Last month, David Sharp wrote a story for the Associated Press that stated a fact and asked a question: “Millions Skipped Church During Pandemic. Will They Return?”
Both the fact and the question weigh heavily on the minds of pastors. We saw church attendance decrease sharply because of the pandemic but increase only slowly after it. We wonder when ministry will return to its pre-COVID normal. A few of us wonder whether it ever will.
Statistics offer some good news. A March 9, 2021, poll by Lifeway Research found that 91% of churchgoers “plan to attend worship services as often or more often than before COVID-19.” According to the National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project, “in-person attendance had recovered to 57% of the pre-pandemic numbers” by April 2021. Given that most states have lifted restrictions on public gatherings since April, that number is probably higher now.
But what statistics giveth, statistics taketh away. According to Lifeway Research, 6% of churchgoers said they would attend “less often” than they did before the pandemic, while 2% said they would attend “rarely,” and 1% percent said they would “never” attend. In other words, while church attendance is recovering (slowly), church leaders shouldn’t expect everyone to return. Nearly 1 in 10 won’t.
The 9% of churchgoers who don’t plan to return fully offer pastors a teachable moment. Instead of asking, “When will most churchgoers return?” we should ask, “Why aren’t they coming back?” Answering that question will help us better prepare for ministry in our post-pandemic, new normal.
Here are six reasons why I believe people may not be coming back to church:
1. COVID hesitancy. Nineteen months after the first COVID cases were reported in the U.S., the delta variant of the virus is wreaking havoc on many communities throughout our nation. For example, my hometown—Springfield, Missouri—is a hotspot of resurgent cases, nearly all of which involve unvaccinated people. The ICUs are full, and medical personnel are exhausted.
Given this resurgence of cases, some churches are canceling normal summer activities. After one of their camp-going youth ended up in pediatric ICU because of COVID, for example, a prominent Springfield church canceled its remaining camps. I’ve talked to a number of churchgoing families who are sharply curtailing their church activities until Springfield’s hotspot cools significantly.
My guess is that churchgoers in other parts of the nation are making similar decisions.
2. Inertia. In ordinary language, inertia is a synonym of “inactivity” or “sluggishness.” In physics, however, it refers to “the property of matter by which it retains its state of rest or its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force.”
For some churchgoers, COVID was an “external force” that disrupted the “velocity along a straight line” of their churchgoing. They will need another “external force” to get them moving again after months of non-churchgoing “rest.” Since we’re talking about spiritual rather than material realities, however, that force will be a compelling motivation. I’ll circle back to what those motivations might be.
3. Weak attachment. Another reason some churchgoers won’t return is that even prior to COVID, they were weakly attached to Christ and His church. Not everyone who attends church has a vibrant relationship with Christ, after all. Some are new converts, and others are nominal Christians.
Jesus spoke about such people in Matthew 13:1–23. He described peoples’ hearts as soils that either do or do not provide fertile ground for the cultivation of gospel seed. Some hear the gospel but do not “understand” it (verse 19). Others receive the gospel, but “trouble or persecution” makes their faith waver (verses 20–21). A third group hears the good news, but “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth” choke out the faith that starts to rise (verse 22). Only the fourth group — “the seed falling on good soil” (verse 23) — provide fertile ground for the gospel to take root and be productive.
Some churchgoers won’t return because they didn’t have strong spiritual roots to begin with. The trouble and worries of the past year strangled what little faith they may have had.
4. Church switching. A third reason some churchgoers won’t return is that they’ve started attending a different church (or none at all). According to Lifeway Research, 87% of churchgoers are part of the same congregation they attended prior to the pandemic. Three percent switched churches because they moved out of the area, and 5% switched to another church in the same area. Another 5% say, “I no longer have a church I consider my church.”
You can’t do anything about the 3% of churchgoers who move out of the area. It’s the 10% that should worry us. Why are they leaving our churches for others? Why don’t they consider our churches their own? That brings me to what I consider the most important reason some churchgoers won’t return after the pandemic.
5. No value added. Our churches don’t add value to their lives.
In economics, added value refers to “the difference between the price of a product or service and the cost of producing it.” The price of the occasional cinnamon roll and coffee at my local donut store — named St. George’s, incidentally — is $4.25. The cost of the ingredients is 39¢. I willingly part from $4.25 as often I can because a donut and coffee make me happy. They add value to my life. (My wife and my waistline disagree with me on this point.)
It’s tricky to apply consumer analogies to ministry, but work with me for a moment. The mission of the church I attend is to connect attendees with God, people, and purpose. By analogy, that’s our product or service. To provide that product or service, we have a budget to cover salaries, ministry expenses, a mortgage, and missions commitments. Although we don’t charge anyone for attending, members are expected to attend regularly, tithe generously, and volunteer often.
Members are willing to pay the price of attending, tithing, and volunteering precisely because we derive value from attending our church. My pastor doesn’t browbeat about doing these things because we perceive the value of participating.
Suppose, however, we stop perceiving that value. What if we no longer feel that the church is connecting us to God, people, and purpose? What if, instead, we come to believe that the church lacks spiritual health or that no one befriends us or that there is no place of meaningful service for us? Do you think we will continue to pay the price of attending, tithing, and volunteering?
No, of course not.
For some churchgoers, COVID disrupted the inertia of their churchgoing velocity. In their new resting inertia, they are reevaluating whether the prior participation in church added value to their lives. Most have concluded that it did, but some have concluded that it didn’t. They won’t be returning.
6. No Jesus. One of the reasons it’s tricky to apply consumer analogies to ministry is because consumerism makes the customer king, not Christ. Consumerism prioritizes a customer’s needs and wants. And consumers rarely want the Cross, even though that’s what they really need.
So when we talk about adding value, we must be careful to ensure that the value we’re adding is authentically Christian. Paul identified that kind of value when he wrote, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (Philippians 3:8).
The problem is that in an effort to be relevant, some churches offer attendees common-sense advice with a Bible verse or two attached. You can get the same advice — without the Bible verses — from secular sources: Dr. Phil on relationships, Suze Orman on finances, Whole30 on dieting, CrossFit on physical fitness, etc.
Here’s my point: When some churchgoers realize that they can get the same common-sense advice at home, without the churchly costs of attendance, tithing, and volunteering, they may just stay home.
What to Do
There are probably more reasons why churchgoers won’t return to church after COVID. In my opinion, what unites them all is the lack of a compelling motive to go to church. A compelling motive is what moves people from rest to velocity. It’s what keeps people attached to your church. It’s the value that churchgoing adds to their lives.
Compelling motives are not merely intellectual, however; they are experiential. When Hebrews 10:25 exhorts us about “not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another,” it’s tempting to think that quoting the verse is sufficient to move people to return to church. It isn’t.
What we say about churchgoing must jibe with people’s experience of churchgoing. If it does, people will return after the pandemic. If it doesn’t, we’ve got work to do.
George P. Wood is executive editor of Influence magazine.