By Doug Talley
I recently read a blog by Dan Reiland (Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Atlanta, GA) in which he writes about people drifting from the church during the pandemic. You’ve probably noticed this in your church. Though I’ve not done a formal study, I hear from pastors that their attendance right now is maybe 40-60% what it was before COVID. That’s not an official survey, so there is plenty of room for error. And I know this varies from church to church depending on a variety of factors.
COVID has made it easy for people to drift from church attendance. Some watch online, so they are staying engaged at some level. But some have gotten busy with other pursuits and haven’t really thought much about when to re-engage in person or IF they will re-engage. Reiland refers to talking with a friend about church only to discover the friend and his family hadn’t attended in many months. The friend said they still loved their church. They had just gotten lazy and would be back in church next Sunday.
Though there are probably some who haven’t returned because they are still anxious about COVID and public gatherings, I suspect there are quite a few who have just gotten out of the habit, even a little lazy. Maybe they need a tactful touch (phone call, note, etc.) from you or someone else to check on them and let them know they’re missed.
I wonder if some pastors are hesitant to make the “we’ve been missing you” call for fear it will be the awkward conversation where the person says, “Pastor, we’ve left the church and aren’t coming back.” Do you know that one of the top things I love about being a state pastor is that I don’t have to deal with people leaving the church? I’m serious. That always wore me out. Even when asked, rarely would the person leaving give me the real reason. So my tendency was to assume I was at least part of the reason if not THE reason. That’s painful to live with. (As I look back on this now, I’m not sure most even knew why they were leaving.)
I want to share some observations about why some people leave their church. Some of these Reiland identified in his article, and I agree with him. And some are my own perspective.
- Some just get too busy with life, sports team travel, weekend trips to the lake or beach, a hobby, or work, or _______. The pandemic shutdown caused them to realize they had gotten so busy that they lost a part of themselves. Slowing down can be good for the soul. Granted, isolation isn’t. But slowing down and staying home can be refreshing. Some may not have returned to church yet because they are still in the slow down routine and are afraid of losing themselves again. They may need a prompt from church friends, the pastor, and/or God.
- Some have been enjoying the convenience of online attendance. I love it that so many churches went online when the pandemic hit. What a blessing this has been to people whose health had declined before the pandemic to the extent that they could no longer attend.
I suspect there are some whose health isn’t the present challenge to them returning. They’ve just gotten used to online church at the kitchen table or Starbucks. They may need to be lovingly prompted to return so they can rediscover that participating in worship in person with other Christians is rich and incredibly meaningful.
By the way, keep investing in online church. Online church is incredible for people who are shut in, who are travelling on a weekend, who are checking your church out before attending, who are wrestling with some circumstances that make in-person attendance daunting, or a host of other reasons. It is here to stay and will be an important side door or front door to your church for the foreseeable future.
- “The pastor (or board) made a decision I don’t like, so I’ve decided to leave for good.” I think the pandemic has become a convenient excuse for people to exit who didn’t like a decision someone (aka the pastor) made in the last year or two. Even before the pandemic, one of the most difficult things about ministry is making the tough calls that you know won’t please everyone. Though it’s part of leadership, I still don’t like making them. But someone has to. Normally they end up on the pastor’s desk.
The pandemic has forced all pastors to make a lot of calls that are no win decisions – meet in person or online, masks or no masks, when to meet in person again, no masks if vaccinated or no masks for everyone, etc. This has worn a lot of pastors out. They are exhausted from it. No surprise that a growing number of pastors are exiting their churches and even exiting pastoral ministry.
Reiland suggests that maybe a better approach is to stop asking, “Do I agree with or like the decision that was made?” and begin asking…
- Is my church teaching the Bible?
- Are people committing their lives to Jesus Christ?
- Are people’s lives being changed?
- Is my church making a difference in our community?
- “I’m not being fed.” This is a classic reason every pastor has heard. People will leave one church saying they aren’t being fed and join another church at the same time people are leaving the one they joined saying they aren’t being fed. Maybe the real issue is some people get stuck at a basic level of Christian development and aren’t taking responsibility for their own growth. One of the early benchmarks of a child growing up is they learn to feed themselves. Shouldn’t that be a benchmark of a growing Christian, too?
I’ll admit not every pastor is equally gifted as a preacher and communicator. Even before this season, I’ve listened to some pastors (including some famous pastors) online and in person who were incredible communicators. Over the last 18 months I suspect a lot of church people have listened to some really good online preachers. Then they think about returning to their local church and talk themselves out of it. Maybe even convince themselves they aren’t being fed. I’ve always thought this excuse told me more about the person saying it than the preacher they were leaving.
I still believe in the local church. I realize that church will look a little different post COVID, but it would look different anyway because with every generation the way we do church changes. We don’t have the option of changing the message, but methods and approaches are always up for revision. After all, we have a mission. And that mission of making more and better disciples and changing the world for Christ is what must drive us.
I’m hoping that a number of the people who haven’t returned to church yet are distracted rather than disconnected. I’m praying that God will get their attention and remind them that being part of a local congregation is critical to one’s spiritual health and critical to the mission. Perhaps a call or note from you will be used by God to get their attention. Just a thought.