They are not coming back

This is the difficult conversation that if we are honest, we don’t want to have.  It’s a long time since I wrote anything about church life post pandemic but following the pandemic I wrote about the long journey in terms of people coming back to church.

I’ve not done any measuring of things for a while but anecdotally and from what I’ve seen around our own city, I would suggest that we are seeing the following.

  1. Some churches have grown significantly post COVID.  In some cases this is from people new to church or returning having become de-churched. However, a lot of this is re-configuring as Christians move to a new church either because their previous place closed or during the pandemic they re-evaluated where they should be.
  2. Some churches have stayed about the same in size, they have lost some people and gained some.  They have generally speaking though managed to draw back most people who were there before COVID.
  3. Some churches have seen significant losses.  They saw people die in the pandemic but they’ve also seen some people not return. In some cases churches have lost more than half, if not a majority of their congregation. 

It’s fair to say that even those churches where there has been growth or where numbers have maintained the same that those churches are still aware of people who have not returned it’s just that it has been more than made up for numerically by new people coming in.

Now here is the difficult bit.  The bit we don’t want to hear.  We want to think that those people will come back, they are just nervous about the pandemic.  We may hope that they are still tuning in to our online content.  However, I suspect that they are not really watching the online stuff and sadly, I don’t think they are coming back without some incredible and unexpected divine intervention (which of course we keep praying for).[1]

If people are not back with you now, then the reasons they are not showing up are probably more deep seated and more long term than worries about Coronavirus.  This means that they have either found other things to do with their Sunday or they have found another church.  We know given the reconfiguration I mentioned at no 1 that many have and that should be an encouragement to us.  Our concern is the Kingdom not our own little corner of it.

Yet, we should still be concerned.  We should be concerned because pastorally we want to make sure that this is the case, that people are somewhere and most of all that they really were in Christ.  We should also be concerned because if there are reasons why they didn’t come back that are down to us, we would want to put that right even if it doesn’t bring them back to us.

I suggested following the pandemic that when people didn’t seem to return that church leaders should plan to visit those who hadn’t come back.  If you’ve not done that yet, I’d encourage you to do so.  It may result in some painful conversations, you may have things confirmed that you’d rather not hear but it is an important part of the role.  In the conversation take time to find out.

  • Do they still consider themselves part of your specific local church?  If so, what is their plan to return to in person worship. 
  • If they do not consider themselves part of your specific local church then would the consider themselves a believer in Jesus and part of his worldwide church.  If yes have they found another church to belong to?
  • If they are no longer part of your church, ask them to be as open and honest they can be about why they left?
  • Ask them if they feel that you’ve failed or let them down in any way.

Be ready, genuinely, fully and openly to say sorry for where you’ve failed.  We of all people should be able to recognise that we fail. Be ready to be vulnerable.  Be ready too, simply to sit alongside someone who is and has been suffering greatly.  Be ready to weep with them.

Also be ready to discover the difficult truth that for some people, the reason that they are not coming back is that they were not really in Christ before.  This is difficult to hear because it may puncture our pride, we thought they were with us because we had effectively discipled us but they were with us for all sorts of other reasons.  Remember that it is Christ who is Lord of the Harvest.  Also be ready to see Gospel opportunities in these conversations.

These conversations should arise out of a great love for the people we visit and a desire to see them rooted in Christ and connected into a local church, whether or not it is the one that we lead.

[1] I want to be clear here that I’m talking specifically about those who physically and safely can attend in person. There are I think another category, those who would have struggled to attend in person for health reasons -which may include emotional and mental health including PTSD.  That’s a different matter and we’ll talk about that in another post.

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