Why They’re Not Coming Back To Church (And What To Do With Who’s Left)

You probably remember the predictions back in the Spring of 2020: that as soon as churches reopened for in-person worship service again people would flood back into church, high-fiving people and embracing friends they hadn’t seen in weeks or months.

Then the lockdown went from weeks to months, to in some cases, a year or longer.

As churches reopened in a slow, regional, checkerboard pattern across the US and eventually around the world,  the Great Return didn’t happen.

Admirably, most pastors kept hoping.

If they’re not coming back now, you told yourself, then people will come back:

In the fall

After Christmas

When the mask mandate is lifted

When most people are vaccinated

After the summer break

When ALL the restrictions are lifted

Once the kids are back in school full time

And now, almost two full years into the pandemic, with some states and regions having been open for a year or longer, the slow realization is finally happening.

The Great Return to church has become the Great Realization: Maybe they’re not coming back. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever.

Sure, some people left angrily because you said something/didn’t say something/said the wrong thing about COVID/vaccines/masks/racism/ politics/climate change. But that doesn’t explain the steep drop we’re seeing, It’s deeper than that.

As depressing as that sounds, this isn’t designed to be a depressing post.

First, we’ll look at three reasons the Great Return isn’t happening, and then, we’ll look at what to do about it and how to build a stronger future out of it.

First, three plausible reasons why they’re not coming back.

1. COVID Accelerated the Paths of Attenders,  Members, and Engagers

For years now, church attendance has been on a downward slide in America and other Western nations.

Pre-COVID in growing, plateaued, and declining churches, you could break down people who were part of your church into two primary categories:

  • Members and Attenders
  • Engagers

Think of members and attenders as just that: people who joined your church and/or people who attended but rarely moved beyond that.

Think of engagers on the other hand as, well, members and attenders who engaged in a way far beyond church attendance.

Engagement can happen in many ways, but it usually showed up in four ways in engagers: people who served, gave, were part of a community group and who invited their friends.  If they were four for four, they were deeply engaged, and ultimately, if you had a healthy church, they were also transformed.

During the pandemic, however, new habits were formed. The longer the lockdown lasted, the deeper the habits.

As a result,  casual attendees and members who were nominally committed to the church or the Christian faith drifted away (more on why below), leaving you with mostly…engagers.  For the most part, the Engagers returned. The disengaged didn’t.

This is not entirely a bad thing. For years now, I’ve argued that the best way to grow church attendance is not to focus on attendance, but engagement.

Christians who are engaged with the mission are, after all,  far more likely to attend church. Disengaged people aren’t.

Engagement is also critical to discipleship. Jesus never said ‘attend me’. He said ‘follow me.”

This leads us to the second reason the people who aren’t back are unlikely to ever come back.

2. Post-Christian Culture is Quickly Accelerating Further Growth of the Nones and the Dones.

While data collected over the next few years will show whether this is accurate or not, my hunch is many church attenders and members in the years leading up to COVID were nominal Christians. They showed up, and believed, but barely.

Again, time will tell, but my guess is America greatly accelerated its move to becoming a post-Christian culture over the last two years. Everything from the political dialogue, to the cultural conversation, suggests that. Crisis is an accelerator, and the arrival of post-Christian America came a lot closer during the last two years of crisis.

Which means many former occasional attendees and inactive members would now likely identify with the Nones and Dones—people who would say they have no religious affiliation or are simply done with church.

The new Nones and Dones may be too polite to say it right now (at least to your face), but the quiet exit is speaking volumes we’ll be able to trace out with greater certainty years down the road.

These first two reasons suggest an exit, but the third confirms it in my mind.

3. Shifting Logic Almost Always Suggests Something Else is Going On

By now you’ve probably heard 3-5 reasons why people who haven’t been back aren’t back—all from the same person.

The dialogue sounds like this, in sequence:

First conversation after reopening
I’m just not comfortable coming back to church until the vaccines are available.

The following month
Well  sure, now I’m vaccinated, but I just don’t like wearing masks.

Month after
Yes, the mask mandates are gone, but we’re just not comfortable with our kids being exposed right now.

A few weeks later
Well we haven’t travelled in a bit so we’ll be away for a while.

Last conversation
I’m sure we’ll be back, we just don’t know when.

Meanwhile, on social, you see the same person at football games and house parties, and restaurants every week.

Whenever you see shifting logic, it’s pretty clear they’re not telling you the truth.

And it’s hard to build the future on a group of people who won’t tell you the truth.

So What Do You Do? 

So what do you do?

Call them out? Argue with them? Call their bluff?

Nope, there’s no point. They’re being too nice to tell you they’ve left. In fact, some of them may not even be aware at the conscious level that they’ve left.

But for all intents and purposes, they’re gone.

And now that you’re entering the Great Realization, where does that leave you?

Starting over with who’s left.

Ready for some good news?

The future isn’t as bleak as it seems. You have a new church. It’s just time to meet them and mobilize them.

Here are three things you can do to help everyone who’s left move forward.

1. Focus on the People Who Stayed, Not the People Who Left

Sure, half your volunteers didn’t come back. But some of them did.

Some of your donors bailed. But not all of them. And some people left, but others are inviting new people regularly.

