If you’re a pastor, you’ve been waiting for people to come back to church for a while now—a long while.
The initial assumption was that as soon as churches could reopen after the COVID shutdown, people would come racing back.
That didn’t happen. Even in churches that were closed for weeks rather than months or years, people didn’t rush back to in-person attendance.
Then we told ourselves it would happen after
- The summer was over
- The Omicron-variant faded
- The school year started
- The fall kickoff
- New Year’s
There have been a few outlier churches that have seen growth, and there are flickers of hope, such as the Barna study that showed that Millennials are returning to church faster than other groups.
Still, that same Barna study reveals that 16% of Americans who had regularly attended church in 2019 said that had “stopped attending church entirely.” Among Boomers, that figure rises to 22%.
Overall, churches are heavily weighted to Boomer attendance, which means more than 1 in 5 simply stopped attending altogether.
That means that most churches still aren’t back to where they were or where they hoped to be.
The initial excuses people offered sound lamer and lamer all the time.
The ostensible reasons for not coming back because of the lack of a vaccine, masks mandates, waiting until the kids were back in school, or just asking for a few more months until things all settled down just evaporated into the reality that a lot of people are just not coming back.
7 Real Reasons People STILL Aren’t Coming Back to Church
So, the real question is “why?”
Understanding why can help you finally move on emotionally from the deep loss and then focus on positioning your church to reach more people in the future.
Here are 7 real reasons people still aren’t coming back to church.
The first two reasons people still aren’t coming back to church focus on cultural reasons largely outside of the direct control of church leaders. The next five reasons focus on things much more in your control as a church leader.
1. The Great Reset Happened—And It Impacted Almost Every Church
Things have changed so quickly since 2020 that it’s understandable it’s hard to figure out what really happened.
When COVID hit, millions of people picked up and moved, triggering a huge surge in real estate prices. Shortly after that trend began, people began changing jobs, and the Great Resignation and “Quiet Quitting” became major phenomena in 2021 and 2022.
Underlying all this was a massive pattern of disruption that saw almost everything people took for granted in life turned upside down. For a season, you couldn’t go to church, school, restaurants, stores, vacation destinations, or anything remotely familiar.
In the midst of it, people rethought their lives.
In many ways, what our culture has been through over the last few years is The Great Reset— a rethinking of everything people would do and not do as the world reopened.
Attending church dropped off a lot of lists.
For a surprising number of people, the Reset meant either dropping out of church entirely, reducing attendance, or switching to a hybrid of online and occasional in-person attendance, and in some cases, accessing church only online (largely at this point because of its convenience).In many ways, what our culture has been through over the last few years is The Great Reset— a rethinking of everything people would do and not do as the world reopened. Attending church dropped off a lot of lists. Click To Tweet
So…why, you ask, did people drop church? As I argued here, for most of the people who didn’t come back, indifference explains it.
Indifference, in effect, created a quiet quitting of church.
Many people who are now non-attenders of church aren’t irate. In fact, they didn’t even think of themselves as leaving. They just stopped coming.
That’s what indifference does—you stop coming, but you never really think of yourself as having left.
The mistake it’s way too easy to make is to assume that dropping out of church means dropping out of Christianity. It doesn’t.
As much as pastors don’t like to admit it, it’s possible to get that community beyond the building.Many people who are now non-attenders of church aren't irate. In fact, they didn't even think of themselves as leaving. They just stopped coming. That’s what indifference does—you stop coming, but you never really think of yourself as… Click To Tweet
Get Answers To Your Toughest Pastoral Succession Questions
5 years from now, what would it feel like to look back and know…
- That you asked the right questions before and it prepared you for what came after?
- That you made tough but necessary decisions to prepare for a brighter future?
- That you were confident each step of the way?
You can hit the ground running in your ministry and skip the years of trial-and-error (and failures) that so many pastors face during a transition.
2. America is Becoming Decidedly Less Christian
America is rapidly becoming post-Christian. COVID accelerated so many trends, and this is likely one of them.
A massive Pew Research study projects a few scenarios that suggest that by 2070, people professing ‘no religion’ (the Nones) will outnumber Christians.
The drop in Americans identifying as Christians is as surprising as it is sharp. In the early 1990s, over 90% of US adults identified as Christians. Today, only 63% do. The number professing no religion has spiked from 6% to 29%. The Nones, Pew surmises, will likely be the majority within 50 years.The drop in Americans identifying as Christians is as surprising as it is sharp. In the early 1990s, over 90% of US adults identified as Christians. Today, only 63% do. The number professing no religion has spiked from 6% to 29%. The… Click To Tweet
Stoking this trend is the fact that while, historically, it’s usually people aged 15-29 who dissociate from the religion of their upbringing, there’s a recent spike in adults aged 30-60 who are deconverting from Christianity.
What does all of this mean for church leaders? Simple: The drift away from faith is in the water supply. No longer just an “I went to college and lost my faith” kind of phenomenon, the drift out of church and Christianity is widespread and impacting almost everyone.
This, of course, is not fatal, but it is real.
If your church grew largely because the culture was Christian, it’s now declining largely because the culture is less Christian.
If you want to reach more people in the future, it will require a dramatic reinvention to reach a post-Christian culture and a generation that’s no longer wired to accept what you say at face value.
Churches pining for a return to Christian America or trying to gerrymander its return will continue to see people drift away.
