As the less severe Omicron variant of Covid-19 disease adds to the earlier Delta strain, church attendance is going down. There appear to be fewer people in church than there were towards the end of last year.
It’s the holiday season, of course – a time when church attendance can be intermittent. But this year there appear to be fewer people attending “real” church than usual.
Omicron is much more infectious than previous variants, and it’s a message that appears to have got through. Every family now knows someone close who has Covid. Every church congregation, no matter how small, has someone away because they have caught the virus. It takes a miracle to hold a wedding, making sure the ceremony goes ahead without substitutes – just like a cricket match.
Many of us waver between two opinions, the Sydney Morning Herald columnist Sean Kelly writes. “In the morning, say, when the stats come out and our hospitals seem threatened, we believe in doing everything that can be done to slow the virus. By late afternoon when pleasant memories of drinks with friends call out to us, we begin to wonder out loud what choice there is, other than getting on with our lives?
“This, it seems to me, is the dominant fact of this particular period of the pandemic: widespread confusion. Society feels a little like the wild west. We come up with our own rules. Those rules chop and change depending not just on circumstances, but also on more fickle factors, like what mood we happen to be in.”
Christians likewise seem to be struggling to come up with a rule about going to church. In the past couple of weeks, I have been part of a thinning crowd, picking a pew where the breeze wafts into a half-full building. Should I go, I ask myself – but not aloud to the family.
Other churches, in other states, even other parts of the same city, may be different. It seems only a few weeks ago that some were discussing that church is essential, one simply needs to attend our fellowship, that government restrictions were oppressive.
But now, when the rules have been relaxed or removed and everyone can go to church, there appear to be fewer of us there. Not only fewer of us in the pews or seats but fewer people up the front too. Omicron claimed the singers at my church last Sunday. In many churches, increasingly more is on the shoulders of a few.
In the third year of the coronavirus era, online church is looking like a fixture. Even the most technically savvy would not have seen that coming.
We need to add the caveat that we don’t actually know for certain that Omicron is less severe. The epidemiology is complex. Omicron may be milder for a population, but that does not mean for you, as an individual, it will necessarily be mild. The reality of the virus moves more quickly than scientists can research it.
There will be answers. But not as quickly as we would like.
And if that last statement seems familiar to you as a Christian, that should be no surprise. We know how our personal journey ends, where we will be and who has saved us.
But there are plot twists along the way that we don’t know about. There are fewer people physically in church. But we trust and hope more people are online. And we hope even harder that more are praying and trusting the Lord of all.