So…refocus. Rather than focusing on the people you’ve lost, focus on the people who stayed.

We’ve all been at parties where the person we’re talking to keeps looking past us to see if so and so has arrived, and you and I both know that feels terrible. Don’t be that leader.

Focus on who’s with you, not who left.

Get to know them better. Celebrate them. Disciple them. Encourage them.

Engage the people who have engaged with your mission. Make them feel special because they are.

And get on with the mission. That’s why they stuck around. Get moving.

2. Turn  Your Remaining Attendees Into Engagers (300 beats 3000)

You’ve also got a crew of attendees who are not yet engagers. They’re back, but they’re back at the attendance level, which these days, is saying something.

Help them take a step. Talk to your remaining congregation about moving beyond attendance and help them engage.

Baptize people who need to be baptized.

Get people connected into community, into serving, inviting their friends, and giving.

Not to over-spiritualize this, but by the time Jesus died, most people had deserted him. The church started with 11 remaining disciples and a room full of people who didn’t leave. And that small group was the genesis of the movement that turned the world upside down.

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.

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.

Yes, only God can bring growth. But he uses people who are engaged to do it.

3. Embrace Your New Church

As a leader, it’s critical to grieve your losses.  Don’t skip over that part. There has been so much loss.

But there also comes a time when you have to start celebrating who’s there and imagining a new future.

Now’s the time to get on with the mission. The past is gone, the future is here.

You can keep waiting, or you can just get on with the most important work of the mission of the local church.

Even if your church has restrictions like masks or capacity limits or you’re still in and out of lockdown, don’t wait any longer. The time to lead is now. And you can lead in spite of limits. That’s what leaders do.

What you may or may not have realized is you have a new church. It’s likely not just a percentage of people who returned that are populating your ministry these days. You have new people too. Probably more than you think.

Almost every pastor I talk to, including small church pastors, talk about new people who have discovered their church via online church, social media, or googling churches in their community.

Embrace them.

There are new people you can get to know. They’re there because they want to be there.  Don’t ignore that.

Your new attenders and yet-unengaged people who have stuck around are ready for one thing: to be discipled.

They came and have stuck around because they want something Christ and the church have to offer. Don’t hold back. Embrace it.

And as you make disciples, guess what will happen? You’ll make more new disciples.

That’s how biblical discipleship works.

If you start to move forward now, you’ll realize what could be rather than long for what was. Your people will sense the shift.

It’s hard to lead people into the future if you’re stuck in the past. So, move forward.

What’s Helping You Move Forward? 

I realize this is a really complicated issue and doesn’t take everything into account.

A few of the lingerers may be back in the future…don’t worry about that. If they come back, great. If not, well, you’ve already worked through it. And you’re onto the next phase of your mission.

Everyone will be better for it.

What are you seeing where you lead? What’s helping you move forward? Scroll down and leave a comment!

Why They’re Not Coming Back To Church (And What To Do With Who’s Left)

57 Comments

  1. Audrey on November 20, 2021 at 5:11 pm

    I agree with the importance of church leaders not being so focused on who is “not” there that they miss the opportunities associated with who “is” there. However, I am concerned that there are risks associated with dismissing those who are not there as just being attenders and unengaged without at least trying to find out what is going on with them. There may be some proverbial lost sheep that could become reconnected if someone reached out to them, or it could be an opportunity for the church to be a blessing to someone that is struggling. I am also concerned with the perspective that people are either “there” or “not there.” I thought that one of the lessons of the pandemic related to the importance of developing and maintaining hybrid ministries even after churches reopen their doors — particularly given that the pandemic is not over, and some people may not be comfortable returning to in-person services where certain precautions are not being followed (masks, social distancing, etc.) Are there ways of engaging with people who are participating in online worship services?

  2. John E Thompson on November 16, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    If that is the case perhaps those who are older will be seen rather than be looked at as a nuisance.

  3. Teresa on November 13, 2021 at 9:38 pm

    Great article and right on time! Thanks for the encouragement.

  4. Brian Branam on November 12, 2021 at 9:39 pm

    You are SPOT ON! Pulled up WSJ tonight and this was their feature was entitled Churches Changed During the Pandemic and Many Aren’t Going Back (https://www.wsj.com/articles/church-pandemic-covid-online-11636728162?mod=hp_lead_pos7).

  5. Andrew Mason on November 12, 2021 at 8:55 am

    Thank you for this article and your thoughts! I couldn’t agree more! Also, thank you for not just saying we simply need more online and digital church… we do, but I don’t believe it’s the magic bullet.
    Love your point about engagement. Some left for political reasons, but I believe most left because they weren’t engaged in the first place. It’s time to build a stronger church than the the pre-pandemic church; a vibrant biblical community that will be ready for anything the future throws at us. God bless!

    • Craig Worland on November 12, 2021 at 11:28 pm

      How can a person Engage when the Church simply never responded or cared if they were there in the first place?

      I worship Jesus, not your great big or tiny Church Building and its myriad of pastors and peoples addicted to position and image.

