heard a lot about how the pandemic hurt church attendance.

Yeah. Me too. It’s true, but it’s becoming a bit tiresome.

We can watch online. We can study the Bible digitally. “Going to church” is no longer needed. 

Yep, I’ve heard them too. How many times have we heard the overused pseudo-explanation, “the church is the people, not a building”? Those people are supposed to gather somewhere, and it’s usually a building. 

Now, much to my own personal delight, we are seeing an incipient movement push back against the “you-don’t-have-to-attend-church-to-be-obedient-to-God” crowd. We are seeing early signs that a number of people were awakened in the pandemic to the importance of in-person community, particularly in churches. 

That is why our churches need to be prepared and to be proactive for more people coming to our in-person worship services and our in-person small groups or Sunday school classes or whatever you call them. 

Perhaps we can best understand the role of the local church metaphorically. Here are five of my favorites:

1. The family meal versus the individual takeout dinner. For years, families spent time around the table. They would converse with each other instead of getting a takeout meal and looking at their smartphone. It was a time where family members connected and got to know each other. It was an in-person event that took place several times a week. The disconnected family member is like the disconnected church member who no longer attends in-person for worship services and small groups.

2. A bonfire versus an electric heater. I love a bonfire on the beach. I enjoy more than the warmth on a cool night; I enjoy others in person. The setting provides those times where we can share stories, laugh, and get to know one another. The electric heater provides warmth, but it does not provide connection. It is like the digital church: functional but not personal.

3. The live concert versus streaming music. I remember the first time I heard “Red Rubber Ball” by The Cyrkle in a concert. I was hooked on that 60s one-hit wonder because I not only enjoyed the catchy tune, I shared the delight with others who were attending. We can listen to Christian music and hymns via digital means, but it’s nothing like singing together in-person in church in a spirit of true worship.

4. Sailing together versus watching a travel show. For one of our wedding anniversaries, I leased a small sailboat with a captain for a half-day. Being with my wife for those few hours and seeing the pure joy she experienced was incomparable to watching a television show about sailing. Worshiping together is the sailboat. Watching a digitally streaming worship service is the television travel show.

5. Live theater versus Netflix. I have been to a few Broadway shows and a few other live shows. While I appreciate the convenience of watching a chosen movie on Netflix, it is nothing like feeling and seeing the emotions of those watching a play in the room with me. Church is akin to live theater. You connect with those who are physically present. You not only hear a sermon and sing worship music, but you also worship together with others. 

We are encouraged by the early indicators pointing toward a rebirth and growth of the in-person worship services and small groups. If there is a place where people should be together, it is that place of community where we worship together and enjoy one another in small groups.

This trend is one worthy of watching.

Posted on June 5, 2023

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Robin G Jordan says on

    While I believe that churches should livestream their services on the internet and live broadcast them on cable TV, I also believe that watching a church service on a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or TV is not a substitute participating in the service in person. Note that I say, “participating in the service in person,” and not attending the service in person. One of the developments in recent years is that church services have increasingly become non-congregational and non-participatory. “Worshiptainment” as it has been described has replaced corporate worship. Congregations have been reduced to the role of passive spectators to the performance of a worship band and a preacher.

    Regrettably livestreaming church services on the internet and live broadcasting them on cable TV has contributed to this development. A recent study showed that while Blacks and Hispanics watching an internet livestream or cable TV live broadcast of a service will pray and sing along with the livestream or cable TV live broadcast, whites generally do not.

    Listening to someone else sing or pray, however, is not worshiping God. We cannot worship God through a proxy. We must honor and reverence God for ourselves to be truly worshiping him and we do that not only by recounting his mighty deeds, making known his goodness, singing his praises, and giving him thanks but also by the way we live our lives. While taking the time to watch an internet livestream or cable TV live broadcast of a service in a sense may be considered showing reverence and honor to God, it can only be really considered doing that if we watch the livestream or the broadcast with the intention of showing honor and reverence to God. I don’t believe that most people who watch a livestream or broadcast do that with that intention. What they watch for is a weekly dose of inspiration and feeling good about themselves.

    There is a danger here of falling into the kind of thinking against which the Bible warns, that is, thinking by performing a ritual, in this case, watching a church service on smart phone, tablet, laptop, or TV, we are honoring and reverencing God. This kind of thinking, however, does not lead to the kind of inner transformation which genuine worship produces. It does not nourish and sustain a personal relationship with God.

    From what I have seen livestreaming church services on the internet and live broadcasting them on cable TV are also contributing to another development—the decline in congregational singing. It encourages worship bands to see themselves as performing for an audience rather than leading a congregation in singing. As a consequence, worship leaders are picking songs that are difficult for congregations to sing and not repeating new songs with enough frequency that the congregation can learn them. Instead, congregations are presented with a stream of difficult-to-sing, unfamiliar songs that discourage them from singing. Music in a church service is no longer seen as a way of engaging the congregation in the worship of God but rather it is seen as a way to elicit an emotional reaction in the congregation and put them in the right frame of mind for the sermon.

    These developments have produced a not so subtle shift in the focus of church services. They are not God-focused. They are “me” focused. I have noticed that a number of the performance songs that worship bands are singing focus on what God can do for me, what I can get from God. Worship bands are also singing about what purportedly is their experience of God, God and me songs, experiences which the members of the congregation may not share. On the other hand, if the songs were more God-focused and the congregation involved in singing them, the members of the congregation would more likely experience a deeper relationship with God. God has a way of occupying his praises, and congregation singing can be a means of grace by which the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and lives of the members of a congregation.

  • Larry Webb says on

    I have done the online worship thing. It certainly does not take the place of in person worship. It is not the same. I come away wanting more. Give me in person worship along with the germs. We need each other!