I want to think a little bit more about what is involved for churches coming out of lockdown. I did one of my mini-surveys via twitter recently and here are the results.
As always, I’m not claiming that my survey gives infallible, fully representative, scientific, Gallup standard analysis. However, it is a good dip check and the answers I’m getting back seem to fit with what I’m hearing anecdotally elsewhere. In other words, it’s only telling me what some of my friends are experiencing but that seems to fit with what other people’s friends are seeing too. It also seems to align with what I’ve observed as I’ve been on my travels around different churches.
I think we can describe the English church situation as follows:
- Most people who are intending to return to church have returned. Last time I asked a similar question the conclusion seemed to be that people had either returned or expected to return soon.
- In person church attendance is down. When you allow for the small numbers still in the process of returning and joining in online then it’s not catastrophically down overall but it is more down than up on the 2020 situation.
- Some churches however are struggling with perhaps still over 50% of attendees not yet back in person.
- Some churches have experienced a small amount of growth.
It is perhaps worth considering what might be happening where churches are experiencing a little growth. Again, this is not scientific but what I’m observing and hearing is that:
- Churches that were healthy prior to COVID and stayed together during it, finding ways to re-emphasise their commitment to one another as a body are more likely to be seeing the majority of their previous congregation returning
- Additionally, if they were active in evangelism prior to and during the pandemic then they will be seeing some new people joining them. When I talk about being “active in evangelism” I mean that they were proactive and didn’t simply count the number of clicks and downloads on their YouTube channels.
- Some churches have struggled, losing significant numbers and some have even sadly reached the point of closure. This fits with observations from some experiencing growth that there is a lot of transfer growth happening.
In other words, the pandemic has served as a catalyst to stir things up. It has often exacerbated trends that were already there. It has brought the best out of us and the worst of us. This also means that the local church is to some extent in a state of flux. There is some reconfiguration happening. People have been unsettled and they are moving about a bit. It will take a little whiles to see how things settle. Don’t assume that people who have started meeting with you since the return to in person worship will be with you long term.
What I also think this confirms is a view that I formed as the pandemic lengthened. Our original assumption was that we would have a few weeks away from our buildings and then be back to normal -like when you have a few weeks of heavy snow. The reality is that we have been in an unusual and unprecedented situation for nearly two years. During that time, some people have experienced the refining of their faith and the growing of relationships not least because they’ ve had to work at these things.
Others have struggled. Sometimes there has been a sifting and its been clear that people have dropped away because they were attending church out of habit rather than love for the Lord. Others are tender and fragile and it’s not that they don’t know the Lord but they have become disconnected from the body. In effect we have seen a lot of people become de-churched through the pandemic.
The result is that as our churches regroup and regather, the vast majority find themselves in the position of a church plant or revitalisation. They have a passionate core team but there are also a lot of people out there who need to be contacted, need to be regathered.
How are we going to do that? Well not through legalism, not through telling people off and not by gimmicks. We will need
- Love -because people are going to need us to care for them with diligence
- The Gospel -because this is what will motivate people to gather whether it is because they had never truly responded to it or even grasped it before or because they need to be re-warmed to it.
So my advice is that we start thinking in terms of re-planting and regathering. We are going to need Richard Baxter type people who will diligently and patiently visit people. That will mean taking time to listen and understand why they are not currently meeting with us. That may be painful as they open up about things going back a long time. It means that we will also need to be honest too. Most of all it means that we need to keep pointing people to the Gospel.