To be clear, church leaders and members should not seek to lower worship attendance.
After all, that would result in fewer people worshipping together and listening to biblical preaching.
But not all losses in attendance are bad. We have heard from church leaders several ways the decline can be healthy for the church. Here are the five most common reasons:
1. Pruning of negative influences. One pastor described the impact of COVID as “pandemic-induced church discipline.” In a somewhat humorous way, the pastor was repeating what we have heard from many church leaders. A number of the divisive and angry members have left the church. Though their departure led to a decline in attendance, it also led to greater joy and unity in the church.
2. An opportunity to re-focus. Several of us have referred to the post-quarantine era as a “blank slate.” During the pause of the quarantine, church leaders were able to think about what matters in their churches. For most of them, it meant focusing more on the most critical issues while eliminating some of the less-than-meaningful activities.
3. Clarity on the core membership. The pandemic has given many church leaders a clear picture of who the healthy and contributing church members are. They now know more than ever those upon whom they can depend. They know who their “go-to” members are.
4. A move toward simplicity. The simple church is being discovered or re-discovered. Many pastors and other church leaders have dared to eliminate many church activities. And, in doing so, they have led their churches to develop a clear and robust process of discipleship.
5. Returning evangelism to its rightful priority. Jesus’ last words in his earthly ministry were commands to be witnesses and to make disciples. Evangelism mattered to Jesus. It should matter to our churches. Unfortunately, many churches have little to no emphasis on reaching their communities with the gospel. The pandemic has given church leaders a fresh start on leading their churches to Great Commission obedience.
At the risk of redundancy, let us repeat it. We should not celebrate worship attendance declines. There is too much at stake for fewer people to join the gathered church. But the pandemic has changed things. Among those changes is a decline in attendance in most churches. At this point, the median reduction is about 20 percent.
Now, we have the opportunity to build on a new and more robust foundation. In God’s power, we have the opportunity to lead our churches to be stronger and healthier than ever.
Posted on August 9, 2021
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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Another blessing of the plandemic is members quickly realized who the true shepherds are. Those that abandoned their flocks by locking church doors & fleeing to internet screens,, even for a few weeks, are clearly the heirlings. Stay away from them!
With our congregation’s letterhead proclaiming Embracing-Engaging-Enriching, I’m not sure winnowing out those not fully disciplined to what can be a clique is really a good thing. Inbreeding has a way of expressing some recessive genes that can accelerate our synagogue’s contraction. As we reassemble for shabbos now, some people who made us sparkle not that long ago have been someplace else on shabbos morning. We always knew who would say yes to any participatory invitation, our Go To members. Where we fell short was not inviting enough of the others when we could have. Had we done that, they may have returned as well.
Our activities are mostly the same, though repackaged. We have sermons, classes, now Holy Days preparation for which annual attendance is mostly everybody irrespective of their engagement the rest of the year.
I don’t know what denomination your synagogue is, but I am sure that many people would appreciate being asked to read or give an aliyah before the Torah reading. Now i know that in some synagogues, congregants who can read Hebrew are actually invited to read part of the Torah portion. Now on the High Holidays participation from anywhere but the pews or online by attendees is strictly by invitation and for those in the in-crowd.
Having right at fifty years of ministry, from evangelist,( a note here, evangelists are sent out not to schedule meetings in various churches). I got started upon the wrong foot back in the early seventies from listening to many Pastors and church leaders instead of the Lord, “mans way” is not the Lord’s way. We must remember man’s way is not the Lord’s way! The great old hymn, Where He leads I will follow is true.
I then was directed by the Lord into into Leadership. A little church on a side street in a southern town with eight people. I Started out after and with continuing prayer and the Lord’s guidance, The church needed many updated physical needs and no funds available, but they came and with that money we could accomplish the must needed updates. NO LOANS PERIOD! Never begged for money, With the Lord’s guidance the congregation as we held services every night, We increased to just over two hundred folks squeezed into the little building. After now four churches later, I am still ministering, just assumed the leadership of a small church, with no debt, few people. Waiting for God’s only retirement plan in the place He has prepared for all who would be saved ! At eighty seven years of age I have great health, energy and am lookin forward to see what the Lord can do. ( never do anything without the clear, positive leadership of the Lord and the Holy Spirit ). Quit listening to professors and man, leaning not upon your understanding but knowing without a shadow of a doubt The Lord is leading all who are HIS UNDER SHEPARDS. God Bless
Thank you Mr. Rainer for always bringing relevant information to the body of Christ. I have personally found this article to be very true, and while many may look at this as a downward spiral of the “church,” I am excited to see how God can do more with less to spur a greater generation that truly loves God and relationships, not religion.
Thank you, Corae.
This article is the stimulus package needed to help every “pivot-hesistant” pastor to receive the “shot” to move forward for future survival. Pun definitely intended.
Great to hear from you, my friend! I miss you.
And the puns are great.
Although the pruning hurt at times, I can attest that it was for the best. I see a greater sense of family and better worship experiences at our smaller church now.
Thank you, Shannon. Your experience has been affirmed by many others.
