By Jana Magruder
It’s been incredible to see so many churches return to hosting in-person services, as churches emerged from the initial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and began navigating gatherings amid a changed world.
However, at the beginning of 2022, the average U.S. Protestant church reported attendance at just 74% of what it was prior to COVID-19, which means 1 in 4 pre-pandemic churchgoers are still missing from in-person worship services. Who are these people, and where are they? Some are at home live streaming their church services, and some aren’t attending services at all. According to the study, kids are among those who have been slowest to return.
Among churches that had student and kids ministry activities prior to the pandemic, most have restarted but have yet to see their attendance return to pre-pandemic levels. While it may be the right thing to do for some families to continue worshipping virtually, we as church leaders should be encouraging them to return to in-person church environments when the time is right.
The “right time” may be different for different families, but whenever that time comes for families, churches should be prepared to welcome them by being mindful of the challenges they may face as they walk through the front doors of your church again.Some children, especially preschoolers, don’t remember what church was like before the pandemic, and some are nervous about coming back. — @Jana_Magruder Click To Tweet
It’s important to be aware some children, especially preschoolers, don’t remember what church was like before the pandemic, and some are nervous about coming back. Many of them aren’t used to being around other kids their age and struggle to leave their parents. I hear preschool and elementary leaders often talk about what used to be the occasional kid with separation anxiety hugging their mom’s leg as she struggled to make it to church on time is now a fairly common occurrence.
There are a few simple things leaders can do to help offset some of these anxieties and help ensure successful re-entry.
1. Know their names
As kids return to church, learn (or re-learn) their names and call them by name often. This begins as soon as they walk in the door. For very young children, use nametags to help volunteers remember their names. For older children, try using a name game to help them remember each other’s names. It is also important to know their parents’ names as we seek to make them feel comfortable entrusting their child to your care in a new environment.
2. Connect them with friends
Always be ready to connect kids to another person right away. They may not know each other yet, but the goal is for them to have a friend by the time they leave.
3. Engage them with fun
Kids want to return to church when they have fun! Incorporate them into engaging activities that help them feel part of the group. Families will likely come back if they know their kids are having fun.
4. Give them the gospel
Ultimately, the most important thing we can do to help kids as they return is to share Jesus with them. Keep in mind, the kids returning to your ministry have likely received varying levels of discipleship during their time away from the church. When kids feel the love of Christ, they want to listen, and their hearts are open to hearing and responding to the gospel.When kids feel the love of Christ, they want to listen, and their hearts are open to hearing and responding to the gospel. — @Jana_Magruder Click To Tweet
Reminding families about the purpose of the church can also help them feel connected and want to return. God gave us the church to glorify Himself through worship and community with fellow believers. This begins at a very young age as we help preschoolers and children learn about the Bible and God’s plan for them. We help them develop community by fostering friendships at church.
According to a study by Lifeway Research, kids who have a best friend at church are more likely to grow into spiritually healthy adults. If we want our kids to love church now and later in life, developing friendships is essential, and that tends to be done best in person.
Our kids and families need the church now more than ever. While it’s possible to worship and hear God’s word preached at home through online services, it’s nearly impossible to build meaningful relationships with people virtually. Building relationships with God’s people is a key part of discipleship and spiritual growth.
We can show the love of Jesus through His church by being prepared to welcome kids and families back to an in-person environment, recognizing their experiences with COVID have likely changed some of their needs.
Jana is strategic initiatives director for Lifeway Kids and author of Nothing Less: Engaging Kids in a Lifetime of Faith. She and her husband, Michael, have three kids.