Matthew Ian Fleming: What I Learned from Attending Church in the Pandemic

My dear friend and colleague, Rev. Natalia Terfa, wrote a brilliant piece naming the feelings that so many feel as they have discovered new space and freedom in life away from church.

If that is you, I see you and I hear you.

After someone on the interwebs mentioned how much they have valued the practice of attending church through this time, I wanted to share a bit of my own story as well, as a pastor, father of two young children, and spouse to someone who draws great inspiration and promise from attending church.

When church closed, we loved the novelty of Sunday mornings in our jammies, tuning in online, but of course something was missing.

As soon as church opened, we came back, nervously, a bit uncertain and afraid. But in this year of pandemic church, my kids have experienced some amazing happenings. They saw those first people returning to the building with tears in their eyes, just to be among the people, smelling familiar scents of carpet and brick, hearing organ and the voice of a preacher not filtered through tinny computer speakers.

Our kids were there when we had Christmas Eve services with no more than fifty people in a barn of a building, hearing carols sung, and once again the tears of elders seeing part of tradition that has persisted through challenging times and has continued since.

Our eldest was thrilled when it was her turn to carefully take down her mask if only for a moment to read the lesson of the day, rehearsed over and over again in the car, hearing her little voice boom in the loudspeaker.

There were many weeks throughout the pandemic that we only attended church. It was our only outing, our only encounter with real faces and voices and eyes. Over other exposure, we chose church because it grounded our family in a rhythm that was beyond what we were experiencing.

We chose church over soccer, over activities, over restaurants and vacations. We chose church. Actually scratch that self-righteous baloney. We just didn’t know any other way. So we went, week after week after week.

We often spoke of the image of the bank; that we all have so much risk that we have and we all choose to spend it differently. Church got more than a tithe.

We missed many friendships and throughout the past weeks and months it is like homecoming after homecoming, seeing people tentatively emerge through the doors, glancing around to make sure it is safe, to hear the stories that we missed, see the new babies born, celebrate the accomplishments, mourn the losses.

Even more, what I found was a pattern to life that grounded the way I interacted with everything that this season has thrown at us. We found ways to sing, with little masked groups separated by huge distances, something that I find essential to my wellbeing. The music kept me breathing in unison with my neighbors and creation and perhaps the divine.

If staying home is right for you, we believe you. You don’t need to explain a thing. We promise to keep holding a virtual spot for you at the table.

If you’ve been here every week, online or in person, I see you, and I am so glad you’re here.

If you’re tentative or are waiting until your kids are vaccinated or are still not ready, I get it. I wasn’t ready either.

We eased in at first but every step along the way we were greeted with grace.

It’s like putting on an old sweater that doesn’t quite fit. We’re trying on relationship and belonging. We aren’t sure it fits anymore.

But in the end, I hope you will come to church when the time is right for you.

Because I believe something has been lost in our time away from together.

I can see it in the fissures of our neighborhoods, the pitch of our echo chambers, and the clamor of our discourse.

Have many churches failed us in these spaces? Sure. But I believe God is up to something new in these imperfect institutions.

Natalia said it best: God has always and will continue to meet you where you are.

And I think the church has learned a thing or two from God and even the psalmist this year.

Where can I go from your spirit?    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in

Sheol, you are there.If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

(Psalm 139:7-10)

God searches and finds us wherever we are. But God also gathers us, shepherds us, gets us closer to people we couldn’t imagine sharing life with.

Because we need it. We need one another. Perhaps God is gathering us together to be this something new, to be a people who can break down barriers to belonging.

Because the church is us. It isn’t an abstraction, and it isn’t a building.
It isn’t a theology or an ideology.

It’s you and me, our hopes and fears and dreams and longings, our failures and disappointments and anxieties. And God is still moving this imperfect institution, still calling us forward, and still doing something wonderful in these walls, through our bandwidth, in the woods, and in the workplace.

But isn’t it better to see it all together?


Matthew Ian Fleming is a recovering evangelical who opens up his Bible bruises with curiosity, wonder, and a fair amount of irreverence. He is the founding director of Church Anew, an international platform equipping church leaders to ignite faithful imagination and sustain inspired innovation. With four colleagues, Matthew launched Alter Guild, a podcasting network with over 350,000 downloads that now features four shows including Cafeteria Christian with Nora McInerny and New Time Religion with Andy Root. Matthew is ordained in the ELCA and serves as teaching pastor to St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. At home, Matthew sings unrequested car-duets with his spouse, Hannah, jams on banjo with their two daughters, and religiously bakes sourdough bread.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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