Should I give up on seeing people coming back to church?

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It varies from church to church but most churches even if they’ve experienced growth through new people joining appear to have lost some people from in person attendance during COVID. I was arguing back in the Autumn that those who had not begun to re-join your gatherings or at least make active preparation probably would not be re-joining you any time soon. 

This is sobering because whilst we’ve talked about the loss of fringe attendees and nominal Christians, there will also be people among that number who you considered to be very much engaged in and part of the church as members, who seemed to have solid testimonies, loved the Lord who were active in the life of the church and indeed people you consider friends, no more than that brothers and sisters in Christ.

Whilst I wrote that we sadly need to accept that many are not coming back, at least in the short to medium term, I have also argued that pastors and elders should not give up on them and forget about them.  There is a task to be done in terms of re-gathering the flock and so I’ve encouraged church leaders to get out there and visit people.  Note, the emphasis there should be on “visit.” We’re not talking about a text message, email or even a phone/video call. This is about face to face pastoral care.

So, I was interested and intrigued in this article by Steve Kneale.  Steve’s argument is that we need to recognise two things when considering people who have not yet come back.

  1. That they have personal agency and responsibility. We cannot force or manipulate their relationship with God and with the church.
  2. God is sovereign. A spiritual work is needed. If someone is refusing to gather with God’s people even when practically there are either no obstacles or obstacles can be overcome then without Christ working on their heart through the Holy Spirit then our efforts are in vain.

There’s much to commend and pay attention to here. Steve is keenly aware of two problems here. First, there is the problem of those who are so quick to blame the church for everything without acknowledging what the church has done or without taking responsibility for their part.  Secondly, there are those in the church who will keep running after people, desperate to win them over giving all their energy to people for little fruit and perhaps failing to engage with real evangelistic and pastoral need in front of them.

This is important because those kinds of attitudes were present pre COVID and will be present long afterwards too. In fact, I wonder whether in some cases we are seeing a symptom of that where suddenly the methods people employed to keep people present and engaged were no longer available to them for two years.  Perhaps it is worth asking in future whether our pastoral methods are pandemic proof. Furthermore, it seeps into evangelism as well. Our approach to outreach and to pastoral care will be shaped by our own personalities and by our theology.  This is what we might associate with the extreme end of Arminian influence and also increases the danger of resorting to emotional manipulation in evangelism too.

However, there is another end to the spectrum too, one we might theologically associate with Hyper-Calvinism. If the person isn’t there, then that’s God’s will. It’s up to him to save and keep, ergo if someone doesn’t appear to have been kept then they may well not have been saved. They are not our problem. 

I’m sure that none of us would want to fall into either extreme. We would recognise God’s sovereignty, we would also accept that individual humans have agency and responsibility for their decisions within that sovereignty.  I definitely would not encourage you to just keep on pestering people in the hope they come back. Nor, would Steve deny the responsibility that pastors play in visiting and shepherding the flock. Yes we need Christ to move and call but he is very likely to do it through our visits and words. Steve says:

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything. I don’t think it ever hurts to phone someone, or drop them a message, and see if they’re okay. I don’t think it wrong to ask them why they haven’t come back or to re-invite them.

I think I’d want to go further than that, or put it more robustly. It’s not just that it’s okay to call/visit. I’d argue that it is necessary.  This isn’t about blame/failure etc but it is about the responsibility that under shepherds have for the flock.  And one reason for saying this is that whilst there are risks at both extremes, there’s also the need to recognise what the pressing danger is at the moment. Whilst over the years I’ve known plenty of people who would just keep on trying encourage people back in the manner Steve is concerned about, I don’t think that’s the big problem with our COVID response.

I’ve heard plenty of people talk about the fact that people are not coming back and we just need to accept it. I’ve also heard others talk optimistically about people coming back in time. I can count on two fingers examples of people saying “We need to get out and visit or at least call people.”  One of them was Jeremy Marshall and the other me. 

I think as well that there’s another danger here.  I think we can write people off as not present because they are hard hearted or even that they were nominal Christians. Yet, things can be more complex than that. To be sure, there will be those happily going to the cinema and football whilst not getting back to church, they’ve chosen their priorities. However, there will be those who are still restricting their social engagements. They have no choice about sending the kids to school or going to work but there are other things they can control such as Sundays.  Furthermore they may also find a church setting with uncertainty about whether or not people will respect things such as social distancing even less controllable. 

It’s also worth remembering that someone may be a genuine believer rather than a nominal Christian and have a messed up view of church and the importance of being with God’s people. Of course that does require us to take responsibility if people have been part of our churches and not well taught on this. Yet, that might be a situation we are facing.

Also, remember that people are not just hearing from the elders of the church. Sadly there are other voices being heard as well as faithful under shepherds.  It’s not just about whether your reluctant returnee is under pressure from you to come back or not. They may well be under pressure from others who are telling them that it isn’t safe and they shouldn’t go back.  There are other agendas at work.

Finally, I think we can treat challenges and struggles in church life a little simplistically.  Steve wrote on twitter

And that is of course true. People can come across as flaky.  However, it is also worth remembering the number of pastors who have described their frustration and pain.  I have heard countless grievous stories of churches going through difficult times. Record numbers of ministers are reported to be on the verge of quitting.  Now if that’s what we are seeing among leaders, then its worth remembering that church members will also have been tough times in the fellowship too and it will have affected them. Of course, church is not always to blame but sometimes it is. 

So I would continue to insist that at this stage, visiting people and encouraging them back is the higher priority. I don’t think you have to keep trying for ever but nor should we just go through the motions. My personal view is that you should have at least one conversation with someone. That conversation may be over 2 or3 visits or just one. It may include an in person knock at the door and some phone calls/emails. However, it should be a complete conversation in that it should cover the things I mentioned in my previous article.

It’s important that the conversation has a confrontation with the Gospel at the heart of it. If after that there is no movement then it’s time to move on , leaving the door open. 

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