By Scott McConnell
Where is everybody?
Why are so many from our church not attending like they did before COVID-19?
Why are we having to contact them multiple times, offer food, plan special events just to get them to come in person?
We shouldn’t have to do this!
Thoughts similar to these have likely been going through your head in recent months. Few churches are back to pre-COVID attendance. In fact, the average Protestant church has in-person attendance of 73% of their pre-COVID attendance. While that’s an improvement over early in 2021 when an average of 60% of pre-COVID attendees were coming to church in person, it can still be frustrating for pastors and church leaders.The average Protestant church's in-person attendance is 73% of their pre-pandemic attendance. Click To Tweet
How should we process this news that so many churchgoers are missing on a typical week? What should we make of this reality?
It is so tempting to take the difficulties of our day and quickly categorize them as unique and different from any other set of events the church has faced. This may be unprecedented in the course of your own experience, but if we are honest, this response could be self-pitying. When we think this way, we almost automatically shift to feelings of helplessness and despair.
To find a historic parallel, we can look to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Four narratives jump out as moments when Jesus saw something similar to what we are seeing today. His reactions can give us examples for how we can respond. What does your congregation—both those who have returned and those still missing—need to hear from their leaders?
Stress God’s care
When the personal safety and security of the disciples were rocked by a sudden storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples panicked. While storms of this type sweeping down from the hills beside the sea were common, this particular storm was unprecedented enough that the seasoned fisherman had despaired. As they awakened Jesus, their primary concern was whether He cared they were about to drown.Amid the current storms of life, your congregation—whether present or absent—needs to be shown God cares for them during this chaos. — @smcconn Click To Tweet
Jesus did not give an explanation to prove that He cared about the well-being of the disciples. Instead, Jesus immediately calmed the source of the danger. As He saw the absence of what He had been trying to teach them, He asked, surely with some exasperation in His voice, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26).
Amid the current storms of life, your congregation—whether present or absent—needs to be shown God cares for them during this chaos.
Point to God’s provision
Jesus mentioned a lack of faith again as He was teaching His disciples about anxiety. He asked them, “Can any of you add one moment to his life-span by worrying?” (Luke 12:25). While prudent precautions can save lives, worrying cannot.
Many people today hesitate to live out their faith over worries about COVID-19. Many others have found another pursuit they believe is more important in this life. Jesus uses wildflowers as an illustration to challenge the thinking of both.Worrying churchgoers need to be challenged with God’s track record of provision that truly satisfies. Click To Tweet
God clothes the grass with splendor, “which is in the field today and is thrown into the furnace tomorrow, how much more will He do for you – you of little faith? Don’t strive for what you should eat and what you should drink, and don’t be anxious” (Luke 12:28-29).
In the midst of today’s worries and the many things we can pursue for satisfaction, your congregation needs to be challenged with God’s track record of provision that truly satisfies.
Another time Jesus points out the disciples’ lack of faith was in response to their misunderstand what He meant by “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). The disciples mistook this mention of leaven to think about their next meal. They had forgotten to bring any bread. Their response was likely a mixture of placing blame and worry about what they would eat.
Jesus begins his loving explanation with, “You of little faith … .” He reminds them that He had fed thousands and could provide any bread they needed. After spelling out very simple that his point had nothing to do with food, the disciples understood they were to be cautious of the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees.With so little time together with your congregation, they need to be warned as the disciples were: Not every source of help or information is equal. — @smcconn Click To Tweet
During the pandemic and even before it, our congregations have had many other teachers speaking into their lives. News sources, social media, authors, podcasters, YouTubers, and religious leaders constantly share their view of the world in which we live. Your congregation is hearing these messages, many of which often contain a mixture of truth and falsehoods. Half of pastors say they hear congregation members sharing conspiracy theories.
With so little time together with your congregation, they need to be warned as the disciples were: Not every source of help or information is equal. Peter’s confession a few verses later stands in contrast to the alternatives. Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Comfort the Weak
While Jesus often challenged the faith of His followers, that discussion is noticeably missing from another encounter. Jesus went to a pool where a large number of individuals with disabilities lay.
One man there had been disabled 38 years. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). The man didn’t answer his question. Instead, he referred to what he probably believed was his only possibility of healing—the nearby pool—and his inability to get into the pool when the waters stirred. Jesus ignored the man’s expected avenue of deliverance and told him to, “Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.”
Jesus showed both His power and His care by going to one of the least able to move and bringing healing. Jesus revealed Himself that day as the Healer, Deliverer, and the One who can save those who are helpless. We never learn whether the man ever expressed faith in Jesus, but he clearly met the Savior.
Today there are many who for health reasons cannot express their faith physically through presence at church, walking an aisle, or kneeling at an altar. Jesus did not minister only to the crowds who could come. In the same way, the absence of many people from church should be a reminder that our ministry must always include those who cannot come.While some may initially think we shouldn’t have to help so many people struggling in their faith, our Savior showed us that this is the work of discipleship. Click To Tweet
Many in your congregation are facing doubts about God’s care, worries about the pandemic, new priorities they are pursuing, confusion from other teachers, and even an inability to attend at all. While some may initially think we shouldn’t have to help so many people struggling in their faith, our Savior showed us that this is the work of discipleship.
These are not new challenges. These are ever-present opportunities to teach followers of Christ what faith in Him is all about. Let’s rejoice that the circumstances of this season have shown a spotlight on the opportunities to lovingly teach faith in Christ to our congregations.
Scott is the executive director of Lifeway Research.