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

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.

Posted on August 9, 2020

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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  • I just pray I’m never one of those listed here although I can relate to all of them at one time or another. There but by the grace of God go I.

  • Hopefully churches will earnestly adapt and face this latest challenge. Much of what is highlighted in the article has already been taking place. The crisis seems to have expedited this impending reality. We must re-engage in the process of disciple-making.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    A number of churches dropped the ball when it came to moving small groups online. They focused on live-streaming the Sunday worship service. While I was taking a class at my university in the spring, I sometimes watched online the Sunday worship service of the church that attend when I had a test or an exam and I needed to study or I had an assignment that I needed to complete. One cannot underestimate the difference the presence of a congregation and a choir can make and the psychological effects of an empty sanctuary on the viewer. Without a congregation I experienced the service quite differently from when a congregation was present. A number of elements of the service were superfluous. A lengthy prelude followed by an instrumental call to worship makes sense when you have a congregation. It gives the congregation time to settle down and to prepare to worship. Without a congregation these two elements were not only unnecessary but they made the service drag. In place of the congregation and the choir, there were two voices–the pastor and the music director,–when it came to singing the hymns. Instead of filling the screen with the lyrics of the hymns as the church had done before COVID-19, the hymn lyrics were shown in a small box at the bottom of the screen and for anyone with impaired vision were very difficult to read. Viewers were treated to long shots of the pastor, the music director, and the empty sanctuary. The effect was depressing. To satisfy my curiosity, I viewed the online services of a number of other churches. I found that those churches that has simply moved their services online without tailoring them to the medium produced the same depressing effect. It became evident to me that some churches are not doing as good job of adapting to online as others and their poor adaption to the medium might be affecting the members as it affected me and might be contributing to a reduction in “attendance.” Rather than offering hope and encouragement, they were doing the opposite without realizing it. Just as people are cutting back on the time that they view the news because of the anxiety-provoking, depressing news reports, they were cutting back on the time that they viewed these depressing services.

    • There is a way to webcast from an empty sanctuary. The camera focus is on the pulpit and altar and occasionally breaks to the stained glass. You also keep the lights low over the pews.

    • Small (10-12) Bible Study and Prayer groups with leadership of deep faith, (lay or clerical) are priceless.

  • Kerry Hird says on

    The body of Christ needed this kind of cleansing to get sincere followers to once again understand th place of mission, worship, and connectedness. Maybe after a few hundred years of misdirection, we can work on a Spirit-led church, not a leader led church. Interesting that what you refer back to is the doctrine of the remnant……….ten righteous………

  • Diana Marin says on

    Excellent!!! Thank you so much to share this!!!

  • Jeff Oliver says on

    This really looks like a review of complaints and finger-pointing as to “why don’t more people come? ” It seems as though we’re looking at “just the facts” here, but I think your aim is usually more intentional.

    What can be done to reach out, win back, keep more people “on the hook” to come to church when we are at 100%? Better yet, how are we reaching them right now, where they are, and break out of the “we’re here; y’all come” mentality?

  • Another non-returning attender or ghosting member may be caused by their discovery of another church they liked better. They had time to think and research while struggling in their enforced home cloister. They might have found the new candidate church using Sunday streaming or the internet resource during the week.

    • I think Thom is focusing on those who won’t return to church. While the people you mention aren’t coming back to their old church, they are going to church. While that may not be helpful to the “losing building” the body of Christ has not lost a person.

  • Good thoughts. I was wondering since we know there are those who will choose not to return; who are those who will choose to return to congregate as before.
    Any thoughts on that?

  • Thom, I would add to these another group I have encountered and heard other pastors talk about— members who realized it was time for a change. The theology or purpose or teaching of their church had changed. They knew they needed to make a move, but didn’t know how. This afforded them a chance to make that change, and many are doing it. I think Barna’s recent survey alludes to this as well.

  • The whole world is “on-line” presently. You are counting on that right now in your communications. So the church needs to learn how to use the internet to communicate effectively. ON-line church services are having very little success. (Very few hits with regard to pre-covid 19 attendance)
    Now we have to get our presence on YouTube and wherever else the world can be reached. We could learn a lot from the churches in Eastern Europe. Check out evangelicals in Romania. (“Speranta” on YouTube) Look at BBSO. Do a YouTube search for the word “speranta” … “hope” in Romanian — HOPE is the keyword reaching a country which felt itself to be hopeless after the Berlin wall fell.
    We must get used to a new world and make the smart adjustments as they did in Romania. By the way we could copy them … not the USA

  • Thom, Thanks so much for telling it like it is. I find so many have a pie in the sky mentality about the return. I am finding the same thing in the churches I am working with. We can open our doors but it doesn’t mean people will come back. Not immediately and some will as you state, never return. As a giving guy, my first question is always, how will this impact giving? While those dropping out typically give little to nothing, they still none the less comprise from 10% to upwards of 20% of total dollars given. How will churches replace that loss on top of the loss we were already seeing from the continual decline in giving? A lot of questions but first we have to have a reality check and this post is a start! Thanks again for sharing!

  • Then there is the church member who has or is working towards starting a house church in their neighborhood. Simple, reproducible churches can be the second rail alongside the legacy church.

    • Some churches are encouraging this and even looking for ways to help their members do this because they see it as the future of the church. FWIW, we were connected to two churches pre-pandemic – one where we’re long-time members and one that has a youth program that drew in our teens. The one with the youth program has endlessly looked for ways to support the community during the pandemic and, as a multiracial church, has spoken about issues of racism in the church and community (as it had before George Floyd’s death). The other church has done no outreach and continued on the same sermon series they were doing pre-pandemic with no changes to address anything going on in our community. We love our home church but are struggling with how to continue to participate there post-pandemic.

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