Five Types of Church Members Who Will Not Return after the Quarantine

August 9, 2020

It is one of the most common questions we get from church leaders: When will all the church members return to in-persons services?

Leaders do not like my response: Never.

It is a reality church leaders and members are hesitant to accept. For most churches, not all the church members who were attending before the pandemic will return. In fact, our anecdotal conversations with church members and church leaders indicate somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent of the members will not return to your church.

From an attendance perspective, if 20 percent of a church with a pre-pandemic attendance of 200 do not return, the new reality attendance will be 160 in attendance after everyone feels safe to return. You can do the math for your own church.

So, who are these non-returning church members? Why are they not returning? Here are the five most common dropout groups. The groups are not mutually exclusive; there could be significant overlap.

  1. The decreasing attendance members. These were your members who, at one time, attended church almost four times a month. Before they pandemic, their frequency of attendance declined to twice a month or even once a month. COVID accelerated their trends. They are now attending zero times a month.
  1. The disconnected church members. If a church member is in a small group, his or her likelihood of returning is high. If they attend worship only, their likelihood of attendance is much lower. Please let this reality be a strong motivation to emphasize in-person small groups once everyone feels safe to return.
  1. The church-is-another-activity church members. These church members see gathered attendance as yet another activity on par, or lower, than other activities. They were the church members who let inclement weather keep them from church but not their children’s Sunday soccer games. Commitment to the church was a low priority before the pandemic. They have no commitment in the post-quarantine era. 
  1. The constant-critic church members. These church members always had some complaints for the pastor. In fact, your pastor may be dying a death by a thousand cuts. They are likely still complaining even though they have not returned to in-person services. Many of them will not return at all. 
  1. The cultural Christian church members. They were part of a declining group well before the pandemic. They were those church members who likely were not Christians but came to church to be accepted culturally. Today, there are few cultural expectations for people to attend church. These cultural Christians learned during the pandemic that it was no big deal to miss church. It will be no big deal for them never to return.

Church leaders and church members, however, should not fret about these losses. Your local church has the opportunity to write its future on a blank slate, and these church members really had no plans to be a part of that future anyway. 

You may feel the pain of the losses; that is normal. But God has a plan for your church to embrace the new reality to which you are headed. Head into His future with confidence. God’s got your church. And He’s got you. 

It’s cliché, but the best days are likely just ahead.

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70 Comments

  • I have been an active church member for 40 years and will never return. My reason fits none of your categories. I have watched my church and others proclaim ‘God is in control’ while every action from closing and locking their doors to mask/social distance mandating would contravene such proclamations. If God is in control, why does man have to exert so much control? Shortly after locking its doors to congregants, I watched my pastor link arms with a large prayer group in the center of our town to pray. He was maskless as were so many others. Just prior to COVID, the church rolled out its $15 million building fund to replace its 30 year old education center. We were told it’s absolutely essential. A month later after they locked the doors, we are told the ‘church is not a building’ and that church buildings are no longer important. But, you can be sure they will come around looking for my next pledge installment in a few more months. I watched as our church took $750,000 in PPP money from the federal government, while sitting on several million in cash in the bank and a mortgage free property worth millions. Donations are running 90% during the shutdown but they will not give the PPP money back. Many real small businesses within the church’s shadow were cut out of PPP funds and had to close because the churches lined up at the hog trough of free government money. I have seen the church become a Facebook-only church, with the typical pathetic weekly ‘celebration’ and mid-week ‘devotional thoughts’. Not once during the past 6 months has any one of the 73 employees of the church called me. Now that things are beginning to loosen up, they are trying to get small groups meeting in person again and have asked the senior groups to be the first to lead by example. Just a few months ago, we were being told that the doors were being locked in order to protect these very same people. Now we are being told to come back to the building for worship. But, sit in your car and wait to be escorted in. Wear a mask at all times. Sit where you are told (3 pews apart). No singing. And of course, the latest series is about generosity (you know the one to push more giving). I am not a complainer. Just one church goer whose eyes have been opened to what the church has become…just a worldly organization that blows in whatever direction culture and money dictates. I will follow Jesus Christ outside the walls of a church building.

