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.
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?
Covid forced every church online. This was both a great inconvenience and a great opportunity. To be honest, some churches have done better than others with their online services. Much of the result depends on the effort the church makes with their online services. For those who merely stream their in-person service, quality is spotty at best. (Take a few minutes to watch your church’s recent online service. You’ll see what I mean.)
Others put in the effort to pre-record their online service, like Pinnacle Church in Canton, NC. They provide a higher quality, direct-to-camera approach for their growing online congregation. Even this smaller congregation with limited equipment is doing a lot of the right things. Regardless of the quality of your online worship service, how are you discipling your online congregation?
Some churches are satisfied with using a multiplier to calculate their online audience based on the number of views. Certainly you want to know that your online service is effectively reaching others. But, your effectiveness online is far more than the number of eyeballs. Jay Kranda, the online campus pastor at Saddleback Church, had much to say about this in our interview earlier this year. Listen here.
Here’s what you know – people are watching online. Some are staying home out of an abundance of caution. Some are watching online because it’s just more convenient for them. Others are participating with your church online for the first time. This is the group I mentioned in last week’s post, Start Leading the Church You Have. Where are you leading them?
The Same Expectations
Prior to 2020, online ministry was a novelty. Then around March 2020, online ministry became a necessity. Today, online ministry is an opportunity.
While almost every church saw online ministry as a necessity during the pandemic, some still treat it like a novelty. They see the real congregation as the in-person audience and view the online congregation as a bit of a play thing. That may seem harsh, but let me ask you this: what do you expect from your online congregation? What are you leading them to do?
Typically, churches will ask their in-person congregation for contact information on their first visit in exchange for a welcome gift. They offer next steps, small groups, and serving opportunities. They expect participation, giving, community, and serving. Your online congregation is not any less than your in-person congregation. They are with you. And, they will take next steps when you offer them.
Engage Your Online Congregation
Online worship services can become passive unless you intentionally engage your online congregation. Some of this is accomplished by speaking direct-to-camera, which usually involves recording a separate online experience. Mere streaming video is not church online. Whether you stream live or pre-record, how you communicate with the online congregation is important.
If you direct your announcements and opportunities only to your in-person attendance, then your online folks won’t pay attention. You’re not talking to them. Make simple adjustments like referring to both your in-person and online congregations when you invite them to take next steps. Or during the announcements for your in-person service, have someone speak direct-to-camera to your online congregation. People will take a next step if you invite them.
Instead of asking them to respond with a card in the pew, ask them to text a word to your dedicated text line (check out Zipwhip) or send them to a dedicated landing page on your website for first time guests, giving, small groups, serving, etc. And, when they reach out, be prepared with a response. This could be a signed letter in the mail or an email sequence. When people contact you, reach out to them ASAP. In fact, you should have your response in place before you make the invitation.
Connecting into Community
Your online congregation might be around the corner, across the country, or on the other side of the world. Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, recently baptized a member of their online congregation who flew to Atlanta from her home in New York City. She now has friends in NYC watching Community Bible Church online each week. Whether your church is large or small, by putting your worship service online, you can potentially see a global impact. But, don’t stop there.
While online worship services are a starting point for your online congregation, they are only part of the experience of making disciples. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Worship services can catalyze a commitment to aspire to godly character, grow in faith, or improve their marriage or parenting skills, but the working out comes in biblical community or hesed. Without other believers encouraging, supporting, and holding each other accountable, lasting growth doesn’t happen. God designed us for community.
With an online congregation, community happens in various forms. Some people will join you in online small groups. These groups can meet by video, audio only, or asynchronously. Use the platforms that are the most familiar to your people. Different platforms will work equally as well for different people. But, don’t stop there.
Give your online congregation permission and opportunity to start their own groups – in-person or online. If people don’t live near the church, they can gather a group of friend just like Community Bible Church’s online member in New York. Whether the group meets in-person or online depends on the comfort level of the person starting the group. The church can support these group leaders by providing easy-to-use curriculum, offering a new leader briefing, and giving the support of a coach. Imagine if every member of your online congregation started his or her own group. Think of the impact.
Thoughts to Ponder
As I mentioned in last week’s post (Stop Leading the Church You Lost), the church you have today is your church. Too much has transpired since March 2020 for your church to just snap back to pre-Covid numbers. And, that’s okay.
For many church as many as 30 percent to 50 percent or more of their regular congregation worship online. You wouldn’t ignore a third of your congregation if they were in your church’s sanctuary, would you? Imagine turning toward the right side of your congregation, but ignoring those seated on the left side. That’s ridiculous. Don’t let this happen with the 30-50 percent who are gathering for worship online.
How will you engage your online congregation? How will you help your online congregation leverage their relationships to form groups either locally or online? Who needs a message of hope? Who needs encouragement? Think about it – the possibilities are endless.
The time has come to face an unpleasant reality. The congregation you have right now is your entire congregation. This is not necessarily bad news.