I attended a local denominational church during the whole year of 2020. What I saw was shocking. The pastors of the church stood up many times and said that covid was a hoax and that masks were evil. They told members of the church to refuse to wear them when they go into businesses. They said that God told them personally that Donald Trump was going to win reelection and that anyone who didn’t worship Trump was going to hell. Then when vaccines were coming out they told everyone not to get one and that the vaccine was the mark of the beast and you would go to hell for getting it. They added to that and said vaccines contained microchips and aborted baby parts. Covid went through this church and 5 people were hospitalized in critical care and one died. They shruged it off and said covid did not come from their church and it is not their fault that someone died. They also told me when I became a member that they don’t help the poor and the poor need to help themselves. They said that public assistance was bad and that there was a woman who recently was going there who was on disability for being mentally ill and they kicked her out of the church for not working. They also said she had some other sin in her life. She was very hurt and tried to come back there and they called the police on her. A person called on the phone at one point to a voucher for a hotel because they were homeless and the pastors laughed and said they don’t help homeless people. This was an Assembly of God church. There are a lot of churches like this out there and Trump and the pandemic brought out just how crazy and unChristlike they really are. It is no wonder some people quit going.
They aren’t the only church who has preached that the pandemic is a hoax and the vaccine is just government control. This is sad at best and dangerous at worst not to mention an outright lie. I am not a pastor, but if I were preaching, I would preach on the Golden Rule which sadly seems to have been forgotten. R0 (R naught) may be too deep but not giving the virus and associated death risk to your neighbours isn’t.
What a disastrous response to the pandemic. I’m surprised you stayed in this church the whole year of 2020. It is disappointing to hear such a report about an AG church. This does not reflect the denomination or its leadership. In fact, such a response would typically merit correction from district leadership.
I was thinking of contacting the district leadership about this church and really feel someone needs to hold them accountable but I think I am feeling that God wouldn’t want me to do that. Maybe that is just me though? I left the church but I remember back in January of this year even one of the pastors was saying that there needs to be martial law and some people may get shot but that Trump and his supporters need to get guns and overthrow the country and even shoot and kill people. I thought that was a shocking statement. He was actually advocating for killing people over the election. I feel like crying just thinking about it I am so grieved. So many crazy things came out of that church. Maybe I should contact the denomination?
Adam I share your disappointment but, experience is the best teacher. Attend a Church with a proven Track record from the Lord. He will lead you in the path of rightness for His names sake. He said there would be false prophets and there are many. Thank God He has given us His Word to grow, receive wisdom and be victorious.
Adam, I think such an evil church should be reported to their higher authority /judicatory. Such behavior is un-Christlike and needs discipline. They are also breaking IRS rules about no partisan politics in churches.
All the points that you listed are exactly what is going on in the church that I serve. I have not missed the trouble makers and it has been a wonderful experience to see those who want to serve the Lord step forward. Only time will tell what this Delta Variant will do to the world so all we can do is wait.
Items 2-5 also reflect “urgency” which has been a helpful addition to our leadership discussions, plans, and actions.
“Post-Covid?” Some countries may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But from what I gather, the health experts are not talking post-Covid. They are waiting to see if the drop in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, which they are seeing is going to last. They are painfully aware that several countries which appeared to have checked the spread of the virus are now experiencing surges in new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths due to the Delta variant.
A study from Israel which had vaccinated most of its population and which is experience a resurgence of the virus recommends a third dose of the vaccine for the more vulnerable segments of the population. It is not that the vaccines do not work. They do what they are supposed to do. They prevent infection in most people who are vaccinated. Where breakthrough infections occur, the infected vaccinated person in most cases will experience mild or no symptoms and will not require hospitalization. However, they do carry the same viral load as an infected unvaccinated person who is experiencing worse symptoms and they can spread the virus.
The Delta variant is also highly infectious and based upon the data collected to date it may be more dangerous. The Lamba variant from Peru has shown up in the United States. It has taken a high toll in Peru and appears more resistant to our current vaccines.
Vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal are a growing problem in the United States. So is resistance to other public health measures like face masks, social distancing, gathering in adequately ventilated spaces, and avoiding large gatherings.
While the US has a large unvaccinated population which ignores public health measures, the virus will be able to mutate and spread. We will experience resurgences of the virus. They will take a further toll on church attendance in at least two ways. People will continue or go back to not attending church in person out of safety concerns. Churches that dismiss people’s safety concerns will contribute to a negative public image of Christianity and churches. It will affect our ability to reach and engage our community’s unchurched population.
Earlier this summer my county experienced a lull in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. The infection rate dropped to zero for two weeks or more. This respite from the virus, however, was temporary. My county and most of the counties in my state are now back in the red zone. They have been determined to have high transmission rates. This can be attributed to several factors—stalled vaccinations, relaxation of other public health measures, resistance to these measures, and the Delta variant.
My church postponed a planned outreach—a block party to which members of the community was invited—on the recommendation of the county health department which advised against large outdoor gatherings. The latter had played a part in the Princeton outbreak. The church has also asked attendees to wear face masks and social distance. Most of the regular attendees, if not all of them, are fully vaccinated, the exception being the children.
During the lull attendance had picked up and had been increasing in part due to a successful VBS. Optimism was running high. Since the county was red zoned, attendance has dropped again. This includes attendance among the church’s more active attendees. The fresh surge of infections has had a demoralizing effect upon the church’s congregation.
Hopefully there will be a time when we can look back on the pandemic as a thing of the past. But right now I think that it may be a good idea to talk about church attendance in the COVID-19 era, rather than “post-COVID.”
Your point is well made, Robin. I have edited the article to read “post-quarantine” instead of “post-COVID” since most U. S. churches are out of quarantine. I wrote the article well before the latest spike, so your input is helpful. Thank you.