  6. Shae on November 11, 2021 at 6:08 am

    I left in late 2019 before the pandemic even happened. Why? I swallowed my pride and humbly admitted that I could be wrong. Did I believe there was a god, afterlife, ECT? Sure. Did I know this to be true? No. Believing and knowing are not the same thing. If I knew something was fact, I wouldn’t have to believe. I would never tell an atheist “because I believe, that means it’s fact, I’m right, and you have to accept that”. I would humbly & honestly acknowledge that I could be wrong and don’t actually know (and won’t know until death). The church responded with negative, a response similar to “you should believe it anyway, just becsuse” when again my issue is with knowing. You can believe whatever you want. That doesn’t mean I’m right, or that I know. The church responded to my humble honest doubt with pride (just because you claim to be with God, doesn’t mean you can use the tactics of the devil), so I left. I left quietly, and nobody noticed, called, texted, nothing. And than the pandemic hit.

    • Elizabeth Price on November 11, 2021 at 9:41 am

      I’m sorry that you did not feel safe bringing your doubts and fears to church–it’s part of the larger problem.

  7. Brian Kleinhammer on November 10, 2021 at 7:26 pm

    Here’s a different perspective:

    Imagine going to a church and suffering from anxiety and depression. Pretty prevalent in the age of Covid. Then going to leadership and fellow church members and asking for help through this…

    Then you are told, “You wouldn’t have this problem if you had a closer relationship with Jesus.”

    Imagine being sexually harassed by someone in power at your church. Someone that might even have a whispered reputation of doing this chronically. And when you seek out the leadership in order to stop this…

    You are told, “You’re being divisive. You are the problem. Only someone of the devil would make an accusation against such a reputable person.”

    Imagine being part of the LGBTQ+ community, loving Jesus, wanting to worship God, and seeking engagement in a welcoming and compassionate church…

    Then you told, “You need to change your sinful lifestyle before we fully accept you. If you sought Jesus hard enough, he would heal you from your condition.”

    Imagine having a different political belief than the majority of the church (maybe your own), and choose to support different politicians/policies then this majority does. And whenever you discuss these differing opinions, either in person or on church social media…

    You are called, “Deluded.” “Baby killer.” “Fake Christian.” “Of the devil.”

    Imagine going to a church where preference is given to the highest donors, where you place is chosen for you by gender or social status, where how well you fit in is decided by people who care little for your life experience or the possibilities your uniqueness may provide.

    Covid is a contributor to the lack of church attendance. But to fail to bring light to how the church has shot it’s own wounded for years, how pride and political idolatry has replaced love and compassion, and how the huge amounted of wounded people who have left church have actually been wounded by other people…then yeah, they definitely wont be coming back. But hey, sitting in the rightness of our beliefs is so much easier than the humility required for actual cultural change.

    • Godspeach on November 14, 2021 at 11:38 am

      This.

  8. Michele long on November 10, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    This article addresses people choosing another country club but not the real issues of what is wrong with the church today. It also does not take a shred of responsibility. The church exhibits NO POWER. It is about child care and potluck dinners. When the disciples gathered and prayed together Acts tells us, the house shook! Church people are cold and disengaged with each other. Servers are exhausted and stressed, not exhibiting the faith that moves mountains. They don’t want more problems to address because the Holy Spirit is not empowering them, they are running on empty. We are not being discipled. Bible studies are not happening. Prayer meetings are non existent because nobody believes in prayer. We are not addressing issues of evil in our midst, instead churches have capitulated to political hysteria over faith. By example, they have admitted defeat and bought the kool aid instead of prayerfully seeking revelation from God about what is happening; listening to arguments and standing, hand in hand to defeat the enemy in prayer. If they see the fascist takeover they are not addressing it and people are waking up that they have been lulled into a deep sleep instead of a deep faith. We fall on weak doctrines, “miracles were for the first church”. What about the thousands of stories throughout history of churches that have withstood fires and hurricanes and diseases because they met together and prayed? We may see a true revival come but it wont be in the church. But have no doubt, Jesus is coming and it wont be in a manger.

    • Dee on November 10, 2021 at 10:33 pm

      Wonderful comments 👏 . Doctrines of men, not the Father have long been in place and with the world as it is, we are tired of it! From the personal perspective, when the shutdown happened, it gave me time to actually look into the scriptures and dig deep. What did I find? The truth!!! So much of what is taught from the pulpit is either completely out of sync with scripture or so watered down it has no life left in it to move those mountains! We aren’t supposed to look to men for truth but to Him alone! Ask for wisdom/understanding, and I will give it to you…paraphrasing but that’s what He told us to do! Seek out the truth and follow it tothe letter! Let His Spirit guide you and stop following men and their teachings that tickle the ears and lull you to sleep concerning spiritual matters.

  9. Dan Harper on November 10, 2021 at 1:45 pm

    One group that needs to be mentioned is families with children under 12. Speaking here as a children and youth pastor, I’m seeing a big range of parent responses. Some parents have no problems having their children come to church, not worried about masks, no worries about social distancing. At the other extreme are parents who are still terrified, still keeping their entire families at home, home schooling, sanitizing everything that comes in the house, etc. As for parents of older children (12 and up), what I’m hearing from them is that they learned that their families were over-scheduled, and they’re not rushing to jump back in to the full schedule they had per-pandemic. So families with children are mostly in a different place than child-free families.

    I’m not yet ready to write off *any* families with children as “none or done,” and I hope other churches have the same feeling. This is a really hard time to be a parent. Even if your family has no worries about COVID or masking, you can still sense the fear out there — and if you still feel stuck at home, it’s worse.

