Getting back to community

As we move toward a more mobile and interactive lifestyle again, how do you imagine your need or preference for social gathering has changed?

At last, some good news: we seem to be slowly crawling our way out of the pandemic. Even with new variant strains, our community rates are low, hospitalizations have decreased and fewer Americans are critically sick and dying. More of us are vaccinated every day as supply increases. Schools, gyms, airlines, restaurants, museums and churches are starting to welcome people back.

But after a full year (and more) of limitations on our social gatherings, many wonder how our cultural institutions will look when we finally emerge through this crisis. We can’t just snap back after half a million people have died, countless numbers of businesses have closed, more millions have lost their jobs and our nation’s children, parents and teachers are exhausted by the loss of classroom learning.

As we move toward a more mobile and interactive lifestyle again, how do you imagine your need or preference for social gathering has changed? Will you embrace your earlier habits of frequent restaurant dining, attending crowded basketball games, or elbow to elbow live music concerts? Will masks become part of our normal attire at a doctor’s appointment or plane flight? And for people of faith, what will become of in-person worship when we can all get back together?

Church statistics have shown that even before the pandemic restrictions, Americans were changing their habits of worship attendance and affiliation to Christian communities. A sharp decline in participation has been measured in the last 20 years, and the loss of in-person participation in this last year has increased that loss.

The Barna Research group ( has discovered that while half (53%) of active church members report that they have streamed their church’s worship service in the last month, a full third (32%) of active members have never participated online in the last year. Even more disconnection is reported among members in the millennial generation (18-29 years old) as a full 50% have stopped any church participation since the start of the pandemic. While some churches report a number of new online participants this year, the number is too small to be statistically significant.

These numbers simply prove to me the obvious: that full human life, including religious activity, is meant to be lived with and among each other, not separate, isolated and apart. Video conferencing, while a wonderful technology and alternative mode of communication across distances, can never replace the experience of being together.

When we are in proximity to another human body, we share essential emotional information with one another about who we are and who we see the other to be. We communicate with more than our words: our bodies have a social language expressed in our posture, gestures, tone of voice, tilt of the head, the gaze of our eyes. We stand close, we hug, we step apart. We laugh, cry, roll our eyes, make a face, drop into silence, listen or shout together. The energy of these emotional expressions is felt in our nervous system, and we have the power to co-regulate one another as we connect with close relationships.

This is what I hope many more of us have learned in this last, very hard year together. That to be fully ourselves is to be seen and felt and known as we are when we are physically together. That to save our lives, we had to stay apart. But to be fully alive, to create human community together, we need to be physically present in one another’s space.

It has been a terrible year in so many ways. Staying connected to spiritual practice and people has been challenging, even as I have loved being together on Zoom on Sundays or talking books and culture on Tuesday nights. I will be forever grateful for our pastor and musicians’ optimism, consistency and focus as they pivoted from in-person to online in a flash. But when we can, churches will be gathering body to body, heart to heart, to sing, to pray, to listen for the word spoken. Because that is how our God has made us: spiritual people in physical bodies.

I pray you can find your way back to your faith community to regroup with others and be restored into the body Jesus called us to be. May it be so, and may it be soon.

(Originally written for / published in / the Savage Pacer, Feb 20, 2021

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