COVID Didn’t Kill Your Church

By Deb Conrad

As I begin to write, it is Sunday, the day after war has broken out again between Israelis and Palestinians, and, without pulpit responsibilities myself for the moment, I’ve tuned in for someone else’s worship. But the sermon I’m hearing includes not a word about this latest “conflict” nor the powers and principalities driving it. No acknowledgment of America’s support of Israel’s occupation, its blatant and illegal expansion, not Palestinians’ generations-long oppression, no commentary about who is empire these days, not the way we of the U.S. church have been manipulated to support Israel’s divine right to the land, though the leaders of the U.S. nor the leaders of Israel give one damn about biblical mandates unless there is power to be gained or maintained; not the American capitalist economy which relies on defense contracts and weapons sales to “allied” nations; not the biblical story about the way we become Egypt as soon as we are free, or even that scene from A Christmas Story that surely is a parable, when Ralphie can’t take it anymore and finally unloads on Farkus, the schoolyard bully. None of that. 

“God is love,” says the preacher, about 15 times; the most imaginative thing she can think to suggest is “wherever you go take God with you,” which everyone in every war every time claims to do. (She even referred to God as a tool, which I’m not sure landed the way she meant.) 

And of course, here at home we continue to wage war on “terror,” an enemy you can never defeat but always justify warring; police violence continues to rage; economic violence continues its generations-old blight on half the country, on more than half the world; and violence spikes again against democracy, gender identity, reproductive choice, voting rights, people without home, and reading books. And Muslims. 

“God is love.” Repeat as needed to feel good. 

The congregation where she preached this is dying. And who is surprised. 

These days, as congregations struggle in the throes of nearly inevitable institutional death, the mantra-slash-justification-slash-excuse is COVID. 

Man, COVID really shook us. 

If only the pre-COVID people would come back. 

We were fine until COVID. 

At first, I sort of believed it, bought into it. I wanted to give congregations the benefit of the doubt, encourage them in unprecedented times. Not so much anymore. The reality is more basic and a lot less “act of god”-ish. The truth is you weren’t fine before.

When COVID began its deadly march (deadly March, as in 2020) and reasonable worship leaders went online, my wife and I worried. We worried for our health, yeah. But also for our favorite restaurants, haircutters, local grocers. We ordered take-out, made donations, tipped extra, hoping to help folks in the community get through the hardest times. We were, of course, not the only ones. It mattered to us that the vegan foods we’d come to love—and the vegan food vendors we’d come to know—would get through it ok. 

Restaurants and vendors did their part. They created distanced seating, outdoor tented cubicles—with those groovy space heaters when winter came, plus carry-out specials, expanded delivery options. They couldn’t count on our old habits, so they made new habits of their own. They rearranged to help us stoke the desire we already had for their fare. 

Eating out doesn’t really qualify as a habit. In the world of relative privilege, it is a date-night practice, an I’m-too-tired last resort, a joy, a thing we look forward to, a delight. It wouldn’t be any of that if the sellers had only “adequate” in mind or counted on our mindless consumption. We seek out vendors who care about what we care about—good vegan food, social awareness, community well-being—and we do what we can to ensure they stay in business. They don’t have to beg us to patronize their places; they just have to be who they say they are. 

They don’t have to beg; they just have to be who they say they are. 

Churches, on the other hand, beg. Beg people to come to worship, to give offerings, to volunteer for events, to sing in the choir or tend the nursery, beg people to bring cookies for fellowship. (In one congregation I served, the fellowship chair refused to put food out for fellowship unless the contributor had used the appropriate snack sign up sheet.) I got a begging email in my inbox again today. We have counted for ages on people having a church habit, a giving habit, a worship habit. We have tried to make church the thing people do, no matter how tedious or pointless, and then we have wondered why people aren’t interested. COVID was a lot of things, but perhaps most devastating for the institutional church is that it was a convenient time for people to reconsider how they spend their time—a time to break or make habits. 