    And again speaking as a child and youth pastor, I think too many American churches in this historical moment are forgetting about families with children. Case in point: I’m the first commenter to mention children, and the post itself doesn’t mention children. So I’d encourage church leaders to reflect on your ministry to children and teens as we ease out of the pandemic — is yours a ministry of ignoring children in this time of COVID, or is yours a ministry presence and love?

    • Nate Hackman on November 11, 2021 at 8:20 am

      Thank you for saying this. We are a family with four children. The oldest is 12. One has a disability. We are not “nones.” We have a vibrant, passionate faith. If anything, Covid has inspired us to dive even deeper into discipleship in our home. While we are not terrified of Covid, we are also aware that the mask optional practice for children and volunteers in our former “home” church carries risks we are not willing to take with our kids, particularly one with some health concerns. At the same time, the inability of that particular church to even acknowledge our concerns as valid (perhaps dismissing us as “nones” and moving on as the article suggests) has opened a variety of broader issues relating to what we believe is essential to gospel proclamation, and the church’s desire to just get back to business as usual. I can think of a handful of families off the top of my head who are in a similar place. We aren’t none and done. We miss church. We love church, but we feel as if the church has left us behind. This article is part of the problem. It basically tells the church to forget about us and move on.

      • Godspeach on November 14, 2021 at 11:41 am

        I totally get this. The article sounds dismissive in places. Jesus went for the lost sheep. To not care about safety issues and expect Jesus to just be a fence is silly and dangerous. Safety and Faith go hand and hand.

    • Elizabeth Price on November 11, 2021 at 11:15 am

      Dan,

      Thanks for highlighting the strain in our youth groups. This dynamic among parents and youth leaders is part of what brought this issue to a head for us. However, I feel that characterizing one group as “terrified” is painting with too broad of a brush. The body is diverse, and some people are just more cautious by nature. Also, as Nate pointed out, there are legitimate reasons to be cautious. There is fear and anxiety for some too, but I be careful not to lump them all together.

      What was painfully difficult for us is that our teenagers did NOT have underlying conditions and LOVED their youth group. They longed to go each week despite the inconsistent implementation of precautions there. At first masks were optional and an email from youth leadership urged that “children who wear masks should not be shamed by those who do not.” !!! Then, masks were required but some close proximity and hugging were also allowed to continue. We’d see pictures on Instagram of small groups meeting in homes without masks–some of the youth laying across each other’s laps, etc. Some of the would youth would tell our children, “I don’t need a mask because God’s got this!” For awhile, they were still allowed to take masks off and eat together inside. The policy itself was all over the place never mind its inconsistent implementation inside and outside of church.

      The youth leadership would send out the same canned email rhetoric each week “Masks are required, but germs will be germs! Germs are everywhere, so stay at home if you need to.” I found this a simplistic and insensitive response. Do we just throw our hands up in the air because germs are everywhere, and we don’t want to turn people away or offend them? Youth workers are not police after all. No, but they could be mentors! Could this have been turned into an opportunity to teach humility and service to others? Isn’t one of the goals to train up children—no, people— who are sensitive to the needs of others and loving to all?

      Then, a youth worker friend of mine shared a video of the youth group crowd-rushing her when they announced they were expecting. This was outside, but they were in a big huddle, some with masks and some not. She saw nothing wrong with this picture. Meanwhile, I knew this woman’s father was undergoing chemotherapy and dying, plus she was more vulnerable now that she was pregnant with a child. I said nothing to her as these are tough conversations and tricky dynamics. It’s draining.

      Ultimately, my husband and I pulled back from church because we could not communicate with leadership and could not go along with the illogical and inconsistent response. This left us in the unbelievable position of watching our teenagers leave for youth group each week while we were left wondering what might happen while they were at church. I felt unsafe sending them at times but unholy for my questioning. Our children are too young to grasp the nuances of all of these dynamics and decisions, but I know they sit there wondering what happened to their parents. We have attended church as a family together for decades, yet now we are “sitting out.” We talk about all this with them, and I do think it makes them deeper, more intelligent Christians. Regardless, we did experience the church as a source of support but as an undermining unpredictable headache. Their posture and response placed great strain on us all–our family, our children, their faith, and their understanding of our faith.

      Sometimes our children politely ask, “why don’t you just try another church?” and gosh, don’t we wish it were that simple! Been there and done that—seen a lot of of lotta in 25+ years. I shared some of what I’ve struggled to understand with our last pastor in an effort to deepen his simplistic understanding of some of the hurts out there, and he responded by calling me cynical. I am tired of the gaslighting and rhetoric. I am also tired of the presumptuous nudges of Christian friends who hint that we need to get back to church soon because “embers far from the fire die out.” I know they look upon us with puzzlement or even pity–those who have fallen by the wayside. But, honestly, we’ve found great peace outside the church. It cuts down on the deadweight and head noise. We go on ministering, praying, reading the Word, having deep conversations with friends both inside and outside the church, and wondering what God is up to. He’s always and certainly up to something amid all of this hurt.

