“How is your current church attendance compared to your pre-pandemic attendance?” If you’re like me, you’ve grown tired of that question. Yet, I can’t ignore it. I’ve crunched the data to answer it. I’ve even asked it. However, asking that question alone can leave us stuck in a potentially unhealthy comparison game.
I recently returned to a biblical account that reminded me of the pre and post pandemic church attendance comparisons. The words of Ezra leapt off the page at me…
And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:10-13 ESV
Have you ever heard the crowd noise from outside a stadium? That’s what I imagine in this passage. We know from Ezra’s account that nearly 50,000 men returned from exile to Jerusalem. Most NFL stadiums can host 60,000-80,000 people. Imagine the victorious shouts and agonizing groans at an intense NFL rivalry each time a touchdown is scored. I hope that helps you imagine the cacophony of this throng—but what can we learn from Ezra’s account?
Bitter AND Sweet
Over the course of 28 years of life together, my wife and I have noted that some of our richest experiences in life have resulted from the bittersweet moments. Similarly in the church this past year, I’ve heard and experienced joyful excitement over people whom God has drawn and transformed in our body through the upheaval of the pandemic. Yet, I’ve also heard and experienced mournful lament over others who have not returned to life in our body because they’ve chosen other priorities or other churches. Ezra acknowledges a time for both celebration and lament in this passage—and so does King Solomon when he reminds us there is, “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Eccl 3:4 ESV)
Rebuilding AND Building
Over the past few months, I’ve heard and read countless references to “rebuilding the church.” In many ways, it does feel like we’re rebuilding our churches right now, but the reality is that God is building (not rebuilding) his church. Paul describes that process, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph 2:20-21 ESV) The Lord started this building long before us, and he will continue it long after us, but what a privilege that he chooses to use us right now in the process!
Good AND Best
“How is your current church attendance compared to your pre-pandemic attendance?” That’s a good question. There’s nothing wrong with tracking church attendance and utilizing that data as one measure of church health. But recently, in a Jenni Catron Leadership Podcast episode, Jim Sheppard asked the question, “How many people [has your church] deployed into your community to live out the Gospel?” Or you could ask something like, “How many lives have we seen the Lord transform in our church this past year?” Those are great questions. In our regular, recurring ministry staff meetings, we start with a “Purple Mic Moment.” The first person to grab the obnoxious purple karaoke microphone gets to tell a firsthand story of God at work in someone’s life in our church. That helps us all focus to see where God is “building” in our midst so we can join him there.
I hope these reminders from this simple account of Ezra encourage you as you celebrate, lament and keep on building! And finally, as we work, let’s fix our eyes on the author and finisher of our faith who promised us, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18 ESV)