Why People Aren’t Coming Back to Church

Why People Aren’t Coming Back to Church

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Isolation from the pandemic is basically over in most quarters. You can freely roam about the country and the world. But, if your church is like most, your worship attendance is not back to the where it was pre-COVID. There really is no reason to stay away, so why aren’t some of your people coming back? Here are a few reasons why.

They’re Still Staying Home Out of Caution.

Some haven’t returned because they or a loved one have a health problem and can’t risk exposure. They’re probably not just staying away from church. They’re staying away from everyone. This is understandable. How are you reaching out to these folks and helping them feel connected to the larger church body?

Once restrictions were lifted in most places, some who felt comfortable attending when masks were required, now feel uncomfortable to worship maskless. Regardless of your personal feelings on masks, part of your congregation who were worshipping in-person are now staying away. They will be back, but not right now. How are you connecting with them?

They Went Somewhere Else.

If they weren’t with you, they did you a favor by going somewhere else. The pandemic sped everything up. If people were headed for the door, then COVID gave them a push. I’ve even heard of churches splitting over everything from mask preferences to politics or whatever else. (And, you know they’re disagreeing from all sides of these issues). If you’ve had people leave out of petty disagreements, figure out a way to bless them. Then, move forward with the people you’ve got.

They’re Still Staying Home Out of Comfort.

Most people’s couches are much more comfortable than those $30 chairs your church bought online. They can sit back with a cup of coffee and watch the service. Or they can multitask during worship. It’s not uncommon to hear about people cleaning their houses and worshipping at the same time.

Here’s the deal: if your worship service is largely built on programming, people can access programming online. Some churches have decided to end their online worship services in an effort to get people back into the building. Those folks are now watching another church’s worship service online.

How are you impacting the lives of folks who are online? What are you requiring of them? How are you creating an equivalent experience with next steps, small groups, serving, and involvement for your online congregation? You have a responsibility to your online disciples.

There’s Not Enough Community to Get Them Back.

As I said, if your worship service amounts to merely programming, people can get programming online. But, it takes more than programming to engage people in worship. The key is community.

If no one has reached out to them in the last two years or if no one‘s giving them a call to see how they’re doing, why would they come back? As John Maxwell says, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” When everyone was worshipping in-person, it was easier to shake a hand or give a greeting, or was it?

I attend a church of about 50 people. It’s the church that I grew up in. The pastor is a good man. I get to sit with my dad every week. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. But what I observe on Sunday at this church of 50 people is that like every other church, people tend to talk to people they already know. They tend to shy away from people that they don’t know. This is true of churches of 50, 500, 5,000, or 50,000. People gravitate to the people they know and ignore the people they don’t. Now, I’m trying my best to do my part to be friendly and welcoming. But, how do you get everybody to be hospitable?

Let me be frank: the lack of community in your weekend services has kept people away. Our holy huddles have also kept people away. You’ve got to loosen this up a little bit. You’ve got a find a place where people can connect in a meaningful way. As Roy Moran says, “The worship service is a great place to start, but a poor place to finish.” For every new person who walks through the door, what is their next step into community? How can they get to know others? How can they feel more connected.

If people felt more community in your church, they would attend more often. How are you connecting people into small groups? How are you leveraging existing relationships to start groups and invite friends and neighbors to church?

Think About This

Clearly it’s time to move forward. You have to accept the fact that the church you have is everybody you’re going to get back with just a few exceptions. We’re not going back to 2019. This is not necessarily bad news.

As your church moves forward, how do you create an environment that will welcome people, accept people, love people, and connect them into community? What do people in your area need right now? How can you connect with them? If they can’t make it to church on Sunday, then how do you help them connect with others?

If you are struggling with moving your church forward during this complex times, it’s okay. You are not alone. I would love to help you. Let’s schedule a call. Just go to allenwhite.org and click the blue button in the upper right corner that says “Schedule a Call.”

