As we return increasingly to normality following the pandemic, I suspect that the vast majority of people who are intending to return to in person church attendance will have done so by now. If the majority of your church are not yet back in person then you may have to have some searching conversations together as leaders. I fear that this may signal deeper issues that pre-date COVID.
However, there are still quite a few people who have not yet returned to churches even where the majority have. I’ve argued before that whilst this indicates that they are not likely to return any time soon that we should not give up on them. We still want to encourage them to return to in person meeting or to identify where we may need to think about other approaches to gathering and pastoral care. I would encourage pastors/elders/women’s workers to be giving time to go round and visit people to talk through things.
Indeed, this would probably be a good time to visit and review with all members of the congregation recognising that even if people are back at in person church there may still be things to work through with them and they may not feel as though things have gone back to normal or that they even want things to go back. This may include less frequent attendance or reluctance to participate in particular ministries.
However, today I want to focus on those visits to people who haven’t yet returned to in person meeting at all. I hope that any contact will not be out of the blue and that there has been ongoing contact through the pandemic.
Here are the things I’d encourage you to cover with them
- Begin by talking about their overall well-being: emotionally, physically, relationally, spiritually.
- Talk through their current perception of the pandemic and the level of risk they perceive there to be from the virus, particularly in the context of gatherings and meetings
- Ask them if there are some specific COVID related factors that are adding to their concerns about in person meeting. For example, they may have a family member who they consider to be significantly vulnerable. Whilst shielding is no longer part of guidance or regulations, some people have felt it necessary to continue with this.
- Discuss if they have a view on what would be reasonable circumstances for people to return to in person gathering (for example this might include cases and admissions reaching a certain level). It is helpful to look with them at what the best expert advise is and to talk through the experience of the church since the July 2021 relaxations.
- Ask them whether they have any particular concerns about how your church has handled the pandemic and return to church.
- See if they are willing to indicate timescales for how and when they might return to in person church.
- Talk with them about how they are currently seeking to gather with God’s people, to receive teaching and encourage others.
All of those questions assume that those who have not returned are staying away because of COVID. In some cases this will remain a significant factor. However, as I’ve said before I think that in many cases, there will be deeper issues going on. Now might be the stage when we dig a bit deeper into them.
So, now I would want to return to the question of their general spiritual well-being. Two things I would want to discuss with them are
- The things we fear and the things we prioritise. In particular what are their fears around health, sickness and death. Has the pandemic highlighted/exposed any issues? Are they able to distinguish healthy responsibility around risk against overwhelming fear?
- What is their understanding of what it means to love one another?
It is so important that this conversation is a Gospel conversation not a legalistic one. We don’t want to have people attending church because they felt under pressure. We want to see people living and growing in Christ.
Thirdly, it may be time to address questions about their relationship to the church and if there are deeper, long standing issues.
- I would ask them if they’ve heard different advise about COVID and church attendance to what you have been advising. It’s helpful to know where this is coming from because this might highlight deeper seated trust issues.
- I would ask them if there are other concerns that they have about the church. If you are aware of particular problems the church has gone through then I’d even be ready to raise them “what is your understanding of what happened concerning ….?”
- Find out if there have been any other changes to their circumstances that affect involvement in church. It may be that there are other things that have changed over the past two years in terms of family life, health or work that affect attendance. Or the pandemic may have highlighted to them that they were struggling with physically attending each week but also raised the possibility in their mind that other options might exist.
Be ready for the possibility that not everything will be said in the one meeting just as in other pastoral situations. Be ready to answer questions. Don’t be afraid to challenge or correct perceptions but do so with facts, grace and humility. Don’t go in mob handed (two elders arriving for the start of church discipline).
Some of these conversations will cause you great grief. They may lead to difficult partings. However, it may also be that you end up having some deeply significant gospel conversations with people.