One of the biggest challenges most pastors are facing right now is that a meaningful percentage of their congregation seems to have disappeared.

Or at least they think that’s what’s happening.

In the current climate of reopened in-person services, online church, so many people moving and the uncertainty of the post-pandemic world, it’s hard to tell who’s still around and who may have left.

According to Tony Morgan’s Q1 2021 Unstuck Church Report, physical church attendance is down 28% from even 2020 levels, which means that a chunk of most congregations has slipped away. (In more encouraging news, online service views are up 123%, which likely reflects the work churches have put into their online services over the last 12 months.)

But this still leaves the nagging question: where did the missing people go?

  • Are they watching online?
  • Are they still with us?
  • Have they gone to another church?
  • Are they upset with me because of what I said/didn’t say about _______
  • Are they simply gone?
  • Why did they disappear?

Combine that with the fact that, according to the Barna Group, by the end of 2020, 20% of church attenders said they stopped attending church altogether during the pandemic, and it leaves pastors really wondering.

So…what do you do?

How do you respond to what feels like an emotional gut punch?

Here are some ideas on how to lead when a good chunk of your church simply disappears. But first, a story.

The Year Half of Our Church Disappeared

I’ve led through the dynamic of disappearing attenders before, so I recognize the pain and confusion it causes. It get it.

In 2007, I left the denomination I was part of at the time. The congregation voted 96% in favor of becoming non-denominational, even if it meant losing the building we had just built a few years earlier.  While any story like this is complex, the goal was simple: to reach even more people.

In the end, it turned out the denomination kept the building (which is fine) and we started over again, launching Connexus Church in two cities with two portable locations.

Opening Sunday for Connexus broke all previous attendance records, teetering on just under 1000 attenders, which for us at the time was deeply encouraging.

But the church plant wasn’t exactly as sexy as what we left.

The almost paid-for comfortable new building was gone. We exchanged it for movie theatres that smelled like popcorn and had sticky floors from all the spilled soda the night before (don’t worry, we soon hired our own cleaning crew). Portable church also meant volunteers were on site by 5:30 a.m. to set up.

With the new church, we were also deeply focused on reaching unchurched people. Our previous growth had involved unchurched people, but there was honestly a lot of transfer growth too. I really wanted to create a church the unchurched loved, so we went for it.

Within 18 months, under my leadership, I grew the church from 900 down to about 450 attenders. Ugh.

Volunteers left. Donors walked out. Leaders quit.  What was really hard is that a few left angrily, but most just quietly disappeared.

There were just fewer and fewer people in the room every month.

So what do you do when half your church disappears?

1. Process Your Pain

To pretend it doesn’t hurt when people leave is a lie.

As Terry Wardle taught me, ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. When our church shrank that year, it was demoralizing and exhausting for everyone who stayed, and I felt depleted and utterly discouraged. I even offered my resignation to the board. They didn’t accept it, but it was so hard.

So what do you do when your church shrinks or moves into the kind of uncharted territory so many find themselves in now?

Start here: process your pain.

If you don’t, your loss will come out as anger, aggression, cynicism, despair, defeat, physical illness or about a hundred other ways.

Call a friend.

Pray.

Vent.

Weep.

See a therapist.

Release it…all of it.

I found that the only way through the pain is to process the pain. On the other side of that, you’ll find healing.

It took a while, but I did.

2. Don’t Lose Hope

At the same time you process your pain, it’s critical to never lose hope.

And if the mission of reaching new people and making new disciples isn’t a hope-filled vision, I don’t know what is.

It can be tempting to get lost on the pain or to try to avoid the pain altogether, thinking that denying the pain will make you stronger. It won’t.

Pain and hope are strange companions, but great companions.

In Good to Great,  Jim Collins said the chief job of leaders is to never lose hope AND name the reality they’re facing, no matter how brutal it is. He called it the Stockdale Paradox, quoting from POW Jim Stockdale:

You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.

What’s your vision?

What’s your why?

Focus on that…because sometimes that’s all you’ve got left. I promise you it’s enough.

3. Look For The People You Can Build the Future of the Church On

Despair is overrated.

Despite what you might feel, there are still passionate people at your church who are serving, inviting their friends, giving and leaning in hard on the mission.

Giving them a crystal clear vision for the future is key to keeping them engaged.

There are two real options you face as a leader when people are leaving.

You can try to win people back. This one’s tempting. It’s easy to think that backing off of change or trying to please unhappy people is your ticket to a better future.

The reality is that many of the people who left had other churches to go to that were more ‘traditional’ or insider-focused. The church we were trying to build was for people who didn’t go to church…and that meant we were going to focus on doing things differently.

Instead of trying to win people back, focus on moving the remaining people forward.

That will get you much further down the road.

Fickle, upset, and disengaged people are hard to build the future of the church on.

Ask yourself: do we still have engaged, passionate people who believe in the mission?

Almost always the answer is yes.

So, focus on them.

By the way, you’ll find that group deeply energizing.  Focusing on the people leaving, by contrast, can be very depleting.