      And I would characterize the posture we’ve experienced at our church as largely characteristic of evangelical churches in our area. If anything, I feel our church pulled it together better than many others. I know of one church that was exceedingly proud to be the first to open back up–as if it were a notch on their belt, a mark of strong faith. In an effort to demonstrate that the show must go on, I know of other churches where Christmas concerts continued despite high Covid rates and pastors/staff who knew that some of the participants were Covid positive, yet they turned a blind eye not wanting to be the bad guys who canceled the holiday fun. In both these instances, multiple audience members came down with Covid spreading it into their communities. Merry Christmas to all!

      I find it ironic that we were urged for years and years to understand that the Church is not a building but a movement. We needed to stop huddling in groups and waiting to be served. Instead we should go out and “be the Church” exercising our faith in the larger community. Yet, Covid has brought about an abrupt about-face. Now the sense is, “hey, lets’ get back IN the building, back to God’s business –we need YOU to carry out OUR ideas of ministry.” The church can’t have it both ways. God’s business never stops–not inside or outside buildings. It’s fluid, like water and wind, and it won’t be limited to a building or the preconceptions of man.

      Faith is not blind trust. Faith is not bravado. If we cannot love and communicate with each other authentically and sensitively within the church, why would those outside the faith want anything to do with us? Seriously? Why? I’m a Christian and want nothing to do with the Church—it’s like my loose cannon brother-in-law who shows up to complicate every holiday. The local church may need to be endured, but hey, if it wasn’t Christ’s bride…

  10. Christie on November 10, 2021 at 1:20 pm

    Thank you for this article. I have following/listening throughout the pandemic and the “they aren’t coming back” scenario was always on my radar…which allowed us to focus on those who stayed engaged and helped…and in turn to focus on the new people who joined us. The truth for us has been, those who haven’t returned, or “ghosted” (some might say) the church really weren’t that helpful or engaged to begin with. Sure they were present but many of them hijacked a lot of time and attention and had stopped contributing to the life of the church years ago. I know that sounds harsh, and it certainly isn’t true for all churches but it has been true in our case. Once the leadership got ok with it…there has been so much more freedom to give to all of the new people! And we continue to grow!

  11. Rev Christine Boylan on November 10, 2021 at 12:48 pm

    Thank you for this insightful article. As a minister it is difficult to not run after people but to encourage them to follow their inner spiritual guidance. Your advice to grieve the loss is so needed by all of the church leadership. Your advice and insight will likely continue to guide me as I work and pray with the engagers and at the same time hold the attenders who have not returned in the light of their truth. God is in it all – even if at times, I can’t see it. What a fascinating journey these past two years have been!

  12. Pastor Street on November 10, 2021 at 12:29 pm

    Great article! Someone recently asked me if pastors have considered that we are experiencing the “great falling away?” Scripture reference offered by the same person was Matthew 24. I pass this question on to others. Faith and blessings to all.

    • Kenny Mulligan on November 15, 2021 at 3:50 pm

      I too have wondered this. But not in the same way. Yes part of the great church attendance loss could be, but maybe the Apostasy is not about Church attendance or even following Christ. Jesus said HE was the way the truth and the life. Maybe the great falling away is a falling away from truth. When even the simplest of truths don’t seem to make sense anymore to so many. It is like simple common sense is gone. Obviously the “Great Apostasy” (or Falling Away) is so evident, we will know it. So could this be it and church attendance is only a symptom. But what we are seeing in a lack of truth, which of then leads to a greater challenge of presenting the Gospel (discovering a Faith Truth) when so many are struggling with basic truths? Which of course means as pastors, we have a much harder challenge! Just some thoughts I have been wrestling through.

  13. Randy Harmon on November 10, 2021 at 12:01 pm

    This may be the most helpful and accurate article I have read in months!
    Thank you

  14. Elizabeth Price on November 10, 2021 at 11:59 am

    Cary, please do not underestimate the number of deeply engaged members who have left and will not return. We are a family who was heavily involved in our church for decades–we participated in ministry and leadership there, worshiped weekly, tithed consistently, and raised our children under its influence. We left all that we had invested–the ministry, the friendships, the sense of community, and the healthy sense of rhythm and richness that all of this can bring. And we left this in the middle of a pandemic! We left thoughtfully, reluctantly, mournfully, and definitively. Why? 1) Yes, the mask issue. So tired of discussing it too, but we were blindsided to realize that folks we thought we knew well, whom we had served alongside for many years, defined mask wearing as a political bellwether and a human rights issue instead of responding to it as public health/obedience to authorities/putting others above oneself issue. We didn’t want to fight about it, couldn’t condone it, and didn’t want to be a part of a group of stiff-necked people who won’t obey local health protocols. 2) However, we would have probably sat out quietly and returned later had we not tried to dialogue with leadership about our concerns. Ultimately, we left because of our church leadership’s response.

    Specifically, when we asked for clarity about specific safety precautions in our church via email, our pastor responded defensively concluding it was a debatable topic that could be viewed multiple ways–no way of pleasing everyone. He implored us to consider “the many dear people who have left and will never come back” because they were asked to wear a mask. Then he attempted to shame us because we were contributing to his stress–“were we aware that many pastors were resigning under the weight of all of this?” In what other leadership position would such a response be acceptable?

