12 August 2022

‘Discouraging’ experiences prompt some churchgoers to step back

Joan Firgaira and her husband, David. Image: Supplied.

Kirralee Nicolle

3 August 2022

Disconnection, burnout and prioritising relationships outside their congregations are among reasons people report stepping back from churches since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Some Melbourne Anglican church leaders say attendance habits for church members have changed since the pandemic began, citing physical and mental health concerns, exhaustion and other Sunday commitments, The Melbourne Anglican reported in July.

There is no clear data exploring change in Australian Christians’ churchgoing habits since the pandemic began.

But some people say the pandemic has led them to re-evaluate their church attendance, despite maintaining their Christian faith.

Until the pandemic hit, Joan Firgaira, her husband David and their children were heavily involved in an Acts Global Churches congregation in Melbourne. For them, COVID-19 became a catalyst for thinking differently about the nature of church.

They found that the time they were spending serving in the church was taking away from investing in evangelistic relationships.

“COVID allowed people to see things outside the box,” Ms Firgaira said.

“Generally, we get caught up in serving and the doing. We want to serve [God’s] people and serve the church. A lot of the time, people also put their families on the line for the sake of serving.

“The thing that seems strange is the amount of effort you put in for very limited fruit.”

Ms Firgaira said that she and her husband had several close friends and employees who did not attend a church or believe in God, and while they were caught up in serving the church, they lacked time to build these connections.

She also said that COVID-19 was an opportunity to break habits or traditions she had carried into adulthood and never questioned. She said her experience was that for her culturally as an Australian who was born in Singapore, attending church had been an essential part of her cultural traditions.

“For me, a church community should really add to your life, not take away from it,” Ms Firgaira said.

She said over the years of COVID-19, she had found a depth in her faith that previously hadn’t existed.

“It has gotten deeper [and] a lot more personal because it’s not [about] me being told how it should be or how it should look,” Ms Firgaira said.

She said that when she observed changes in the wider church around her such as a rising trend towards leaving the organised church, she felt it was overall a positive shift, and that those who were concerned were focusing on the wrong things.

“Don’t look at what has been lost, look at what we can gain from this opportunity,” Ms Firgaira said.

“It can only mean that more souls are going to get reached.”

Read more: Exhaustion, ‘erratic’ church attendance require ministers to lower expectations

But the National Church Life Survey found a one per cent decrease in church attendance from 2019 until 2021, with 21 per cent of research participants reporting regular attendance in 2021 compared with 22 percent in 2019.

Recent census reports show a decrease in the number of people who identify as Christian.

Melbourne Anglican church parishioner Katherine Wilson decided to step back from her church when she experienced burnout after her involvement in children’s ministry and parish administration.

She said she discovered during COVID-19 that her tendency towards perfectionism made it difficult for her to find a balance with running the children’s program.

Ms Wilson said she was spending 20 hours per week with little assistance organising an online-based format for the children who were involved.

She said she then experienced burnout in her paid government role. To try to escape her work burnout, she then took on an administrative role with the church as well. She said all this collided in a wall of exhaustion.

 “Even towards the end, it was an absolute production,” Ms Wilson said.

“The house would be completely full of stuff, [and I would] put a huge amount of resources into everything.

“I got discouraged because a lot of [the] kids weren’t even watching what I was preparing.”

Additional to this, she said her friends began to leave the church, and the friend who led her to the parish lost her faith.

“The whole thing was kind of discouraging – to have friends losing faith, ministry feeling unfruitful, and then on top of all that, I wasn’t feeling like reading the Bible,” she said.

Ms Wilson said she was still involved in the church but wasn’t enjoying attending like she did before.

“COVID makes you re-evaluate what’s important, because if you’re burnt out, you don’t want to do what’s not important anymore. You cut the unnecessary stuff out of your life and you just do what you enjoy or what’s essential,” she said.

“I don’t always enjoy going, even though I’ve still got faith.”

Fiona Cran and her husband, Martin. Image: Supplied.

Read more: Here’s how we’ll fill up our churches again

Fiona Cran and her husband Martin left their Sunshine Coast Baptist church during COVID-19 due to feeling disillusioned and disconnected.

Though they had been attending for many years, it was not until the services transitioned online that they noticed a consistent negativity in the sermons by the senior pastor.

Ms Cran said that she found that the online format caused her to become fully focused on what was being said, and she found that the sermons failed to lead listeners into a positive space.

“It was not an application-based sermon,” she said.

“It was more like knowledge than life-changing, spirit-guided teaching.”

Ms Cran said they started watching sermons from other churches and found them far more encouraging and uplifting. When they were able to attend in person, they started attending another Baptist church. She said the silence from their former church was deafening.

“No one asked how we were or anything,” she said.

Ms Cran said they began to question whether they had ever really belonged at the church or if they were just useful there.

“We were so busy giving to the community that we never noticed we weren’t getting anything back,” she said.

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