In addition to praying for God to move in their hearts, there are several practical steps that churches can take to win back COVID dropouts.
By Aaron Earls
For many previous churchgoers, the pandemic mirrored going off to college. It disrupted previously established habits and led some to stop attending church services. A few decided to leave, but most just simply drifted away.
And not all churchgoing teenagers who stop attending as young adults stay gone. Some return and are as involved in the church as much or more than they were previously. God is drawing them back, but God is also working through local congregations and other means to help those missing to return. The same can be true for those who have taken a COVID-break from churchgoing.
Winning back COVID dropouts
In addition to praying for God to move in their hearts, there are several practical steps that churches can take in an effort to win back COVID dropouts, including directly reaching out and providing easy “on-ramps” for people to rejoin.
One step that may be surprising is to continue offering online and video for your worship services or sermons. More than 1 in 7 Americans watched a church service online during the pandemic who do not normally attend church. In many ways, the online worship service has become the new front door to your church.
Church leaders should make clear, however, that the online service does not serve as a substitute for in-person participation. A Hartford Institute for Religion Research study found congregations who offered both in-person and online worship services during the pandemic actually grew, while those that offered only in-person or only online declined.
So how do you get the missing churchgoers out of their homes and into your services on Sunday? Try these four shifts.
Rethink your worship service
If your church services are almost entirely focused on sitting in a pew to hear a sermon or watching a spectacle on stage, many will choose to do that on their couch. You may have to change your service so people will change the way they think about it.You may have to change your church service so people, including those attended regularly before the pandemic, will change the way they think about it. — @wardrobedoor Click To Tweet
Some have made the comparison to the movie theater. When studios released movies on at-home streaming services the same day they premiered in movie theaters, many people chose to just watch from home. You only went to the theaters if you wanted to be part of that experience. You can watch from home, but rarely can you participate and have a shared experience with others from there.
Is your worship service mainly an information delivery system or a highly produced performance? If so, some may have decided they can get that without the inconvenience of changing out of their pajamas and driving across town.
Some churches have built congregations on attracting crowds to hear the charismatic leader or see the amazing worship band, but those things are less likely to motivate someone to physically attend a church service when they can get most of that watching online. And once someone has shifted their habits to strictly at-home viewing of services, the slide to complete disconnection is easier.Smaller churches are more likely to have returned to pre-pandemic attendance levels and even experienced growth than the average church. Click To Tweet
This may be one of the reasons why smaller churches, those with worship service attendance of less than 50 prior to COVID-19, have been among the fastest to return to their previous levels. In February 2022, according to Lifeway Research, more than a third of those small churches (37%) report their attendance is at least 90% of what it was in January 2020, including 18% who say they have grown numerically during the pandemic. At that time, 22% of U.S. Protestant churches overall said their church was close to their January 2020 attendance, with 12% reporting attendance higher than before COVID-19.
Preach and teach about the church
As noted earlier, it may seem counterintuitive to continue streaming services when you’re trying to move people from viewing online to participating in person, but you don’t want to sever the line of connection you have with them. Instead, leverage the possibility that missing churchgoers are watching online and talk about the church as the body of Christ.
There are clear facets of being the church that cannot happen strictly online. Many of the “one-another” commands require face-to-face interaction. Use the online service to welcome those viewers, encourage them, but also invite and exhort them to become in-person participants.
As of early 2022, 3 in 5 pastors (60%) say they are exhorting online worshipers, who are able, to resume or begin to attend in person.
Lead with community
What can’t you get from home? Community with other people. This may be a contributing factor to why small churches have rebounded in attendance quicker than larger churches. They inherently have more familial connections and often deep ties of community. Larger congregations can foster this atmosphere, but it may take more work and it may need to start with people other than the pastor.Personal connections and avenues for community are irreproducible through video services and will be the most effective means to reconnect those who are missing. — @wardrobedoor Click To Tweet
When thinking about individuals who are missing, find the people they are connected to at the smallest level. That may be a small group leader. For parents, it could be someone in the kids or student ministry. Work to find individuals in the church who have a personal connection with those who haven’t returned.
Those personal connections and avenues for community are irreproducible at home through video services and will be the most effective means to reconnect those who are missing.
Make it personal
Resist the temptation to reach out via an email. You may could start off with a text, but don’t leave the connections only at a digital level. Make things personal and tangible. Remember, you’re trying to move people beyond just a temporary digital exchange into a physical participation. For something more personable than an email but less possibly intrusive than a knock at the door, try a postcard or a letter.If you want to draw back in-person participants, resist the temptation to only reach out via digital means like email or text. Click To Tweet
Recently, there was an event at church our family couldn’t attend, but our third grader received a postcard about it from her small group teacher. She almost forced us to rearrange everything else so she could be there. Kids love handwritten notes. In fact, we’d all probably enjoy seeing something in our mailbox besides bills and junk mail.
Capitalize on the desire for kids and students to want to connect with friends during the summer. It’s VBS season. Send out personal invitations to missing kids and families from Sunday school teachers, VBS leaders, kids ministry workers, etc. Plan other events specifically designed to re-engage missing families.
Think of other creative, non-digital means of connections you can make with those previous churchgoers.
All of your COVID church dropouts don’t have to stay gone forever. Pray for God to continue working in their hearts and work with Him to help them see the importance of being in community with other believers in the local church.
Aaron is online editor for LifewayResearch.com