    When I replied back by apologizing for his stress and asking if we could talk briefly over the phone to clarify our concerns, he emailed that “perhaps we can talk after the holidays” (this was early last November). Ouch. Done. Though tough to hear at the time, I’m thankful for his response because it quickly pierced through years of polite church veneer.

    The pandemic has been painful but clarifying. It’s exposed hidden dynamics, condescending attitudes, and a “self protectionist” mindset among much of church leadership. So much of church leadership views their congregation as either a burden to manage/maintain damage control over OR as a tool to leverage and accomplish their greater goals. I’m so tired of being “plugged in” and sense little desire to authentically engage with each other and build bridges. It’s more just a lot of tuck and duck on both sides. Hence the polite, evasive answers you referenced when some folks are asked when they will come back. Come back to what?

    This is merely the tip of things I’ve mulled over and experienced as a highly engaged Christian of 25+ years. The journey has been humbling, strengthening, and discouraging. Where next? Why next? How next? How to be a Christ follower today
    in my community and culture, separate from my local church? Not sure. Haven’t a clue. Still processing the crazy. We pray about it daily, talk about it when we have energy, but there is no clear path forward.

    • Don Jones on November 10, 2021 at 2:21 pm

      Elizabeth, truly sorry to hear the response you received. However, I would encourage you and your family to find a church family that you are able to connect with since the church is Jesus’ idea. A local church needs you and your family and you and your family need the local church. I know it takes emotional energy to do the search. However, it will be worth it. May the Lord lead you to a bless of encouragement.

    • Jason Arcega on November 10, 2021 at 2:22 pm

      Pain

      This is why some people leave and don’t come back. Unresolved pain. Maybe some of its pandemic, political or for whatever reason it is always personal. So how does a personal pain get healed?
      The love of Jesus. Learning to trust the Savior and not “man”. I willingness to do whatever the Savior asks you – maybe come back to the congregation or find a different one but ultimately finding where it is God wants you now. You’ve had a time to reevaluate and and now decisions need to be made. But healing has to take place first. Trust has to happen again. This takes time but it starts with trusting our Savior.
      As someone who had been in full time ministry for over 25 years I understand what it’s like to be in both sides of this issue. Wanting people come back and also having been reluctant to come back and attend a regular church congregation.
      I realized I needed to be fed deeper than I had been. Reached out and explored. Discovering there is so much more out there. Working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
      God will call you. Back to something new I suspect. Be praying, listening and praying! But ultimately be obedient!

    • Tim Mossholder on November 10, 2021 at 2:58 pm

      Elizabeth, thanks so much for pouring out your heart for all to see. We pastors need to hear these kinds of authentic, grief-laden, stories. It keeps things real. And it demonstrates the need to care for our own souls so we can offer thoughtful, biblical responses—rather than knee-jerk reactions (which all of us are capable of in our worst moments). May Jesus lead you and your family on new paths from affliction to joy (Ps. 34:1-3).

    • Jen Hill on November 10, 2021 at 4:03 pm

      Elizabeth, I can relate! The same here. There’s more nuance needed to this conversation.

    • Jane Porter on November 10, 2021 at 4:05 pm

      This all sounds dreadful and just plain wrong. I hope you find a group of fellow Christ-followers in your community either within or without the organized church. BTW – what town do you live in? (I know you can’t answer this, but if you live in Orillia, I’d love to talk with you.)

    • Lois B on November 10, 2021 at 6:03 pm

      Elizabeth,
      I agree. The church leadership shift in the pandemic was to look at their “belly button” and only worry about themselves. People were experiencing so much anxiety and anxiety in the community provides a huge opening to share Jesus. That did not happen. Suggesting members call or write to their own neighbors to see who was in need or could help feed others, most church leaders I spoke with would not move saying they had too much to do. Too busy to reach out to those in need? Some told me there was no one in their areas who were in need…really??? What about those how were not on firm relational or health grounds pre-pandemic? Those who lost their jobs or their businesses? The “church” had an opportunity to show the love of Jesus to many who were unchurched, but most instead fretted over how to prevent their flock from disappearing. Care for the lost? The fact that it was not demonstrated by these “followers of Jesus” was the final blow.

    • Eva on December 6, 2021 at 2:50 pm

      Thank you for all your comments. It helped me to deal with the rejection of some attendees and the church leadership.
      God knows my heart and that’s all I care about.
      Blessings🙏

  15. donn.giesbrecht@gmail.com on November 10, 2021 at 11:49 am

    we are praying morning and evening one hr each and are reaching out and praying for the lost

  16. Becky on November 10, 2021 at 11:39 am

    I love the distinction between engagers and attenders. Man, wouldn’t we rather a bunch of super engaged disciples, who maybe, for whatever reason, prefer the livestream on Sunday morning but are in a community group, giving, and otherwise involved in the mission of the church rather than people that show up on Sunday morning but do nothing else? I think we have to be ok that the livestream actually turned out to be a blessing for some of our otherwise engaged people and that’s ok. For other people that didn’t come back in person that we get so upset about, we should actually be more worried that they aren’t doing anything – they seemed to drop off from church/Christianity all together, not just from the Sunday morning experience.

