2 April 2021 | Members have gotten out of the habit of going to church, and conspiracy theories are running rampant after a year of COVID restrictions on public worship and life in general.

Complex realities brought on by the pandemic consumed much of the focus of this year’s (March 8-9) eHuddle, a gathering of the North American Division’s evangelism visioning and leadership team.

EHuddle was broadcast live from the North American Division (NAD) headquarters building in Columbia, Maryland.

The NAD reported that Sam Reiner, president of Church Answers, an organization that creates resources to help strengthen churches, predicted 2021 will be even more challenging than 2020.

“He predicts denominations will see their steepest decline with a movement toward ‘neighborhood churches’ as more people have become hesitant of gathering in crowds,” said the NAD news article.

“Nationwide, attendance and giving are down. Very few churches have grown during the past year,” Reiner said. “Further, people have developed new routines and habits that no longer include church.”

He added that pastors are burning out and experiencing “decision fatigue.”

There may be advantages for churches as well:

“People are more flexible than they’ve ever been. The core membership is stronger than ever, and accelerated changes mean mission replaces preferences,” Reiner said.

Churchgoing habits aside, how should church leadership tackle the conspiracy theories during and after the pandemic?

“Conspiracy theories substantially harm Christian witness,” said Ed Stetzer, dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College and executive director of the college’s Billy Graham Center. “Jesus says He’s the way, truth, and life. As people of the truth, we want to make sure we have congregations that reflect and share that truth.”

“Pastors need to see this as a fight for discipleship,” Stetzer said. “Those who spread conspiracy theories are trying to disciple people away from the gospel and are co-opting the mission.”

The NAD reported Stetzer identified three types of conspiracy followers: those who are attracted, advocates, or apostles.

“Attracted followers are intrigued, advocates are confident in the theories and work to share within their networks, and apostles generate and propagate conspiracy theories.”

Stetzer recommended different ways to handle each in view of protecting congregations from misinformation.

“If they’re attracted, focus on discipleship and care. Help them turn to the truth and security of the gospel. For the advocates, engage in love and discipline when rejected. Act in equal measure of boldness and love. And for apostles, warn the congregation. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseer,” Stetzer said.

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