The Small Group Bump

At the beginning of 2021, I started talking about the Small Group Boom. As COVID numbers were descending, a pattern began to emerge in several disciplines reminiscent of the aftermath of the Spanish Influenza in 1918-1919. After that period, people began to travel extensively both domestically and internationally. Then, of course, came the Roaring 20’s. The Spanish Influenza was never mentioned again even though it didn’t entirely disappear until the 1950s when it was overcome by Bird Flu (see this 1997 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell). Sorry for that bit of bad news.

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The churches I coached anticipated a great reduction in COVID cases and prepared for the Small Group Boom, then the Delta variant appeared. No one was prepared for that. The Small Group Boom of 2021 ended up being more of a Small Group Bump, but it was a significant bump. These churches ended up with more small groups than they ever had and more people in groups than ever. And, more of their groups continued. In places where we might have launched hundreds of new groups in more normal times, we launched dozens of new groups instead. They were “COVID successful.”

The church I am serving as Life Group Pastor in Lansing, Michigan saw a group increase of 176% in 2021. The senior pastor led the church in two alignment series which we self-produced. We started the year with 20% of their 1,500 adults in small groups and ended the year with 60% in groups. We are launching a third alignment series in February to reach our goal of 80% of adults in groups. This is both the in-person worship attendance (1,000) and the online worship attendance (500).

While everyone has been forced to adapt to the changing culture produced by the pandemic, many of the best practices taught in Exponential Groups are working very well. Inviting people to start their own groups is working. Gathering a group of friends is working. Coaching every new leader is working. Offering a next step series for groups to continue is working. And the Holy Spirit is working to transform lives and make disciples in groups. With a dose of flexibility regarding when, where, and how a group meets, these strategies have proven successful.

Here’s what’s different:

  1. People have re-evaluated their priorities.

During the pandemic, most people divested themselves of everything – social activities, church activities, commuting to work, hobbies, and pretty much everything else. Once people had a “blank slate” on their calendar, they’ve been choosier about what to bring back. For many people, their calendars are not nearly as full now as they were at the beginning of 2020. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  1. Uncertainty produces a lack of commitment.

Preach what is certain. With so much uncertainty in politics, economics, supply chain (when have you ever worried about the supply chain), race relations, local schools, and many other things, you can give them what is certain. As Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35, NIV).

  1. Online worshippers are willing to meet in groups (online groups AND in-person groups).

Online services are great in delivering programming. Small groups are great in creating community. If you lead your online congregation to start groups, they will. Some are only uncomfortable meeting in-person in large groups, but they will meet in-person for a small group. Don’t overlook your online congregation. They will follow where you lead them. Online ministry is both an opportunity and a responsibility.

  1. Embracing and empowering the church you have.

2019 isn’t coming back. Move forward. Stop waiting for it. Starting leading the church you have.

  1. Now is the time to realign the priorities in your ministry.

If you ever wanted to change things, this is your moment. During the pandemic, you had a church of small groups (not just a church with small groups). Now is the time to emphasize small groups in the uncertain days ahead.

I want to help you prepare for what’s ahead for your church in forming groups in 2022. According to Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, right now in the fourth quarter of 2021, people are planning for spring 2022 already. That means two significant things for groups (barring another Coronavirus surge):

  1. The New Year of 2022 is a crucial window to launch groups. Hit the New Year hard in recruiting leaders and launching groups. According to Gauge, people will be gone after Easter.
  2. Your next big opportunity for a major group launch is fall 2022. While this is typically the biggest group launch of the year, post-Covid this could be huge.

People are ready to move forward. You hear it. You can feel it. Let’s talk about what it means to move forward in 2022. Join me for the Small Group Restart. This is a 5-day challenge to think through your small group strategies for 2022. Watch a daily video. Interact in our private Facebook group. Join a community of like-minded small group folks who are figuring things out just like you are. Click here to join.

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People in Small Groups will:

Attend More.

Give More.

Invite More.

Grow More.

Disciple More.

Serve More.

Don't believe me. Look at the research!

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