By Joy Allmond
My church started physically meeting again in June—with precautions in place.
Because of a history of serious respiratory infections, however, I’m not physically back for Sunday services. Instead, I’m tuning in to our church’s online services each weekend right now.
And as our local COVID numbers improve, I look forward to worshipping with my church family again soon.
Chances are, there are people in your church who are still worshipping at home for a variety of reasons.
In a recent Lifeway Research survey one of the concerns that grew for pastors this summer is the worry that people won’t return to church.
Although I’ve been worshipping at home on Sundays, I’ve been intentional about staying engaged in various facets of church life.
Not everyone who has not physically returned yet is in danger of drifting away. Here are a few ways to tell who’s still connected and who needs to be reengaged.
1. They’re in touch regularly with church leadership.
People who genuinely want to maintain fellowship are going beyond simply answering your phone calls and replying to your emails.
They’re taking the initiative to stay connected with church leadership.
They’ve called/texted/emailed you to check in, providing updates on themselves, or asking you how you’re doing.
Perhaps they’re sending notes of encouragement. They’re likely even communicating with their Sunday School teacher or small group leader on a regular basis.
If they’re parents, they’re engaging with their kids’ Sunday School teachers or the children’s minister or student ministry leader on staff at the church.
If there are people in your church you haven’t heard a peep from, reach out to them. If they’re enrolled in some sort of group discipleship, have their class leader check on them.
Consider giving them a remote task, such as reaching out to other people who are still distancing.
One of the best ways to engage people is to give them responsibilities.
2. They’re participating in virtual ministries besides weekend online worship
A person who is merely being cautious and not falling away from fellowship is making the effort to participate in small groups.
This person is taking advantage of no-contact curriculum pick-ups your church offers so they can participate in their Sunday School classes via Zoom.
Sometimes the person remaining physically distant is a group leader themselves. Such is the case with my husband and me.
We’re community group leaders at our church, and our groups typically take the summers off. After continuing the spring semester on Zoom, we had a couple of summer gatherings outdoors.
Only about half our group came to those meetings, but it still served as relational “glue” and demonstrated to our group—and to our church leadership—that we’re still in this and committed to service.
Now, as a new semester begins, we’ve split up our group into smaller groups in order to provide a safer environment while continuing fellowship and discipleship.
3. They haven’t paused their generosity.
When you first saw the word “generosity,” your mind likely went to giving. Yes, financial giving is one mark of a church member who is still committed to your church.
But you may not have access to the financial records. You can observe, however, other ways people are giving of themselves.
There are other tangible ways people can be generous while they are physically distanced from their faith family.
For example: Does your church do food, clothing, or school supply drives? If so, you’ve likely set up a drive-through drop off. Are they showing up to contribute, albeit in a no-contact manner?
If so, this is a person who is committed to participating in church life through their generosity. A person who finds ways to give of their time is likely still committed to your church.
Think back to VBS this summer, if your church did a modified version.
There are probably people who weren’t attending church services who gave of their time to help prepare materials from their homes, or maybe made flyers or helped with some other promotional effort.
This type of person is committed to the ministry of your church in the community you’re called to serve.
What about those who have disengaged with the church?
Just as you likely have people who demonstrate engagement, there are probably church members who have been mostly radio silent since March.
Here are some suggestions for bringing them back in the fold:
Deliver curriculum/study materials.
Despite offering no-contact curriculum pick-up for small group materials, there are some who don’t bother to participate.
In this case, go to them. Make the delivery. If they happen to be home, great! Visit for a moment a few feet from the door.
In case they’re not home, have a personal note attached to the delivery; communicate how much it means to you to have them in your ministry.
Give them a job.
One of the best ways to engage a wayward church member is to offer them an assignment.
Are there any safe events you have lined up for the fall that could use some coordination—something that could be done from a home? Get them involved.
And as I mentioned earlier, give them a list of a few fellow absentees and ask them to reach out. Not only are you delegating ministry, but you’re also helping to stoke the fires of fellowship.
Conduct an online “roll call.”
Some churches, like my own, require their members to register before attending in-person gatherings as a precautionary way to control the crowds and mitigate the spread of disease.
But they also ask that we register online so they know we’ve been “with” them.
Consider creating a mechanism for this sort of “roll call.” That can be an indicator of who is actually tuning in and gives a gauge for people who need to be pursued.
If you stream your services on Facebook or Instagram Live, encourage people to pop in and say hi in the comments—and have a volunteer or staff member monitor the comments and greet them back.
Ministry leadership has its challenges, and COVID has only added more stressors.
Hopefully, these criteria can help put your mind and heart at ease about the concern that members are falling away.
Perhaps you, your church leadership, and the volunteers can find the resolve to use creative ways to keep the physically absent spiritually present as we pray and wait for the fog of this pandemic to be lifted.
Joy is the editorial chief of staff at Christianity Today and former managing editor of Lifeway Research.