Everybody knows that churches were hit hard by the COVID pandemic shutdowns:
- Theologically liberal churches lost large percentages of their attendees who don’t seem to be returning. Many of these congregations are closing their doors. May these buildings be re-occupied by gospel proclaiming “re-start” churches soon, for the glory of God!
- Larger evangelical churches lost many attendees, but are gradually seeing the majority of them return. For these congregations, the pandemic was a winnowing, sifting, purifying – and painful – experience, but they are rebounding with a renewed emphasis on real discipleship.
- Small churches (under 100 in Sunday morning attendance) which took a loose, casual, or even defiant stance on pandemic restrictions, have seen significant increases in their attendance; some of them doubling their numbers. Now the challenge is to assimilate these folks into their congregations and do all they can to ensure that these believers – some of whom would identify with Christian nationalism or the “Patriot movement” – are living real, vibrant, positive Christian lives.
- Small churches – especially church plants without well-established leaders and committed core groups – which took a cautious, strict, mask-mandating and social distancing approach, have been hit especially hard. Some of these churches lost half their attendees and they are not returning.
Here’s why this happened:
The small church – and again, this is especially true of the mission church – doesn’t have much else to offer. It may have a very capable preacher, or not. It may have a pastor who gives a great deal of loving attention to congregants, or not. It may have a dynamic, missional, outward-focused “feel” to it, or not.
What it definitely doesn’t have is “the show.” I don’t mean this sarcastically, but most larger churches are pretty good at providing a paved parking lot, a nice looking, climate-controlled building, good preaching, a good worship band, an attractive nursery and maybe even top-notch “special music.”
If the church is large enough to have a really good show, it’s very possible that there was very little connecting going on between the people on Sunday mornings even before the pandemic. It wasn’t much of a loss to see the show on your computer, at home, in your pajamas.
The little church doesn’t have the show, it just has people. But if the people aren’t there, or if their faces are covered with masks, if they’re entering the building at the last moment and leaving quickly (because they’ve been asked to do this), if they can’t shake your hand or – heaven forbid – give you a hug, then it doesn’t have anything.
Mission churches, in particular, were devastated by the pandemic. They were fragile anyway, because most veteran Christians who get involved in church plants will only stick with the deprivations of the new congregation for so long. There’s a fine line between having a critical mass and not having it, and there’s an expiration date on the patience of most families which leave larger churches to help launch new congregations.
Here’s what you can do about it now:
Stop worrying about keeping up with larger churches. You can’t do the show anyway, no matter how hard you try.
- Focus on the things that your church can do much better than the larger church down the street: fellowship, family, warmth, welcoming. People are lonelier than ever. They were looking for community before the pandemic; today the need has reached crisis proportions.
- Teach people how to love and respect those who have differing views on mask wearing, vaccinations, etc. Make provision for both “camps” in your congregation.
- Teach your people how to give what I call “the welcome of God.” That means the kind of welcome the father in Luke 15 gave to his prodigal son. Almost all church people think that their church is “friendly.” Most are not. People aren’t looking for a “friendly” church; they’re looking for friends in church. Have an assessment done by an outsider or simply recruit some “secret seekers” to reveal how friendly your church actually is.
- Increase your fellowship level by the simple use of disposable nametags. Please don’t use the “in-groupy” permanent ones which make guests stick out like sore thumbs.
- Get the coffee pot “on” and fill it with really good coffee. This won’t cost you much at all. Offer donuts for one dollar each and send the profits to missionaries. Everyone will win and no one will complain if it’s not in the budget and the proceeds go to missionaries.
- Make sure people have a format for sharing their “cheers and tears,” but not in the worship service. Twenty-somethings do not want to hear your sixty-somethings talking about their illnesses and medications.
- Offer small groups, medium sized groups (like Sunday School classes), or simply become one small group – a single unit of fellowship – where people can get to know each other well. Don’t settle for “Sunday morning coffee fellowship relationships,” in which we pretend to know each other much better than we actually do.
The pandemic was hard. Let’s rebound (together) in ways that demonstrate the strength of God. “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”