Church Attendance and Covid

Today is the last Sunday of 2020. The disruption to employment and rise of remote work might be the bigger story of 2020. However, for a significant fraction of Americans, 2020 is also the year their ability to meet as an in-person church was curtailed. Gathering in a room with many people singing is an efficient means of spreading the virus. For some, church has been an online-only experience since March.

Social scientists are interested in religiosity. Christian devotion has often been measured by asking how many times a person goes to church.

My colleagues who study the economics of religion will have an important issue to study. How does the switch to online church in 2020 affect Christian engagement in the future? How will this affect our ability to track long-term trends on religiosity?

If it is true that large gatherings are safe in a year from now, it will be interesting to compare in-person church attendance in 2022 to 2019. If it turns out that attendance has decreased, then we would need to see a break in the trend to conclude that Covid is the cause. Here’s a graph of church attendance in an article from B.C. (Before Covid).

A book that was published in the 1950s made it sound like, even then, people who attended church weekly were in the minority. Joy Davidman published Smoke on the Mountain in 1953.

The inspiration for this post was reading this line about “remote” church experiences:

Others, instead of stirring their stumps, listen in comfortable living rooms to a sermon on the radio, arguing that it is “just the same.” They have forgotten that one of the first necessities of a Christian life is a congregation…

Overall, Davidman is disappointed in how few of her American countrymen attend church. Early in life, she was a militant atheist. She’s a Christian at the time of writing, but still somewhat militant.

Davidman frowns on radio church, when in-person church was available. However, virtual church today is closer to the traditional visual church experience. Going forward, it will be important to consider whether people who use the internet for church experiences should get counted.

Here are some examples of what churches have been up to, virtually:

Trinity United Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL 

Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, VA 

Nativity, a Catholic church in Burke, VA 

Larger churches have been podcasting and Youtube-ing for years. One of the top productions is Bethel Church of Redding, CA. They even already had their own Bethel.tv ecosystem, so shutting down in-person services for Covid probably coincided with an increase in viewership for them.

Least Hypocritical Artist: Rich Mullins

I’m creating a new award: Least Hypocritical Artist Award. Rich Mullins is the winner.

The most human and not-overly-polished collection of works by Rich Mullins can be found here. You have to order it as a CD. I do not know of any digital platforms selling it. I bought a used copy for less than $3.

Since I have a CD player in my kitchen (left there by prior home owner) I have been listening to this album all week. Rich Mullins is a tremendously talented musician. These album tracks are live concert performances with jokes and introductions. Maybe I appreciate it especially this month because concerts and public gatherings cancelled for Covid. A DVD of a live concert is also included with the CD.

Because of social media, artists are getting in trouble when they say something that doesn’t fit the polished image their managers try to cultivate. Public figures disappoint sometimes. The spectacular fall of Jerry Falwell last month is an example of someone who presented a certain image to the world that turned out to be false.

Rich Mullins claimed to be a Christian, but he didn’t claim to be perfect. Rich Mullins put his whole heart and life out there. No surprises. You can’t disappoint your fans if you never tried to hide anything. Mullins was a bit self-deprecating in public but radically generous in his private life. He followed the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He lived very simply despite his modest professional success.

Mullins tragically died in a car accident at the age of 41 in 1997, when I was still too young to fully appreciate him. You can find his best selling albums and you can buy his popular songs on iTunes. This album is the best one that I have found for getting to know the man.

Views on Christian Atonement

An outsider to the Church might assume that Christians agree on all of the details concerning Jesus-saved-us-from-our-sins. Things are not as simple as they appear. I recall a podcast episode in which investor Peter Thiel pushed back against the idea that the New Testament is tidy or straightforward. Thiel said “I think Christ is a very complex, very ambiguous figure in many ways, which makes the interpretation quite difficult.”

Some of that complexity is captured in an excellent new article “The Atonement Wars“. This explores exactly what happens to Christians and their guilt of sin, in light of Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection. I recommend the whole article.

Here is a view from the Greek Orthodox tradition that might be unfamiliar to American Protestants who are used to thinking about Atonement in dry legal terms.

“Ontological theories” is a broad term to comprehend the teachings of many Greek-speaking church fathers, mainly in the eastern half of the old Roman Empire and mainly from 180 A.D. onward….

This scheme is an “ontological” (whole being) substitution by Christ to deal with the entire power of sin in humans, rather than primarily a legal substitution addressing the guilt of sin before God’s justice. It is sometimes characterized as a “medical” model, stressing the healing of sick humanity rather than the judicial acquittal of a guilty humanity. Much of subsequent Eastern Orthodox theology, such as stressing the Incarnation and Resurrection, and experientially participating in the divine “energies” so as to become more and more God-like (“theosis”), is an elaboration of this ontological approach pioneered by Irenaeus. As with the Ransom Theory, the various flavors of Ontological atonement were subsumed by Aulen under the “Christus Victor” or “classic” rubric.

The Atonement Wars

If you read modern theology books and blogs, you probably have not had many opportunities to hear what the Church Fathers have said. The church fathers are people such as Ignatius of Antioch whose writing did not make it into the Bible but who were writing much closer to the time of Jesus than we stand today. “The Atonement Wars” explores the views of early Christians on salvation. I also recommend a separate blog devoted to the church fathers on the Letters to Creationists site.

Whether you attend church twice a week or never, I recommend this clear writing on ideas that shaped our civilization.