In talking to pastors I’ve stopped asking about their pre-COVID attendance. If the pandemic had only lasted a few weeks to a few months, then you could certainly expect your church to quickly snap back to where it was. After 20 months nothing will snap back now. The culture has changed. Habits have changed. Your church has changed. Let’s consider what happened.
Stadiums are Full, but Sanctuaries are Half Empty
If only Covid was preventing people from returning to church, you would also see this caution across the board in every auditorium or stadium of any size. As I watched the Kansas City Chiefs’ disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Arrowhead Stadium was packed. As I watch the baseball playoffs between my San Francisco Giants and Mark Howell’s LA Dodgers, Oracle Park and Dodgers Stadium are at capacity. Yet, church sanctuaries are less than half full. What’s happening?
Some people have legitimate concerns related to Covid. Out of an abundance of caution, they chose to worship online at home. They are not ready to meet and sing with a large group of people for the time being. That’s understandable considering the amount of information and misinformation out there. There are very strong feelings about vaccines and masks. Covid accounts for part of your half filled auditorium.
Others became comfortable with online worship. They don’t have to get their family dressed, fed, and out the door on Sunday morning any more. They can sip their coffee in their jammies while their children play or sleep in. While online faithfulness has certainly lessened over time, some of your people are still there. They are giving. They are on your side. They’re just staying home. But, some people have changed the channel.
Now that most churches have an online worship service, it’s easier to church shop than ever. Let’s face it. There are more interesting sermons out there. There are professionally recorded worship sets with worship teams who sing in tune. If someone’s interest is only in worship and preaching, there are tens of thousands of choices. But, you and I both know that there is far more to church than songs and sermons. Rick Warren isn’t going to call to see how they’re doing. Andy Stanley isn’t going to make a hospital visit. If you wonder where you’re people are, you should probably give them a call.
The last group is the most exciting. People are watching online who have never darkened the door of your church. They are interested in spiritual things. They long for something solid in very anxious times. They enjoy watching the service without being watched. And, when you offer a next step, they will take it. Pastors are telling me how “first time” guests show up ready for baptism, next steps, small groups, and serving. They aren’t first time guests. They’ve been participating in your online worship services for weeks to months. This is the new front door of the church! How does your front door look? Are you actively offering next steps to your online congregation? Do you look directly into the camera and lead them on what do to next? Do you have a way for them to respond? Don’t make your online worship service a lesser experience. Don’t expect less of people who worship online. They need your leadership.
Stop Looking Backward
The whole world has experienced a massive reset. Regardless of who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s to blame, or who’s orchestrating a nefarious plot, God is not surprised by any of this. Why has God allowed this to happen? Why did God intentionally shake up His church like this? What needed to fall away to reveal what was strong? What outdated strategies needed to crumble? What changes that you’ve been dreading to make needed to happen? God has uniquely positioned you and your church to serve a changed culture, if you are willing to let go of what you used to do.
Some of us remember the battle of the 1990’s when we transitioned from traditional services to contemporary services. You couldn’t alienate the older folks because they were the givers, yet if you didn’t change your approach, you couldn’t attract or keep younger people. Remember those days? Some churches attempted “blended” worship, but as Stuart Briscoe said, “If you blend traditional and contemporary, you end up with contemptible.” He wasn’t wrong.
Imagine if you and your team decided to incorporate more stained glass into your building or include more hymns in your worship set this year. What if you threw out those uncomfortable stackable chairs and replaced them with uncomfortable wooden pews? You wouldn’t go back there. In the 1990’s churches chose to no longer use 1950’s ministry strategies. Now it’s time to move forward from 1990’s ministry strategies and embrace new things in the 2020’s.
But, this isn’t just about strategy. Change produces loss. You’ve lost much since March 2020. You can wear yourself out, but the pre-Covid days for your church aren’t coming back. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt. When our church in California lost two-thirds of our congregation and the entire staff in a matter of weeks, I experienced the grief as if all of those people were in a bus caravan that went over a cliff. I was overwhelmed with grief. I managed to drag myself into the office at the crack of Noon and leave around 3 pm. Every person who called or stopped by the church was also racked with pain. It was all I could take. Our church had basically died, but good things were about to grow out of it.
Lead the People You Have
You have to put your energy into leading the church you have rather than trying to lead the church you used to have. Here’s what’s great about the church you have:
Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.
The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.
Your church is reaching more new people than ever before — online. Tune up your online service, which starts by watching it yourself. Create a separate mix for your music, because the house mix doesn’t cut it online. If that doesn’t work, then only stream the sermon. Watch your online recording. You will understand my point. Along with this, interact with your online congregation. Ask a staff member or church member to host the online service and chat with your online congregation before, after, and even during the service. How can you make this an active experience? If folks are consistently watching online, they are with you. Lead the people you have.