4. Focus on Engagement, Not Attendance

The best thing you can do when people are leaving is to engage or re-engage the people who remain.

Engaged people are your future.

Over the long-term in a church, you can accomplish more with 300 engaged Christians than with 3000 disengaged attendees.

The disengaged group will dwindle. The 300 engaged Christians will advance the mission and never stay the same.

It’s true that only God can bring growth. But he uses engaged Christians to do it.

Engaged people are passionate people. They know what the mission is, they serve in it, and they live it out.

They’re passionate enough about it to invite their friends.

Getting crystal clear about your mission and granular about friends, family, coworkers and neighbors that everyone would love to see discover the love of Christ is a great way to move forward.

5. Invest Even More In Church Online

In an attempt to win people back in the building, I’ve heard some speculation online among pastors that they might cut back the resources they’re putting into church online or perhaps stop it all together.

In my view, that’s a big mistake.

We’ve been online at our church for over a decade, and for years now virtually 100% of our in-person first-time guests have come after checking us out online.

Sure, online church is new. Yes, it can be confusing. But there’s so much opportunity.

In the last few weeks over 4000 church leaders have completed the Church Outreach Assessment, an assessment designed to help you see how well your church is positioned to reach new people in the future. (It also comes with a free teaching series on how to reach more people.)

We’ll be sharing more data soon, but here’s one surprise.

Only 35% of churches have a process to capture the personal information of people online.

While all of this is new to many churches, don’t give up. Keep investing in online.

Learning how to do things like capture the data of people when they visit you online is key to reaching more people. (Hint…I’ll have a lot of practical help coming up on this shortly.)

Everyone you want to reach in your city is online, and digital scales in a way that physical church doesn’t.

There’s a growing group of pastors and leaders, who are fully embracing a hybrid church model: deciding to become 100% physical and 100% digital.

They see digital not as an ‘accommodation’, but as both real ministry and an abundant opportunity.

Forward-thinking pastors realize that the best answer to the question “Should ministry be digital or physical?” is “Yes”.

If you want to reach more people: go to where they are, which these days, is online.

Our Story: A Much Better Future

So what happened at Connexus after that steady 18 month decline after launch?

Well, we processed our pain, never lost hope, found the people we could build the future of the church on, focused on engagement, not attendance and invested a lot in online ministry.

The result?

After 18 months of decline, new people started coming. People made decisions to follow Jesus and got baptized. They then invited their friends.

Fast forward to today, and over 4000 people call Connexus home. And every week thousands attend online (and soon again) in person.

What’s best is that over 50% of our growth over the last decade has been from people who previously didn’t attend church.

Winning people back isn’t the way forward. Moving people forward on a crystal clear mission is the way forward.

 

How Are You Staying Encouraged?

What are you doing emotionally to keep yourself encouraged and engaged, and what are you doing strategically to help reach more people?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

How to Keep Leading (And Growing) When 10%, 20% or 40% of Your Church Disappears

24 Comments

  1. krunker on June 10, 2021 at 4:01 am

    Thank you for this great information. I will consult more about it.

  2. Chris on May 26, 2021 at 8:26 am

    Hey, I love your blog, thanks for what you do. I have written this before – I really wish it was possible to share your blog without the comments. Thanks again.

    • Brian on May 27, 2021 at 9:13 am

      Cut and paste

  3. Donna Covello on May 25, 2021 at 3:03 pm

    I was in a rush, I wanted to complete my thoughts. It is nothing against you.
    How many pastors from many different churches these last 4 years did not say a word against any injustices that occurred.
    When people who are in religion authority and do not speak out against violence, racism, bigotry and sexism many people have decided to leave the church for good. They view the church and religion as hypocrites. When nobody spoke up, I concluded people were already leaving the church. Now with the pandemic is gone in 2020 it gave people to fully walk away.

    • Shari on May 25, 2021 at 3:28 pm

      Jesus did not take a political stance. It isn’t the church’s place to tell people what political side they should take. It is the church’s place to grow their congregation in their maturity of faith, and reach out to the world with the truth of the Gospel. Love one another as self, and stay true to God’s Word. Those that do put out political messages are missing the point IMHO. Is our world in chaos, yes, and our removal of God from all parts of our life for political correctness and political messaging, is part of the problem. Not the solution.

      • Donna Covello on May 25, 2021 at 3:45 pm

        I appreciate your thoughts. All I am saying, the steady decline in church membership started before the pandemic. It was only enhanced by how our country handled the situation. Statistics have shown since some churches forgot about the Constitution separation of church many church members gave up.

        When Evangelical billionaires churches took money from the Stimulus Bill Package that was it for many church goers.
        There is a lot of work that church leadership needs to get the trust of their members

      • Yvonne on May 25, 2021 at 5:52 pm

        Amen 🙏

  4. Josh Good on May 24, 2021 at 8:27 pm

    The content that you guys are putting out is so amazing and so helpful! I’m on staff with a small non-profit called “Christian Endeavor”. Our goal is to help the local church empower youth IN ministry, rather than just providing a youth ministry. We’re developing a number of assessments to help churches do that. I LOVE the way you’ve built your Church Outreach Assessment, with follow up videos and worksheets for each section. What survey/assessment tool are you using to build and deliver that? I’d like to help our organization take a page out of your book and be as helpful as we can to the people we connect with.

