Church leaders may be eager to return to life as normal, but the pandemic has changed us. Even the most energetic churches are seeing only a fraction of their attendees return.
Brad Brisco, a missiologist and consultant, recently shared his disappointment with a trend: “Several leaders thought Covid was going to help push their church in new/creative directions towards mission. But now they realize the default mechanisms are just too strong and those who have ‘come back’ simply want to go back to the way it was before, but with fewer people…”
It’s understandable, and most seminaries don’t have a “pastoring in a pandemic” course. And consider the adage that “what you win them with is what you win them to.” Many of us chose our congregations for particular ministries and style of worship gatherings. It makes sense that those ready to return want to go back to what they chose before.
Five Responses When People Don’t Come Back
1. Double Down on What You Used to Do
Before you write off the churches eager to “get back to normal” (even with fewer people), consider how you might leverage traditional spaces in ways that were unavailable before the pandemic? Weekend gatherings, often thought of as a way to “attract” people looking for a church, could be rewired to focus on encouraging and equipping those most engaged in mission.
For instance, subtle sermon illustrations or overt teaching could be shifted to focus on encouraging people to love and serve their neighbors who will never come on Sunday. Music that focuses on the individual’s sense of connection to God could be replaced by songs about joining God’s work in the world. Time could be dedicated to highlighting stories of people who have found interesting ways to live out their faith beyond Sundays.Gathering like the good ol’ days is only a problem if we pretend the pandemic never happened or ignore the fact that friends haven't come back. But gatherings can be designed to acknowledge reality & cast a new vision. Click To Tweet
Tip: Use the elements of your traditional gatherings and ministries to cast a vision for new opportunities to join God’s mission.
2. Embrace a Political Narrative
Politics have taken an increasingly centralized role in life in the United States, causing divisions everywhere from elementary schools to family holidays. It can be tempting to give the political discourse the same centrality in the life of the church. It would be easy to use one’s position as a church leader to promote a certain stance. It might even provide a jolt of energy for your congregation.
What if your church was able to openly discuss such issues, not to promote an agenda, but to explore a “discipleship opportunity.” Rather than buy into the roles of “pro-this” or “anti-that” or feign some apoliticism, church leaders have the opportunity to ask, “how does our desire to follow Jesus position us?”
The fact is that some people who have left won’t come back unless you take a public stance. But if you honestly face today’s issues, you’ll not only strengthen those who remain, you may even attract others who are excited to experience this level of discipleship.
Tip: Instead of ignoring politics or joining the fray, try to use present day issues to point back to our call to follow Jesus.
3. Ask Them
Sometimes the most obvious answer is the one that we avoid. The prospect of directly asking people who have stopped participating in our churches can be daunting. What if we don’t like the answer? What if we upset them? What if they ghost us and we never see or hear from them again?
Remember that the opposite can also be true. What if their answer is helpful? What if asking them helps to feel seen and heard? What if this difficult conversation could equip you as a church leader to navigate difficult issues? What if asking helps the participant to return to a faith community in due time?
Remember that these aren’t just individuals who left your church, they are people who need a pastor, and their feedback can help the church understand the needs of their community.
Some open-ended, discussion-starting questions might be:
“How has the pandemic affected you and your family?”
“What activities and experiences is your family participating in now that you find most life-giving?”
“Is there anything you would like the church leadership to know about your experience?”
One possibility that could arise is that former participants are looking for a different expression of church that better fits their rhythm of life in the pandemic. For instance, a busy parent struggling to make meals might be more inclined to participate in a dinner church than wake up on a Sunday morning.
Tip: Take what you learn from talking to former church participants back to your leadership team and prayerfully imagine other “formats” that might work for gathering people like them.
4. Keep Pivoting
In his article “We Weren’t Happy Before the Pandemic, Either” Anglican Priest Esau McCaulley seeks to understand how the pandemic has changed us.
“Before the pandemic, we knew we were going to die, but we did not believe it. Maybe we believed it, but considered it a problem to be dealt with later. In the meantime, exercise and a reasonable diet was the tithe we paid to our fears. We believed we had time.”
While McCaulley refers to individuals who prioritize their careers, it could easily refer to churches who prioritize institutional forms over a more contextual mission. Churches knew they would die, but chose to deal with that later or ignore the diagnosis altogether, instead of trying new things today. But then lockdown came, and churches scrambled to invent safe ways of gathering online, in homes and outside.Churches knew they would die, but chose to deal with that later or ignore it, instead of trying new things today. Then lockdown came, & churches scrambled to invent safe ways of gathering online, in homes & outside. Click To Tweet
These pandemic forms have a shelf life too, and Zoom Liturgy quickly became just another meeting. But churches should take away an important lesson: old dogs can learn new tricks.
While some churches have tried to return to normal, there are also stories of congregations who launched a dinner church, only to find all of their tables quickly filled. There are stories about churches that moved their Sunday School classes outside, providing a safer space for unvaccinated kids and new energy with the sunshine and the breeze.
If people aren’t coming back, you can always pivot. You’ve done it before.
Tip: When trying something new, you can keep from feeling overwhelmed by positioning it as an experiment that will last for a limited time.
5. Take the Joshua and Caleb Approach
Early in the pandemic we heard stories about congregations exploring digital expressions of church. One common refrain was that their people weren’t coming, but some new people were.
One church I know of in rural Texas had a single member who was blind. Within a few weeks of gathering on Zoom, this person had many blind friends logging on with them who had never come to in-person church.
Moses saw an opportunity in Canaan, but an entire generation rejected it; except for Joshua and Caleb. These leaders saw what could be, and eventually became elder statesmen who led a new generation into the promised land.
Every time you strive to try something new, you’ll run into this conundrum. Only a few will see the opportunity. Church leaders who long to move their congregations must continue to pastor their people, but at the same time, should be on the lookout for Joshuas and Calebs. Invest in those who see the opportunity and they will be ready to lead when the time comes.
Tip: Rather than leaning on your primary leaders and volunteers, be prayerfully looking for those who are excited about new opportunities.
Don’t Forget that God Pursues Us
Religion News Service recently published a story about a 76-year old man who returned to church after a 40 year hiatus. He was initially hesitant, but accompanied his wife when she asked. When the church discovered that he could play guitar, they asked him to participate in the worship band.
What they didn’t know was that he was Bruce Cockburn, a well-known folk-guitarist who had released 35 albums and won 13 Junos (the Canadian Grammys) over his career. The word got out when he released an EP of songs written to raise money for the church’s work with the homeless.
As a Pastor or church leader, you only participate in only a short few years of someone’s walk with God. When a person you’ve invested in choses to no longer attend your church, it’s easy to feel betrayed or even consider your ministry a failure. Cockburn’s story reminds us that life is long, and we local leaders seldom see a person’s entire faith journey.
Rather than focus on what someone else’s choices says about us, it helps to remember that God is always pursuing people. It is not up to us to make sure that our congregants never miss a Sunday, or even how long they stay at our church. Instead, we simply join God in his pursuit. We love our neighbors and encourage others to do the same. Even our efforts to form new and engaging expressions of church are not to grow our congregation or hold on to our members, but another opportunity to join in God’s pursuit.
Chris works across the organization to help get new projects off the ground and into the world. He also helps to manage our email, social media and other digital communications. He helped plant Austin Mustard Seed, where he served for five years as Community Developer. He also works with several other non-profits and businesses to tell their story with content and social media. In 2012, he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a M.A. in Global Leadership. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Laura.