  17. Lydia on November 10, 2021 at 10:13 am

    Before Covid hit, we were church nomads after resigning from a pastoral position. My husband is also CEV. Clinically Extremely Vulnerable. He has a rare blood disease and history of blood clotting. We are being cautious and see and hear of churches where people are cheek by jowl and not wearing masks. (We’re happy that you’re happy. Really! 🙂)

    We watch church online and appreciate the professional worship and amazing preaching. It’s not the same of course and we keep asking each other, “Are you ready to go back?” So far, we’re not.

    The questions come, “How do we participate?”, “How do we support others?”, “How do we get involved?”. For now, we are doing outreach among our neighbours and online friends, ministering in small groups that we have created, discipling the next gen in faith, life and relationships, giving to churches and missionaries and praying earnestly for our pastors everywhere who continue to labour for the Gospel, including you Carey and our online pastors Mark and Zach.

    You may not see us but we are still the Church. The Body of Christ lives outside the four walls too.

    Thank you Carey. Praise and glory to God.

    • Don Jones on November 10, 2021 at 2:23 pm

      Well done, Lydia. Still invested in Kingdom work and the local church as best you are able.

  18. Lynn Ball on November 10, 2021 at 10:07 am

    Carey, thankyou for a thoughtful article. Although I absolutely agree that churches need to focus on those who remain in their congregations…as well as those who are yet to come, I have to take issue with the negative brush with which you have drawn those who have not returned. First, as Loretta noted, many churches have done an exceptionally poor job of maintaining caring contact with their parishioners, leaving them feeling lonely and forgotten. There can be a sense of slipping away from the group without being noticed and wondering if the relationships were ever real. Secondly, Allison made an excellent point regarding rest. As you have noted yourself in your observations of the done’s, church leaders have not always done a good job of engaging people in healthy ways and have overextended many of their best volunteers. They need to own the burnout and the exhausting politics in their churches. To suggest that the majority of our churches are healthy organizations from which broken or lukewarm people have wandered is to ignore the stark reality that decline was happening for numerous reasons pre-covid. As church leaders, we have to own that reality rather than blaming it on the spiritual disfunction of the people who left. Perhaps it is the engagers who came back…but they had to have a church worth engaging with in order to want to. Third, the pandemic is not over. We are getting there, but it is disrespectful to assume that all those staying away due to covid are being untruthful. Many may be continuing to run their own risk assessments, and writing them off as unengaged drifters is potentially undeserved. And if they were previously very engaged, then writing them off at all bolsters the position of those who left that maybe they weren’t really cared for in the first place….reference point 1. It suggests that church is transactional and that people are only worthy of care if they show up. Life…and the reasons people may or may nor be present, is significantly more complicated than that. Finally, there are psychological realities that could be impacting people’s ability to come back. It’s been a long time. If they are introverts, they may have gotten comfortable in their isolation. If they are anxious, they may be fearful of entering an overwhelming social environment. If they are grieving losses, they may be depressed. we are likely facing a mental health crisis in this country of epic proportions. As spiritual hospitals, we need to find ways to engage the army of lost, lonely, and hurting in new ways and stop worrying about butts in seats. We need to be getting out of our buildings and into communities, into homes, building relationships with people and stop whining that people are not returning to us. We need to go be Jesus. Pastors who lead that charge will see churches that grow for the right reasons.

    • StCh on November 10, 2021 at 10:35 am

      Thank you so much for bringing this “side of the coin” to light! Very well presented.

    • StaChp on November 10, 2021 at 10:38 am

      Thank you so much for shedding light on this side of the situation.

    • Vicki on November 10, 2021 at 11:04 am

      Lynn! You hit the nail on the head!

    • Albert Martin on November 10, 2021 at 12:22 pm

      Amen However, the scripture says “walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh” one of those lust out workings is burnout rather than walking in the gentle breeze of the wind of the Spirit and His rhythms.

      Bless You
      Rev Albert M Martin

    • D.B. on November 15, 2021 at 12:59 pm

      @Lynn- This is so good. I appreciate Carey’s wisdom- “take care of the new people” and having to use the time you have wisely… yet we so often oversimplify to try to make sense of things and get our clear process or way forward. There are many layers that have contributed to the season the church is in. We need a couple of Spirit inspired strategies to find our way forward. Whay you are suggesting is a needed perspective as well. And YES & amen- let us go be Jesus in this world.

    • Audrey on November 20, 2021 at 4:50 pm

      Very true. Even before the pandemic, I noticed that some churches seemed to measure their members’ level of engagement (and perhaps even their value as members) based on their giving record. I agree that there is a lot for churches to “own,” including issues related to burnout of volunteers and the extent to which they have actually done what they could do regarding fostering and maintaining connections with their members. I think that for some churches, as long as the pews were “full,” they thought that everything was okay.

  19. Ryan on November 10, 2021 at 9:52 am

    Great article as usual Carey! Small church MN pastor here, and we definitely saw some attenders go into the non/done category; and yes, it was usually the ones who weren’t super engaged pre-Covid. We have seen some return a year later, surprisingly, but the majority who returned did so relatively quickly, and had remained engaged some way. Thanks for the great post as it allows me to share what I’ve been seeing with my leaders and encourage them!

  20. John on November 10, 2021 at 9:40 am

    Some of the language being used about the state of churches can be presumptive… our church is larger and healthier now than it was two years ago. Who would of thought that the best way to grow a healthy and life-giving church would be just to have the guts to keep the doors open.