  • I feel the last 4 years under the Trump administration has caused so much hate bigotry and racism. Many churches supported Trump agenda. When one pastor proclaimed that Trump is a gift from God, another pastor proclaimed Jesus has returned in the form of Trump. NOT ONE CHURCH SPOKE OUT. Now we have Covid 19, many Americans have died. There is extreme racism in the white Protestant churches. You kept quiet too long

    • Marge Humphrey says on

      I have prayed for Pres. Trump every day. God put him in that position – he could not have been elected otherwise. And he will stay there until God is finished with him. I guarantee when the virus thing is over, it will be because the election is over.
      The best thing a Christian can do is to pray for the person in that position because God is taking care of him and I believe firmly we need prayer, prayer, prayer and stop griping. Griping does only one thing: add fuel to the fire.

    • I think you did not notice the bigotry underlined in every Obama speech. The hate was stirring up then. Now the Dem’s are driving it home. Trump wants peace. I vote for peace.

    • Racism and bigotry? Perhaps you should listen to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor, to see real racism and bigotry in action. That is one church that people should leave since it is as far from Christ as the east is from the west. There is another reason people will not be returning to church…insane and Godless ‘pastors’.

    • If you’re ever in Cleveland, visit St. James Lutheran Church, we leave politics, left, right or center… in the parking lot.

  • Cheryl Kovalcik says on

    The penultimate paragraph is profound in the sense that a pastor and congregation have an opportunity to embrace the opportunity to be a Philadelphia church recognized by Christ in Revelation.

  • Another the issue with the church is the only communication I received was how to continuing giving online when the church remains closed. No words of encouragement. Not one word of thanks for the work I had done, without pay mind you, for the past three years. Now that I’ve lost my job, no one has reached out to me in over 5 months to ask me if I need anything, to ask me am I sick or well, to visit me in my home? 9 million people in America lost their jobs. For many of us, substitute teachers in 48 states were ineligible for Federal and State unemployment compensation. What little I got, it took me 12 weeks with no paycheck to get approved. My bills didn’t stop coming due those 12 weeks. The Federal program runs out in December and that’s it. It won’t be renewed and many substitute teachers in NC will have no income. Many of us are over the age of 50. We are teaching your children in spite of our own health problems. It isn’t safe for us to return to the classroom until this virus is dead and gone. My question is where has the church been while we were fighting this battle alone? People will not return to church because of chronic feelings of abandonment, isolation, discouragement and spiritual neglect on the part of the church. It quires a paycheck to attend church. It takes money to put gas in your car to get there unless you can walk 14 miles or ride a horse like John Wesley. . It requires a steady paycheck to tithe on unless you want checks bouncing. How many churches have set aside a COVID19 relief fund to assist those of us who are unemployed?

  • You left out the dedicated members or attendees who served tirelessly only to find themselves abandoned and neglected by their church. If people do not return after the pandemic is over, the church needs to check its own pulse and quit assigning blame on the people who do not return. What do you call it when you don’t get a phone call, text message, email or a card from anyone in your church for over 150 days that you have been unemployed? What does it feel like to know that no one picked up the phone to call you to see if you are dead or alive? Living and loving like Jesus does not require an expensive agenda. The power of a church to respond and reach out is measured in its presence, posture and praise and worship, not its social events and monthly free give aways. I’ve decided it’s more empowering now to stay home and watch Joel Osteen online. At least now that I am registered with Lakewood Church live, they send me a weekly email devotional and If i need prayer, someone from their prayer team will actually place a real phone call to me from Houston TX to pray with me. That’s what the local churches should have been doing for the past 150 days, but they were too busy being busy. I am done with the United Methodist Church after their poor response to shut ins during this pandemic. It’s a cold hearted, aloof denomination.

