One of the major concerns for Church leaders recently has been what we do about those people who don’t seem to be returning to in person church? Within that number are those who are still very anxious about coming to church services but still very much believe in the L ord. Some will be able to return eventually but there will also be those who at the moment cannot see a point where it will be possible to meet in person due to underlying health issues. Then there are those who maintain faith but have fallen out of love with our old ways of “doing church” and think that through the pandemic they’ve found better ways of connecting together for fellowship and encouragement. Finally, we’ve got those who will not be returning and have been drifting away, the ones that are part of Thom Rainer’s 20% and humanly speaking are never coming back. Most will have already dropped out of your online content already too.
It’s right that these concerns exercise our mind but this shouldn’t be at the expense of those who have begun to join us for the first time. Whilst I was concerned in the early days of the pandemic that there was an over inflated excitement in the large numbers of YouTube and Facebook viewing numbers, those numbers did include some genuine first time contacts who stuck with online church. Additionally, some churches were creative about evangelistic opportunities during the pandemic and ran online Alpha and Christianity Explored courses, Zoom well being workshops and other events. So, are your church leadership teams giving time to thinking about how we continue to welcome and engage these people.
I did a quick straw-poll of my twitter followers yesterday to get a feel of things and these results encouragingly suggest that a good number of churches are seeing new-comers among their in person attendees.
The first thing you’ll want to consider and can probably only be able to identify now is where these newcomers are coming from. I also asked this with the following results.
The first thing to observe from this is that unsurprisingly some of your newcomers will be from transfer growth, they’ve moved from other churches. It’s important at this stage to be aware why. Some transfer growth will be for good reasons, you’ll have people that have moved home and work during COVID but haven’t been able to join a local church in person. You’ll have others that will have had time to reflect and realised that for sad but legitimate reasons they need to move church because of issues in their previous church family. Sadly, you will also pick up some church hoppers. There’ll also be those who are coming to you because their own church isn’t able to hold in person services yet.
If the latter reason applies, my personal view is that this isn’t a good reason for long term transfer unless the lack of in person meeting is symptomatic of other issues. Ideally you want to encourage them to persist with the online gathering of their home church but you may also consider talking with them and the church to see if it would be helpful for them to come along to you for a short period of time.
The really good news is that we do seem to be seeing people joining who are completely new to the Gospel or had at some point become de-churched and are now returning. Now is the time to be prayerfully considering how you respond to the needs and opportunities here. I’m not going to give definite recommendations in this post but here are a few things I would be thinking about.
First, I would want to get a feel for where they are spiritually. Some of them will have made a profession of faith already, others will still be in the process of considering the claims of Christ and there will be a third group who are now ready to profess faith. You won’t know this without asking people.
Second, all of these people have encountered your church and church generally during lockdown so will come with no pre-conceived ideas about what an in person church gathering will be like. So, one question to consider will be what help new people will need in getting to know what you do, how you do it and why. But the lockdown has also given us an opportunity to review what we do, how we do it and why. So when considering what to reintroduce, what new things to do and what to leave in the past, consider what will be most helpful to these newcomers.
Third, they are now arriving at a church and getting to know people for the first time. It’s actually very strange (speaking as someone who changed church during the final lockdown). On the one hand you feel like you are not new (and people feel like you are not new too). You’ve seen each other’s names in the comment section of Facebook or you’ve appeared on Zoom calls in a gallrery of faces. That’s actually quite different to meeting people face to face. So the third thing I will wan tto consider is how we give space to help people connect with others and get to know them.
Finally, remember that just as you have lots of long term church members who are still connected but not yet ready to join you in person, that if you have in person new comers you are likely to still have online new comers. What are you continuing to do to reach and connect with them?