Church leaders who reinvent and prepare to minister to a post-Christian culture stand to see themselves grow again with conversion growth.If your church grew largely because the culture was Christian, it's now declining largely because the culture is less Christian. Click To Tweet
3. You’ve Shut Down or Throttled Back Your Digital Presence
A strange trend is happening right now among many churches—they’re throttling back or suspending their online services and digital presence.
The thinking? If we don’t offer the service online, people will come back to the building.
I’ll be upfront: That line of thinking could hardly be more backward or counter-productive in the long term.
Not broadcasting your service online hoping you’ll fill the room is not only scarcity thinking at its worst, but it’s also a down-right stupid long-term strategy.Not broadcasting your service online hoping you'll fill the room is not only scarcity thinking at its worst, it's also a down-right stupid long-term strategy. Click To Tweet
I realize that’s strong language, but think it through.
Pretending the internet doesn’t exist doesn’t stop the internet from existing. We’ve lived in a digital world for decades, and ignoring that makes you like the mall that insists online shopping is going away and one day, everything will be like it was in the 1970s again.
Good luck with that.
Even if you remove digital options, about a million other churches and organizations haven’t. People won’t be drawn back to your church nearly as much as they’ll simply move on to other churches or organizations operating as though we’re several decades into the 21st century (because we are).
When you drive everything to a building so you can fill the building, you miss the greatest opportunity you have to reach and disciple people.
In the short term, you might get a few people back in the building. Why? Honestly, it’s probably so the lead pastor can feel good about having a fuller room.
And that’s what’s suffering when you cut back your digital presence—the mission.Pastors, pretending the internet doesn't exist by stopping your online services doesn't stop the internet from existing. Click To Tweet
4. What You Offer Digitally Is the Same As What You Offer In-Person
Congregations that remain online are making a wise choice.
The challenge in the future is to diversify what you offer online and distinguish it from what you offer in-person. Not only will that create true options, but it will deepen engagement as your in-person and online ministries lean toward what each does best.
After a brief period of innovation with what kinds of online ministry churches offered when COVID first hit, most churches toggled back to simply streaming their weekend services and using social media to either share last week’s service or advertise their next service.
Live-streaming your weekend service taps about 1% of the potential that online ministry has.
Online ministry opens up new ways to deliver content and build community. Churches that move beyond only streaming services will see quicker and deeper growth than those that don’t.
Want creative ideas? Simply scroll through your feed.
Almost no one other than churches is simply streaming an event. Social media and social ministry can be so much more creative than that, but a lot of church leaders think the stream is enough.Live-streaming your weekend service taps about 1% of the potential that online ministry has. Click To Tweet
5. The Message Isn’t the Draw It Used to Be
Go back a generation, and the only way to hear a preacher was to attend a local church.
Sermons, in and of themselves, were scarce, time-limited events (you had to assemble at 9 am or 11 am to hear one). And as a result, if the preacher was decent, the sermon became a draw that boosted attendance.
Fast forward to today, and sermons from incredible communicators are anywhere and everywhere. They’re also free and available on-demand.
The challenge is that many church leaders are behaving like nothing’s changed. Most church communications still go something like:
- Join us for our new series Sunday at 9 and 11.
- Don’t miss last Sunday’s message. Available online, on-demand.
- I can’t wait to share a brand new message with you.
Except now, people have access to a thousand other sermons. And some of them (let’s be honest) are more compelling than yours.
Please hear me. I am NOT insulting your preaching. I know how hard you work and how sincere you are.
I’m just sharing that things have changed—in my lifetime and yours.
It’s much better to think about the other reasons people gather:
- Kids and student ministry
- An experience that doesn’t always translate online.
And sure, they gather for the message too. It’s just not the drawing card it used to be.
6. Hype Isn’t Cutting It Anymore
When something doesn’t have momentum, it’s easy to turn to hype to try to drum up interest.
Hype may work for a minute, but it gets old fast.
First, hype starts to look like desperation. At least to astute people, that’s what hype looks like.
Second, eventually, you stop believing it. And that impacts your integrity.
Finally, it’s not what people are looking for anyway.
Most people are looking for an authentic, real encounter with God and with each other. Offer that, and you won’t need hype. People will come running.Most people are looking for an authentic, real encounter with God and with each other. Offer that, and you won't need hype. People will come running. Click To Tweet
7. You’re Focused on the Wrong Audience
It’s hard to lose people. I’ve been there.
Loss aversion theory affirms that it feels worse to lose ten people from your congregation than it feels good to have ten new people join your church.
While it’s easy to think you’d be excited by seeing growth, that’s not how humans respond. It actually feels twice as bad to lose ten people than to gain ten.
This leads us to today.
The people who haven’t come back to your church are gone, and focusing on them not only isn’t going to get them back, it’s going to keep you from moving forward.The people who haven't come back to your church are gone, and focusing on them not only isn't going to get them back, it's going to keep you from moving forward. Click To Tweet
If you can move your focus away from your anger/sadness/grief/bitterness for just a few moments, you’ll notice you probably do have momentum.
There’s a group of new people coming in. Maybe it’s small. But it’s there. Maybe it’s big, but you haven’t noticed.
Here’s what you’re not seeing:
- The new people don’t know who left, nor do they care.
- They don’t know what used to be.
- They like what is. That’s why they’re there.
If in your sadness, you continue to show disappointment at who’s not in the room, you’ll miss the people who are in the room. Not to mention the awesome people who stayed with you throughout.
What you focus on expands. So change your focus.
Focus on people you’re trying to reach, not people you’re trying to keep.