    • Hello Teresa,

      I read your comment and it struck a real place in my heart, I really didn’t know there were churches out there that did absolutely nothing for their worshipers. I am so sorry that you had to experience that with your church, I would like to invite you to look us up and maybe watch our live stream on Sunday morning or really anytime as we have them all posted on our Facebook page. We really believe in community and being involved, even after the building was closed in March the “Church” kept right on going. Our Food Pantry stayed open when many around us closed, we had more volunteers and served more people than ever before. We sent out gift cards to people in need and we started with those who lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic for quite a few of our local businesses. We have sent card, letters, emails made phone calls and just kept up with all of our worshipers especially in the area of prayers and specific needs. I am very proud of the way our church handled the time that the buildings were closed and I believe that is one of the reasons that we have kept hearing from those who may still not have returned. Look us up on Facebook: Vineyard Church of Augusta, or our website: vineyardaugusta.org. God loves you and as his children we need to take care of each other no matter where we find ourselves. God bless you in whatever your future holds, keep seeking him and looking for the best for you. In his love, Kathy

  • Lorraine says on

    How true all of this is! It has been said that, nd I believe this to be so,….people leave the church, not because their spiritual needs are not being met… but their personal needs are not met (especially true of our present times). BUT…some in the church may respond to that with the view that maybe that person needs to find another church. These who respond in this way are very often part of the unspoken sin in the church…CLIQUES.

  • Denisa Dellinger says on

    The title of the article in itself is very alarming, Five types of people who won’t be returning. Our little church has already suffered a split. We are already at a low. Our pastor left and he took several members with him for his new church after he offended seventy people who left before him. We were reeling before the pandemic and church closings. We are a first baptist church in our little community. Most of our members are above fifty. When the pandemic happened, most of our members are high risk so they do not feel safe to come out to church and some are using it as an excuse to not return until this thing is over. They will probably not return. I am Sunday school director. Our children’s department is very small and these children can’t come unless their parents bring them. We are trying to do things the right way. We have a transitional pastor who is leading us in finding a new pastor and helping us take a look at what brought us to where we are and where do we want to go. There are a few still there that are talking about leaving. With the already losses plus the “pandemic pals” fair weather friends that are a part of these five types of people who won’t be returning, I’m wondering why we don’t just shutter our doors but those of us who are still there know with all our hearts that God has a purpose for our little church. It is going to take a lot of work and my job as a Sunday School director is going to be a challenge in the days ahead. Maybe we can reach out to some of these people who covid took and love on them enough to get them back. For those of us who are still there, we just have to keep moving forward. These are new days for God’s church but our mission remains the same. We have to reach out to those who are lost and hurting.

  • Carolyn E. Watson says on

    Thank you Pastor Rainer for not only opening up in posing this statement, but also giving it a reply.
    God only knows the heart of men, He is the one who’s Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omnipresent. We all have been given a will to chose by God. Joshua picked up the role given to him by God after Moses departure. He gave the people what said the Lord and made it plain and clear as to the choose that he was making at the end of his statement, he stood on an obedient and committed spirit towards God. Joshua was the head of his household and said, as for me and my house we will serve the Lord. Jesus after informing the disciples that they must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood said He knew man because those who were not truly grounded in the relationship and fellowship of Christ found His statement to be of a pagan character and didn’t understand it’s spiritual application, so those so-called disciples walked away from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus asked His chosen disciples appointed to Him by God do you want to go too. The disciples told Jesus that His saying was hard to understand. So, Jesus explained to them what His earthly mission was for men. He broke it down to them more simplified, in many of our churches today we need to take a lesson from Jesus to try to keep it short and simple sometimes too for it’s saints. He was talking about His death on the cross, shedding of His blood to cleanse us from sin. Also, the fellowship of Communion sacrament that those who believed on His name, repented of their sins and acknowledged that Jesus is Lord in their lives.
    Therefore, let the scriptures be the word of God, pray for those who go astray and keep holding fast to the profession of your faith. Ask God to use you to encourage the saints and ain’t s, leave judgement to Him and know that the Holy Bible has already informed you that in the Last Days, that there will be a great falling away from the church. Occupy, Watch and Pray for Jesus to show you The Way! There’s nothing new under the sun. So, let God separate the wheat from the tares in His church and just be faithful in your walk with Him.
    Amen.

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