    We literally get letters and messages every day thanking us for staying open and staying in community when it was needed most. More people have been lost to suicide over the past 2 years than died from a pandemic…

    People are leaving and not coming back to churches who closed their doors when people needed them to be open the most. And those people are finding their way into churches with strong leadership. I think its a good thing.

  21. Steve on November 10, 2021 at 9:22 am

    What exactly are nones and dones? Define please. Or did I miss your point?

    • Allison on November 10, 2021 at 9:28 am

      Hi Steve, it’s in the article but “nones” are those who claim no religious affiliation. The “dones” are those who, for various reasons, are done with the church. I hope that helps 🙂

    • Christopher on November 11, 2021 at 4:32 pm

      “Nones” refers to people who mark “None” on applications where it asks for religious preference. This might be for a poll or survey. “Dones” refers to people who have given up on organized religion. It isn’t unique to this article, so it isn’t defined here.

  22. Michael McAdory on November 10, 2021 at 9:15 am

    Excellent article, Carey. Your pulse on what is happening is strikingly accurate in our context. I think there is one more “Great…” along with the non-existent Great Return, and Great Realization. I call it the Great Church Shuffle. We have lost members/attenders to other churches and gained some from them. Folks were able to try out many different churches with no ‘guilt’ when everyone went online. Either way…we are still working to engage those who come.

    • Ryan on November 10, 2021 at 9:54 am

      Good point, the shuffle is real.

  23. Kenny Mulligan on November 10, 2021 at 9:10 am

    Carey Thank You. Great article. This has been tough on us pastors. Ministry is tough enough at times especially when you lose people and people you thought were close to you along the way. And honestly for not really good reasons (but you have written about that!). This has been those moments on steroids! But it always goes back to the mission. This is why we do what we do. So thanks for some great tips and inspiration to move forward.

  24. Allison on November 10, 2021 at 8:56 am

    Hi Carey, Great article and some really good points about moving forward. Another aspect of this conversation I think is important for church leaders is how we disciple, model and protect Sabbath rest for our engagers. Many pre-Covid engagers worked 40+ hour work weeks then sacrificed much of their free/family time to serve the church. One of the benefits of lockdowns has been the realization of how busy and tired we have been and discovering the enjoyment of rest. I think there are quite a few engagers who are reluctant to return to the same level of business within church life and would feel guilty saying no to previous ministry positions. How do we ensure growing faith through engagement while at the same time encouraging rest and growing intimacy with God (doing the business of God vs being with God)?

  25. Nate on November 10, 2021 at 8:45 am

    Carey, such a great reminder to engage the people we have! There’s hope that the mission still moves forward. Yes, grieve our losses. Yes, it’s hard. But that doesn’t keep us from moving forward. Grateful for your insights and your willingness to tell the truth, even if it’s hard.

  26. Greg Ward on November 10, 2021 at 8:44 am

    Pastor Carey,

    I really appreciate your material. It helps keep me grounded as a Christ-follower in confusing times. Thank you for all you do!

  27. Loretta on November 10, 2021 at 8:08 am

    My husband and I were engagers m..we served, gave, attended small groups. But when the pandemic came, two things happened that made us see that while we had engaged, we had never really been accepted. First, we were shamed foe being the voices who encouraged caution around closing and reopening cautiously: we didn’t have enough faith, we were allowing the government to steal our rights. Second, I had a health issue during the same time frame. While I declined having meals sent to me, I received calls/texts from exactly four members of the church. People in my service teams….zip. Church leaders….zip. Motivation to return as more than members…..zip

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 10, 2021 at 8:25 am

      Loretta can I just say I’m so sorry? Oh man, that’s just hard. We have a lot of learning to do in the church and your story highlights some of that. I am so very sorry….

    • Linda Truitt on November 10, 2021 at 9:22 am

      Loretta, I’m so sorry this happened to you.I’m responsible for pastoral care at my church,and I’ll tell you from March 2020 and continuing now it’s been a rough road. We have done five calling campaigns to try to stay connected. Mostly leaving messages. Or getting ‘ the voice mail is full’ etc.
      During this time I’ve been ill too, no one called. I got a few texts.
      I think we are all suffering. I wish I had a solution.
      If you have ideas I would love to hear them.

    • Brian Kleinhammer on November 13, 2021 at 7:14 pm

      I hear you Loretta, you are one of so many.

      I think it is common for any church to develop a ‘clique’ narrative where any member who becomes an outlier is at best falling away from faith, and at worst fallen into delusion and no longer one of them. It’s as though, in the age of Covid, the church has become even better at creating orphans through exile.

      I don’t know of any way to change this, except though self-reflection and questioning their own righteousness. Sadly, this falls under ‘deconstruction,’ which has already been so demonized by the church that the mere mention of it creates anger and defensiveness.

  28. Stuart Luce on November 10, 2021 at 7:19 am

    Carey, Thank you, Thank You, Thank You!! This is one of the most helpful and realistic things I have read yet about where we are and where we go next!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 10, 2021 at 8:26 am

      Stuart…thanks. I’m glad you caught the hope in it. I think if we can move past the disappointment, we can move on with the future.

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