Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches have been grappling with how to stay connected with one another.
At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, churches were forced to move their services and gatherings exclusively online, quickly learning how to live stream worship services, connect via video chat, and provide opportunities to remain relationally close while physically distant.
As pandemic restrictions on gatherings began to lift, churches began to slowly regather in person. But pastors quickly noticed that their gatherings were considerably smaller as compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
This was to be expected, but many anticipated that as vaccine rollout expanded and the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continued to decrease, attendance would increase at a similar rate.
Nevertheless, that didn’t necessarily happen.
A report published by the American Enterprise Institute in January of this year revealed that while most evangelical Christians who attended in-person worship services regularly before the pandemic have resumed doing so, people who attended infrequently or rarely have not returned at all.
Prior to the pandemic, 75% of all Americans said they attended religious services at least once a month, which dropped to 68% by the middle of 2022. The most precipitous drop-offs were seen among young people, unmarried adults, and those who identify as politically liberal.
What this means is that the interruption of in-person services brought on by the pandemic has seemed to accelerate a pattern of decline that has been measurable for some time.
For example, the median congregation size in America had already dropped from 137 people in 2000 to 65 in 2020, according to Faith Communities Today.
During that time, American churches have struggled to gain ground among younger generations and those whose understanding of the world did not already fit inside a particular political or ideological framework.
In other words, while many churches are experiencing considerably lower in-person weekly attendance as compared to pre-pandemic years, the pandemic was more of a revealing and accelerating agent than the root cause.
For many Americans, unless they were already highly committed to regular church attendance before the pandemic, it is not likely that they will be returning any time soon, if ever.
This reality has been disheartening for many pastors and church leaders who have been laboring for years, or even decades, to reach their communities with the life-saving good news of Jesus and to walk alongside them on a path toward becoming more like him.
But the mission has remained the same. We just need to think strategically and innovatively about rising to these challenges, many of which are not new but have more recently been brought to our attention with a heightened level of intensity.
For pastors and church leaders who are experiencing lower attendance numbers in a post-pandemic world, here are three encouragements.
1. Pastor the Church You Have
When churches first reopened their doors for in-person worship services, pastors looked out for their people and obviously noticed immediately that the congregation was considerably smaller.
But they also noticed that the composition of their congregation had changed. As they looked into the pews, they saw many people they had never met before, even as they also noticed people who had previously been there that were no longer.
While pastors and church leaders celebrated the fact that new people had found their church online during pandemic shutdowns — and some of them had even found faith for the first time — many pastors have continued to hold out hope that “their people” would soon return.
Pastors and church leaders reached out to everyone in their database, only to find out that many of “their people” were nowattending a church down the road where the pastor spoke more in line with their political beliefs or were otherwise unreachable despite multiple attempts to connect with them.
This has been incredibly discouraging for many. As Solomon said in Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Maybe it’s time to begin cultivating a new desire — that desire being that we would deeply connect with and authentically disciple, not the people we wished were at our church but the people who are actually there.
It may be true that the group you lead is smaller than it once was, and many of those with whom you were once close don’t come around anymore. But there are people in your midst who need you. They need you to walk alongside them in their journey with Jesus.
What’s more is that this is what you are called to do — what you are passionate about doing. So, choose to pastor the church you have rather than trying to regain the church you once had. If you do, you will be more fulfilled in your calling and probably more effective, too.
2. Create an Embodied Experience at Your Worship Services
For decades, church leaders have been thinking innovatively about how to make Sunday worship services more compelling.
This has often involved updating our decor, investing in better musicians and technical equipment, and dispensing with any language that was unnecessarily archaic or overly religious.
Depending on the church, such strategies have been implemented to great effect. However, even these tactics have begun to provide only diminishing returns.
Further, these stylistic changes in themselves have not always led to attendees engaging in discipleship processes that have deeply formed them.
In fact, with the advent of online streaming, there is often not anything more compelling about the in-person experience of a “three songs and a sermon” worship service than one that can be viewed online.
In other words, for those who aren’t already completely committed to coming in person, there is little reason for them to do so.
But what if we thought intentionally about how to create worship services, even though streaming online provided a qualitatively different in-person experience? What if we considered how to make our services more embodied?
After all, the heartfelt needs of many of the nation’s young and religiously detached people are not often merely cooler songs or aesthetically pleasing gathering spaces.
People are lonely. They’re starved for connection. They want to experience a real spiritual community. So how can we use our Sunday worship services as a means of connecting people not merely to songs and sermons but to other human beings?
This isn’t an easy challenge to solve, but I think we can look to some of the more liturgical streams of the Protestant tradition for wisdom in this area. After all, liturgy encourages group participation, which fosters group connection.
So you may consider implementing more liturgy into your worship services, such as congregational readings of blessings, Scripture passages, and prayers, or the regular — even weekly — partaking of communion elements.
Think of elements that can be incorporated into your services that require a person to be present in order to fully experience them.
If you are able to do so in a compelling way that ushers in the felt presence of the Holy Spirit, people may find themselves more drawn to attend. Further, they may be more deeply formed by your worship gatherings when they do.
3. Double Down on Your Online Outreach
This point may seem counterintuitive given the previous one, but two apparently opposed things can be true at once.
Because as much as we can bemoan the fact that viewing online worship services pales in comparison to the discipleship benefits of regularly attending in-person church gatherings, we do need to recognize that a larger group of people are at least willing to meet us online than at our church buildings.
For most churches, their current online presence is miles ahead of what it was prior to the pandemic. But if we’re being honest, our efforts are less intentional than they were when we had no other option.
If that’s the case for your church, you are missing out on a valuable opportunity to meet people where they are and shepherd them into a genuine experience of Jesus.
Resources are limited, and you can only do so many things well. However, do your best not to neglect the people who want to connect with God and other people but who aren’t ready or willing to do so in person just yet.
None of This Is Easy
For just about three years now, we have been told ad nauseam that we are living in “uncertain times.” And for as much as we’ve been encouraged by preachers and pundits alike to accept “the new normal,” the fact of the matter is that many of us much rather preferred the oldnormal.
It’s important to mourn our losses. But a new future brings new possibilities. And as our weaknesses are exposed, they become the very places where Jesus wants to provide his strength.
Regardless of who is or isn’t attending your church, God wants to use you in the days and years to come. If we are willing, we will see more, do more, and become more than we ever thought possible by his grace.
For further reading:
Will People Come Back to Church after COVID-19?
Why Should Christians Attend Church in an Online Age?
Is the Future of the Church Online?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/SeventyFour
Dale Chamberlain (M.Div) is an author and podcaster who is passionate about helping people tackle ancient truths in everyday settings. He lives in Southern California with his wife Tamara and their two sons. Connect with Dale at KainosProject.com.