By Aaron Earls
If your church has reopened and restarted in-person worship services but is still missing some of your churchgoers, you aren’t alone.
U.S. Protestant churches are gathering in person at pre-pandemic levels. According to a Lifeway Research study, 98% met in person in August 2021. U.S. Protestant churchgoers have not yet returned in pre-pandemic levels, however. The average church is still missing more than 1 in 4 churchgoers, as the average pastor estimates their attendance is 73% of what it was in early 2020.The average church is still missing more than 1 in 4 churchgoers compared to early 2020, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
When asked in February 2021 if they would to return to church when COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people’s health, 91% of churchgoers said they planned to attend in-person worship services at least as often as they did before the pandemic. There is a sizable gap between the current church attendance numbers and what churchgoers expressed they would do.
Close to 1 in 5 pre-pandemic churchgoers have said they plan to come back to church, but have yet to make their way back, or at least back at the rate they were attending previously. This can leave churches in difficult situations. Some congregations may be missing key volunteers. Others may be struggling to make their budget.Close to 1 in 5 pre-pandemic churchgoers have said they plan to come back to church, but have yet to make their way back, or at least back at the rate they were attending previously. Click To Tweet
So where does this leave you and your church? How can you recapture those churchgoers who were previously active parts of your congregation but have yet to return?
Ask for God’s guidance
Yes, this should be an obvious step, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary. Before you jump to the “practical” solutions, you should ask God to guide your discussions and ideas. He is well aware of the specific issues your church is facing and the reasons why some have not returned.
Pray for the leadership of the Holy Spirit as you decide what steps to take. Ask God to give you wisdom and grace as you respond to those who have been missing. Lay the entire process out before Him before you take any other step.
Contact those who are missing
After speaking with God, the next people you should speak with are those you are trying to reach again. Call them. Visit with them. Find out why they are no longer attending your church. Having this information can allow you to determine your next steps.You will not know what is keeping your pre-pandemic churchgoers at home until you ask. Click To Tweet
Some may have moved on to a new church in the area during the pandemic—5% did according to a Lifeway Research study—and some may have moved homes and are no longer near your church. But you will not know what is keeping your pre-pandemic churchgoers at home until you ask.
Talk to other churches
Almost every church is trying to solve the same problem. Why not work together? Call other pastors in the area to see what they’ve been experiencing and how they are navigating this issue. More than 8 in 10 pastors say they feel supported by other local ministers. Leverage those relationships.
Some local pastors may have figured something in their attempts. Lifeway Research’s study revealed smaller churches have been able to draw their members back at a higher rate on average. This may be a time when larger churches can learn from smaller ones on how to build deeper connections. Share insights and experiences with each other so that all the congregations in your area grow stronger.
Acknowledge different situations and make reasonable adjustments
It is worth noting that 91% said they would return to church when COVID-19 was no longer an active threat to people’s health. Some may still not feel safe attending church, either due to legitimate health concerns or irrational fears. Navigating these difficult situations is why this process must begin in prayer.Some may still not feel safe attending church, either due to legitimate health concerns or irrational fears. Navigating these difficult situations is why this process must begin in prayer. Click To Tweet
When you speak to some missing members, they may offer suggestions as to what will help them return. Some of those ideas may be worth considering. Others may be impossible for your congregation. You don’t want to completely ignore the 3 in 4 who are active in a misguided attempt to draw back the others. There may be some tweaks you can make to your gatherings, however, to accommodate the concerns of those who remain cautious but are anxious to return. Some of those adjustments may involve safety measures.
Keep things safe
This will look differently for different churches in different contexts, but continue making things as safe as possible when you gather. When you speak with those who say they haven’t returned due to safety, share with them the precautions you continue to take. Assure them they can attend and take additional precautions themselves.
Share with those who are currently attending why you may be taking some extra safety steps they may deem unnecessary. Be honest that this may require concessions and minor inconveniences for some, but the goal is to bring the church together. Again, you don’t want to disregard those who are already attending in person. You want to find ways to welcome in those who want to join that number but for whatever reason don’t yet feel safe to do so.
Continue offering online options
It may sound counter-intuitive to offer video of your worship services if you are trying to draw people back into in-person services. You can use the online services, however, as way to speak to those who haven’t transitioned to in-person yet. Why cut off one of the means through which you can influence them?
During the pandemic, churches reached non-churchgoers with their online services. A Lifeway Research study found 45% of Americans watched an online church service during the pandemic, including 15% who normally do not attend church in.
Additionally, a Hartford Institute for Religion Research study found congregations that offered in-person worship online and online only declined during the pandemic, while those that offered both in-person and online worship services actually grew. At least some of those who have connected to your church online in the past two years will transition to in-person attendees.
Create easy on-ramps
If you want people to rejoin your congregation, make it simple to do so. Designate a “Welcome Back Sunday” where everyone wears name tags and you start fresh. Plan a welcome back event with food and fellowship. Start new small groups for those who haven’t been in a while.As you talk with those who are still missing, ask them what practical steps would make it easier for them to plug back into church. Click To Tweet
As you talk with those who are still missing, ask them what practical steps would make it easier for them to plug back into church. Take their thoughts and suggestions into consideration. Remember, this isn’t about what makes you feel welcomed. This is about what will help draw back those who are missing. As you develop your plans, go back and let them know you are doing something specifically for them—but assure them you want them to feel welcomed not awkwardly singled out.
Stress the importance of a unified body
In all you say to those who are missing and those who have returned, focus on the goal of congregational unity. Bring this up when you contact them. Talk about this from the pulpit as you continue offering online services.
Jesus prayed that we would be unified (John 17). In several New Testament letters, Paul wrote about the church as a single body with many necessary members. Jesus wants your church to be One and you need each missing member.
It can be tempting to shame or guilt people who have not returned. You may feel, and even feel rightly, that those who have stayed away from church are in the wrong. But the goal is not to be “right.” The goal is to welcome back members of the body who are missing. You need each part, each person playing their role to fulfill God’s desires for your congregation.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.