Two Scary Reasons Church People Aren’t Coming Back to Church

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After nearly one full year, we opened the Woodstock City Church building for in-person services on February 14, 2021.

We knew our physical attendance numbers would be much, much smaller than the previous February. We required registration, masks, temperature checks, and social distancing. We capped our registration at 40% of auditorium capacity, knowing our no-show rate would net us closer to 30% in attendance. We were cautious and careful, prioritizing science, safety, and influence as best we could.

All things considered, and all the frustrated emails and conversations had, our plans worked pretty well.

Fast-forward a few months, and many of our COVID protocols are going away. In our community, vaccines have been readily available for six to eight weeks. I received my second shot three weeks ago without any wait. We are now mask-optional in the lower portion of our auditorium and moving away from registration and even social distancing soon.

Under our initial, strict protocols, I expected physical attendance to be a fraction of the past. We guessed correctly. We’ve experienced anywhere from 30 – 40% of pre-pandemic, in-person attendance. That number has slowly increased, but only to around 50%.

Here’s my concern: As we remove the remaining protocols, I fear our in-person numbers won’t increase that rapidly. They may not increase at all. Not because everyone is still afraid of COVID or watching our online service stream.

I’m afraid we’ve lost a significant percentage of former church attenders for good.

Of course, some are attending in-person church services. Some have left our church permanently for other churches in the area. The intense polarization of virtually every topic created additional pandemics of anger and frustration that led to some unnecessary sheep-swapping. But even taking those who are attending elsewhere into account, we are missing a lot of people. 

There are massive numbers of people completely missing in church action (MICA). As far as I can tell, they divide into two separate categories:

Group One: The church consumers with digitally reinforced behavior!

Over the past decade, our increasingly consumeristic culture created space for churches to utilize consumeristic messaging and experiences to attract people to church. Hear me loud and clear: I’m not against the attractional church per se (after all, do any of us want to create an unattractive church?), but attractional churches can accidentally create an easy conduit for consumeristic Christians. And that was before the pandemic!

Without any in-person services for months on end, digital-only church further reinforced the ease of consumeristic patterns by allowing people to attend without “attending,” making church even easier for the predisposed church consumer. These people may come back to an in-person event or service at some point, but I’m not holding my breath. They were consumers before the pandemic, and now, the ease of digital church solidified their behavior.

BTW, they have children who aren’t coming back, either. While adults might have the willpower or desire to consume spiritual growth content (sermons, books, etc.) on their own, what about their children? This should frighten every pastor.

Quick Note: I’m not suggesting that a robust digital presence is problematic in and of itself. I believe every church should take advantage of every channel available to spread the Gospel and make disciples. I WILL argue that our digital footprint should be a step and a supplement, not a substitute, for in-person engagements. 

Group Two: The “I missed a year of church, and my life isn’t any worse” group.

This is the category that worries me the most — BY FAR. I’m worried about them, their children, and the generations to follow. This group isn’t back in the building. And they don’t seem to be online, either. They aren’t back at small group or outdoor events. And they aren’t at other churches. They are at ball fields, the lake, and at home enjoying coffee and a slower-paced Sunday morning.

These are the formerly churched people who are on the cusp of officially becoming de-churched altogether.

Why aren’t these people remaining engaged with the local church? What happened? Why did they so easily walk away? I fear they disengaged from the local church during the pandemic and nothing in their life got worse. They aren’t coming back because they didn’t miss it. And apparently, they didn’t need it. When you think about it, why would they come back? Possibly what they were getting at church wasn’t worth their time, energy, and effort after all. 

Of course, WE know better, but if they don’t feel the pain of being gone from church, they aren’t coming back.

As a pastor and a leader, the pandemic taught me so much. It caused me to evaluate everything we do as a church and why were are doing it. I don’t have all the answers (I do have plenty of guesses), but I do know it’s up to us to discover the next version of church that meets needs in a way that is needed.

I do know this for sure:

1. We can’t recapture the hearts of the MICAs with entertaining church services. Culture is full of entertainment.

2. We can’t win MICAs back with content. Content is literally everywhere. Today, I can listen to anything from any church without leaving my phone. 

3. We can’t get MICAs back by only offering great ministry for their children. That worked in the past, but I fear that time has come and gone. The MICAs may see travel baseball as a valid replacement. 

The post-pandemic church must offer an alternative to culture that provides meaningful connection and a challenge worthy of the calling.

That’s what I’ve concluded. And it’s going to take us transforming our models, methods, and strategies. We must think about connection over content. We need more realness. We need more honesty. We need to create a church that people actually miss when they miss. 

The Gospel is worth it. And it’s time that we do it.

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8 Responses

  1. What we have is a tool for the devil to utilize and creep in to work against true children of the faith. What I mean by that is that Christians in general for far too long have not continued in prayer (Colossians 4:2). Some may be truly afraid to gather together for health reasons. But some may have just given up with the “what’s the point” mentality. “I can watch the service on Facebook Live”, “our church post the service on YouTube”, “our church streams it live on the church website”, and undoubtedly many other reasons.

    Hebrews 10:25, Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

    Matthew 18:20, For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

    The devil will use anything to separate us from Christ, to keep us in the dark. the word compliance comes into play. Christians have settled for “oh well, the world is changing and there is nothing I can do about it”. Christians have laid their armor down. They have laid their weapon of prayer down. Sin has become rampant throughout this world, our nations, our states, our cities, our neighborhoods, and our homes, because we let it come in.

    2 Chronicles 7:14, If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

    What will it take to bring us back to God?

  2. what seems impossible for man is possible for God. let us keep praying that people will heed the Spirit’s call to find their way back not just to church but to worshipping God genuinely and enjoying the long-lost fellowship of fellow believers.

  3. I too am most concerned for the children and next generation. How would you connect the scriptures? For instance, in revelation of the fact that Jesus really does want worshipers worshiping in Spirit and Truth, with no room for being lukewarm. Doesn’t this mean he wants his church to be full of people who actually want to be there? Celebrate these folks. The others will come as they’re called back.

    1. CA, I honestly was not writing theologically, but practically. If anything, I’m not sure I’d grab Revelation to substantiate this emotion, but I get that perspective. In writing this to church leaders more than church attendees, I think the calling from Jesus to make disciples is most relevant. We are called to lead people to Jesus and aid in their growth. Sure, some/many were not pursuing growth pre-pandemic. But that isn’t really the point of this article. My point was, as church leaders, are we creating churches where people can attend for years without being challenged enough to pursue spiritual growth.

      Thanks for the comment. Love hearing from anyone reading along.

      1. I see what you are saying. It is tough to figure out, especially in America with all of our distractions. Connection is key. And that is hard in this age of being over connected yet not really connected to one another.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Gavin. I, too, worry about children not coming to church. Let’s figure this out!

    1. Tracy, love your heart from kids! Always have. You know as well as anyone that children need to engage in a thriving local church. My fear is parents don’t feel the same need today as a decade ago. We must figure ministry out for all ages at all times for all perspectives.

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