“God is love,” said the preacher, about 15 times, and “wherever you go take God with you.” If we are living in that kind of divine love, there cannot be sermons that don’t address the challenges and atrocities of our world, there cannot be congregations that come to worship to forget or ignore. There simply cannot be. Domination is wrong and it is our job to say so—even to our allies, even to our congregations.

When I was a church planter then a director of church planting during the church growth movement of the 90s, I learned that it takes just 6 weeks to make or break a habit. Habits can be healthy or detrimental, enjoyable or chore-like. So, giving people a forced break—not of 6 weeks, but of 18 months!—certainly helped a bunch of people realize it wasn’t worth their time. If people didn’t come back when conditions allowed, your church probably should do some soul work.

We know what brings people to church. People are searching for meaning, for community, for safety; younger generations especially who have been traumatized by church and other institutions have approximately zero desire to spend time or energy in places where nothing righteous happens, but people who care about the state of the world are looking for prophetic zeal and equally zealous compatriots in the quest for something else. 

Church has a sacred task, and for too long we’ve believed we were the only ones who could do that thing. We are not. The task, according to Exodus, according to the prophets, according to Jesus of the synoptics, is to create a world where people have what they need and creation lives in some kind of harmony. Groups of people around the world care about this, are working toward this, regardless of what they call God or whether they call God anything at all. If your people are missing, look for them in those un-religious places.  

My social media posts those days immediately after the conflict broke out have been in support of Palestinians, decrying the oppression that Israel has orchestrated with Western—largely U.S.—aid for 80 years. Funny thing: those posts get way more activity than anything “churchy” I write. People care about the world; when we talk about it, they tune in, and when we don’t they turn off. 

When we care about displaced, dispossessed or murdered Palestinians, when we care about the last or the next young black man shot down in American streets, when we care about climate and the ways we are killing the planet, when we care about queer people and people who desire an alternative to being pregnant and people who live on sidewalks or sublets at the bottom of the national economy, when we care about debt and clean water and an end to incarceration and breaching the border wall and why in the name of God our children have to endure active shooter drills, when we care about these things, and when we act like we care and try to do something to change it people will find us. It won’t be habit; it will be passion, it will be curiosity, it will be hope. It will be better, more alive, more meaningful, a better way to spend your time. 

Maybe you don’t think church should have anything to say about any of that; maybe God is a tool after all. 

Walter Wink, the 20th century radical theologian, wrote this: “The failure of churches to continue Jesus’ struggle to overcome domination is one of the most damning apostasies in its history. With some thrilling exceptions, the churches of the world have never yet decided that domination is wrong.”

“God is love,” said the preacher, about 15 times, and “wherever you go take God with you.” If we are living in that kind of divine love, there cannot be sermons that don’t address the challenges and atrocities of our world, there cannot be congregations that come to worship to forget or ignore. There simply cannot be. Domination is wrong and it is our job to say so—even to our allies, even to our congregations. 

We won’t have to beg; we will just have to be who we say we are—followers of Jesus’ way. 

So, no, COVID didn’t break your church. Worship as a habit instead of a holy calling broke your church. If your church died during COVID, maybe it needed to. Now start again, not out of habit this time but out of restless imagination, out of tenacious solidarity, as Brueggemann called it. Start again, raise a voice for a just world and get on with it. We can be the “thrilling exceptions.” In the way of Jesus, resurrection is still the call. 

Rev. Deborah DeMars Conrad is a pastor credentialed in multiple traditions, including the American Baptist Churches, serving most recently in the United Church of Christ. Ordained 35 years, she is a passionate preacher for something else and tries to help church folks embrace the life of Jesus. She is in transition, wrapping up a moment in Denver, Colorado, and heading back to Louisville, Kentucky, with her wife and family of cats and Basset Hounds. You can find her work online at You can participate with her in the quest for something else at

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