People who show up are ready to take next steps — baptism, growth track, small groups, serving, outreach, and more. Direct your online worship host or even the senior pastor to address the online congregation and lead them into next steps. Offer serving roles and small groups. (Check out: Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future). Your online congregation needs your leadership. Lead the people you have.
A Final Challenge
The good news about this season is that the culture of your church has already shifted. You don’t have to convince people to show up for in-person worship services. They’re there if they want to be. You don’t have people fighting against online worship. They’re already there.
The question is are you trying to pastor a megachurch from the 1990’s or are you leading a hybrid church in 2021 and moving forward? Are you making your online congregation an equal experience to your in-person worship service? Do you expect as much from those gathered online as you do those gathered in-person? Are you realigning your congregations’ time, talent, and treasure to move your church forward or are you attempting to regain what you had in 2019 (or before)?
In a recent interview with Bill Willits from North Point, he shared that in-person worship and small groups are at 50 percent of their pre-Covid numbers. This is the church at the top of Outreach magazine’s Largest Churches list. But, North Point is innovating. The house analogy is out the window. Listen to what they’re doing now.
God has uniquely positioned you and your church for this season. It is different. It is way different than how you’ve done ministry before. Choose to lead forward and not backward. God is with you. Keep in step with His Spirit.
What has your church changed in the last 20 months? What results are you seeing? Reply in the comments.
Phil Cooke has a unique resume. He has a PhD in Theology and is an active producer in Hollywood. Phil was Executive Producer of “Let Hope Rise – the Hillsong Movie” released to theaters nationwide, and Producer of “The Insanity of God” a feature documentary that premiered nationally as a Fathom Event. He is the founder of the Cooke Media Group and is the author of several books including his most recent book, Maximize Your Influence: How to Make Digital Media Work for Your Church, Your Ministry, and You.
Just as we thought everything was going back to normal, we’ve discovered that normal is not so normal. COVID seems to be returning. While I’m not an epidemiologist and don’t want to weigh in on the politics of the pandemic, COVID is yet again making a real impact on life and ministry. From empty Olympic stands to empty seats in our churches to an increase in mask wearing, uncertainty appears to be our biggest obstacle. But, not for small groups.
In-Person Worship Services are Not Essential
A big learning from 2020 is that the church can thrive amid adversarial conditions. Most churches have not returned to their pre-COVID in-person attendance numbers, and that’s okay. Some churches have yet to reopen for in-person worship. As I mentioned in a recent video, while in-person attendance is down, giving is steady across North America, and salvations and baptisms are up! Churches are doing a better job of fulfilling the Great Commission at a worse time (and that’s not so bad).
Since many people are unnerved by the Delta variant (and the emerging Gamma variant), you see more people wearing masks in public. Vacation hot spots like Orlando and Branson, Missouri have become Delta variant hot spots. One church I’m coaching in Orlando has re-closed for in-person worship due to the number of new COVID cases in their church. What does this mean for you?
Online worship services are here to stay (I hope you already knew that). Churches who are doing online services well are recording a separate online service with the pastor speaking direct-to-camera rather than merely streaming the in-person service. Streaming video is not church online. Streaming services create a passive experience for the viewer. By offering an optimized online service, you have a better chance of engaging your audience. But, don’t just give them a service. Offer next steps like your growth track, membership class, Church 101, or whatever you call it. Encourage them to give, to participate in the level they are comfortable, and to start a small group. While this is a different way to do ministry, remember sermons don’t make disciples anyway.
Community is Essential
Your church can survive without in-person worship services. It already has. But, community is essential. The problem with small groups in this variant environment is your people’s varying discomfort in the pandemic. Do they only want to meet with vaccinated people? Do they want the group to wear masks? Do they want the group to meet outside? Do they want the group to meet online? Do they believe the whole thing is made up? Fortunately, this is not your problem to solve.
It was already difficult when you were trying to place people in groups based on their preference of day, time, location, study, affinity, childcare, language, or other variable. Now COVID has upped the ante. Here’s the good news: None of this is your problem to solve. Give your people permission and opportunity to gather their people in whatever way they feel the most comfortable. They can meet with anyone, anytime, and any place – in-person or online. If you will stop trying to figure that out for them, they will figure it out!
If people don’t get invited to join a group, then create an environment for people to meet face-to-face or at least face-to-screen. Don’t resort to sign up cards or online sign ups. These are a lot of work and don’t net many results. Offer prospective members an opportunity to meet group leaders and then sign up for the group they want to try. Sign up cards and online forms set people up on blind dates. At least by meeting the leader ahead of time, you’ve moved from blind dating to speed dating!
Think About This
Like you, I had hoped COVID would be completely behind us by now. The good news is that the fall small group boom has not been cancelled. People crave community. Small groups are more important than ever. Rather than putting all of your energy into getting people back to in-person worship services, double up on getting people into groups. After all, people in groups will attend more, give more, serve more, invite more, and reach more than people who aren’t in groups (To learn more about the research on groups, listen to this episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast with Dr. Warren Bird).