By Gavin Adams, edited by Bobby Price
After nearly one full year, we opened the Woodstock City Church building for in-person services on February 14, 2021. We knew our physical attendance numbers would be much, much smaller than the previous February. We required registration, masks, temperature checks, and social distancing. We capped our registration at 40% of auditorium capacity, knowing our no-show rate would net us closer to 30% in attendance. We were cautious and careful, prioritizing science, safety, and influence as best we could. All things considered, and all the frustrated emails and conversations had, our plans worked pretty well.
Fast-forward a few months, and many of our COVID protocols are going away. In our community, vaccines have been readily available for six to eight weeks. I received my second shot three weeks ago without any wait. We are now mask-optional in the lower portion of our auditorium and moving away from registration and even social distancing soon.
Under our initial, strict protocols, I expected physical attendance to be a fraction of the past. We guessed correctly. We’ve experienced anywhere from 30 – 40% of pre-pandemic, in-person attendance. That number has slowly increased, but only to around 50%.
Here’s my concern: As we remove the remaining protocols, I fear our in-person numbers won’t increase that rapidly. They may not increase at all. Not because everyone is still afraid of COVID or watching our online service stream. I’m afraid we’ve lost a significant percentage of former church attenders for good.
Of course, some are attending in-person church services. Some have left our church permanently for other churches in the area. The intense polarization of virtually every topic created additional pandemics of anger and frustration that led to some unnecessary sheep-swapping. But even taking those who are attending elsewhere into account, we are missing a lot of people. There are massive numbers of people completely missing in church action (MICA). As far as I can tell, they divide into two separate categories:
Group One: The church consumers with digitally reinforced behavior
Over the past decade, our increasingly consumeristic culture created space for churches to utilize consumeristic messaging and experiences to attract people to church. Hear me loud and clear: I’m not against the attractional church per se (after all, do any of us want to create an unattractive church?), but attractional churches can accidentally create an easy conduit for consumeristic Christians. And that was before the pandemic!
Without any in-person services for months on end, digital-only church further reinforced the ease of consumeristic patterns by allowing people to attend without “attending,” making church even easier for the predisposed church consumer. These people may come back to an in-person event or service at some point, but I’m not holding my breath. They were consumers before the pandemic, and now, the ease of digital church solidified their behavior.
BTW, they have children who aren’t coming back, either. While adults might have the willpower or desire to consume spiritual growth content (sermons, books, etc.) on their own, what about their children? This should frighten every church.
Quick Note: I’m not suggesting that a robust digital presence is problematic in and of itself. I believe every church should take advantage of every channel available to spread the Gospel and make disciples. I WILL argue that our digital footprint should be a step and a supplement, not a substitute, for in-person engagements.
Group Two: The “I missed a year of church, and my life isn’t any worse” group
This is the category that worries me the most — BY FAR. I’m worried about them, their children, and the generations to follow. This group isn’t back in the building. And they don’t seem to be online, either. They aren’t back at small group or outdoor events. And they aren’t at other churches. They are at ball fields, the lake, and at home enjoying coffee and a slower-paced Sunday morning. These are the formerly churched people who are on the cusp of officially becoming de-churched altogether.
Why aren’t these people remaining engaged with the local church? What happened? Why did they so easily walk away? I fear they disengaged from the local church during the pandemic and nothing in their life got worse. They aren’t coming back because they didn’t miss it. And apparently, they didn’t need it. When you think about it, why would they come back? Possibly what they were getting at church wasn’t worth their time, energy, and effort after all.
Of course, WE know better, but if they don’t feel the pain of being gone from church, they aren’t coming back.
As a preacher and a leader, the pandemic taught me so much. It caused me to evaluate everything we do as a church and why we are doing it. I don’t have all the answers (I do have plenty of guesses), but I do know it’s up to us to discover the next version of church that meets needs in a way that is needed.
I do know this for sure:
1. We can’t recapture the hearts of the MICAs with entertaining church services. Culture is full of entertainment.
2. We can’t win MICAs back with content. Content is literally everywhere. Today, I can listen to anything from any church without leaving my phone.
3. We can’t get MICAS back by only offering great ministry for their children. That worked in the past, but I fear that time has come and gone. The MICAs may see travel baseball as a valid replacement.
The post-pandemic church must offer an alternative to culture that provides meaningful connection and a challenge worthy of the calling.
That’s what I’ve concluded. And it’s going to take us transforming our models, methods, and strategies. We must think about connection over content. We need more realness. We need more honesty. We need to create a church that people actually miss when they miss.
The Gospel is worth it. And it’s time that we do it.