    Thanks for all the great content you continue to put out!

  5. Gregg Doyle on May 24, 2021 at 3:51 pm

    Reading this leads me to ask for a blog or good interview on both being and leading passionate people. I am a passionate person who has many passionate friends. Unfortunately, we all seem to have trouble staying engaged with certain leaders. I am not sure I understand Adam Grant when he talks about passionate people in his book “Think Again.”

  6. Nate Hogan on May 24, 2021 at 10:17 am

    Carey, thanks for your work and support in ministry. Our team consistently listens to your podcasts and reads your blogs because they are relevant and helpful.
    I often see the word “engagement” and I wonder how you have come to define engagement. I am the kind of person that having a working definition helps to cast vision for and direct so that our congregation is more than just attending.

  7. Timothy Brock on May 24, 2021 at 9:47 am

    Carey–

    It’s been a loooong season of ministry that has brought on doubts and questions that I have never experienced, your story breathes life into my heart and is fresh in my spirit this morning. THANK YOU for caring for those of us in the local church community!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 24, 2021 at 9:52 am

      Be encouraged, Timothy. Cheering for you.

  8. Liza on May 24, 2021 at 8:49 am

    This is such a great article. So encouraging! I sort of kinda wish I’d had this type of advice when my husband and I were pastoring an “inherited” church. We were young, got super tired and decided to stop pastoring. I hope that pastors/leaders who read your article find the hope they need to press on.

    Thank you for sharing your heart & wisdom with us to glean from.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 24, 2021 at 8:51 am

      Thanks Lizza. I’ll bet you made a bigger difference than you realize. Thanks for pressing on!

  9. Joyce Fields on May 24, 2021 at 8:37 am

    Since I have started reading the articles and information published by this ministry, I have been encouraged and inspired as a Co-Pastor. The pandemic impact on churches, especially the smaller ministries, has been very stressful – losing members in particular. Today’s article has been extremely helpful! I can see light!!! Thanks a whole bunch. I pray that God continues to bless you and your ministry.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 24, 2021 at 8:51 am

      So glad it’s been an encouragement Joyce!

  10. Paul on May 24, 2021 at 8:24 am

    Excellent advice, Carey! Long before the pandemic, the Internet or social media I lived through a church split. The things you highlighted were exactly what I did to keep going, and nursing that hurting group through it. It was one of the most humbling yet, growing experiences I’ve gone through as a Christian and minister. Even though that was more than two decades ago, the church survived and still meets today. These principles work & will help guide you to the better outcome that’s on the other side.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 24, 2021 at 8:51 am

      Thanks Paul. Growth and pain really do seem to go together. Glad you made it through!

  11. Suzanne on May 24, 2021 at 8:21 am

    It’s all fine and dandy to want to go online but if you have zero techies, no budget for equipment, and, like many churches, no volunteers who want to learn all the tech stuff then this is pretty impossible.
    I would love to do hybrid service well.
    But soon we likely will be in person only.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 24, 2021 at 8:53 am

      Hey Suzanne…I understand it can be hard.

      I’m wondering if you have some teens/twenty somethings who can lead that for you volunteer. Also, here’s a gear guide I put together. You don’t need to have buckets of money. You can get traction with a very small investment: https://careynieuwhof.com/the-home-studio-gear-guide-heres-all-the-equipment-you-need-on-a-tiny-budget/

      • Kyle Isabelli on May 24, 2021 at 9:09 am

        A pruning season indeed, thanks for sharing this hope and encouragement Carey. Godly growth can come after loss!

    • Pastor Karen on May 24, 2021 at 11:49 am

      I just began at a church. The past 9 months they have been without a pastor, just pulpit supply. It is small, maybe 30 in worship and 30 online. They have a beautiful ministry of providing free community breakfast twice a month that has grown substantially in recent months. There is a tech team and they have high level equipment set up to do a livestream, but the two people who faithfully run it are working 12 hour days at their paid jobs and are completely tapped out to do more. I want to encourage the leadership to continue online ministry, but some of them don’t even have computers or smart phones. I am part time and possibly short term (the secretary says I am the 8th pastor in her 8 years) I could just skate, preach on Sunday and visit the shut ins every week like they want me to. But I feel compelled by God to be here with them. They seem to be good people, just not tech savvy. What are some of the ways you suggest to connect online, and how can I convince the leadership that it is worth it?

      • Donna Covello on May 25, 2021 at 2:02 pm

        Hi Pastor
        I enjoyed reading your comments on leadership.
        I just wanted to point out one thing that church’s attendance has been declining for years. Especially these last 5 years due to The United States (Trump’s Administration). There was separation of church and state. Many other Pastors and religious leaders were making statements “God has returned in the form of Trump”. Many religious leaders and pastors were telling their church members “COVID 19 was a Hoax”.

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