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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  • Ken Kroohs says on

    I wonder … I wonder if the constant complainers will come back so they have an audience!
    Question – somewhere I saw statistics you allude to in this article. I think the research said attendance of 2.2 times per month ten years ago and down to 1.7 in 2018. Can you point me to the research?

  • Dean Haun says on

    I used to say that when persecution comes it would cull out the faithless. Persecution is still very likely but the culling has come through a pandemic. This reshapes our ‘theory’ of what constitutes church success. It has, in many circles, been about buildings, budgets, and behinds in the seats. But God has always used the remnant. The refined faithful remnant will carry out His mission and commission.

  • I’m sure the constant critic church member won’t be miss… but sadly they will end up at another church and continue their sad habit.

  • The “dropouts” are a challenge to us to better disciple and grow our church members, to help every Christian to see their need to put Christ first in their lives, not last. It also highlights the need for small groups and the challenge to find creative ways that we can still provide opportunities for fellowship and connection in the midst of this pandemic.

  • Joyce Williams says on

    Joyce Williams
    When members are saturated in God’s word and prayers at church most times they cultivating the attitude to continue privately and they become hunger and thirst for God. Then they became uncomfortable in convenience in certain areas of serving the Lord and instead working in desperation stretching themselves to do more for the Lord. Specific prayers can help these class of people to continue with appropriate support and for them to be an army to support others into the church. Post quarantine.

  • Cindy L Estes says on

    It is so discouraging to realize that all these folks will not return to church! That means Gods people Need to work that much harder To seek and save the lost

    • Although it can be argued if people don’t want to be in or at a church that will be known even if they never say a word. There was a church that lost 1/3 of its congregation because of a theological issue. The 2/3 that stayed were stronger than they were before the departure because the unspoken tension was gone. Possibly more work but I’d argue the same work we should be doing anyway.

      It’s God’s church too. All we do is tell God’s story and God sends the people to be the body present.

  • Chris Kovacs says on

    Then there are others of us who will never return because we discovered our churches are filled with racists and science-deniers who are pure evil beneath their Sunday clothes.

    • Yes, I have seen so many hate-filled social media posts from fellow church goers (all politically based) that I really do not want to go back to my church of 37 years (Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night church goer). I love Jesus and I am praying every day that He soften my heart, that He point out the sin and my life and help me to focus on that rather than being so upset and heartbroken

  • I would like to participate in the webinar however I can not on the 13th. Will there be another

  • I miss my church family immencely, the fellow ship was so encouraging to me, to be able to hug,shake hands, I miss being able to worship with music and song. I pray It is in God’s will we will be able to return to worship as we have known before covid19. God grant it for his glory. Amen

  • Alexander Thomson says on

    To be fair, there is a sixth reason. Before the lockdown, there was concern about the poor level of Biblical teaching and seriousness, but loyalty constrained departure. The lockdown has demolished that constraint. Very few churches really face the fact that there are serious folk, Christian and non-Christian, who resent the increasing dumbdownness of churches.

  • Pastor Thomas says on

    Excellent assessment of the reality we are facing. The issue at hand is bigger than whether or not to wear a mask, whether to have in-person services or not, or if its right or wrong to choose to change worship practices. The fact is that people have different perspectives and needs. Therefore, this article is relevant insomuch that it acknowledges the fact that people are going to fall away. I appreciate the deeper look at the reasons why. It gives leaders an opportunity to ponder where this fits in their congregation. We can condemn mask wearers and social media worshippers and those who fall away but it won’t minister to the reason for their spiritual degradation. Thank you for your insight.

    • Wearing a mask, social distancing, being active on social distancing, being for or against changing worship practices does not equal falling away or spiritual degradation.

      It might mean some spiritual growing up. It might be that people have learned they don’t need ear candy or eye candy to worship. Might mean fellowship is wonderful but can occur in new ways and not always in the building.

      And honestly, some folks may have found a better church fit for themselves dipping in here and there online. Surely we don’t begrudge them that.

      Education deliver has to change for now during the pandemic. So does the church, along with medicine and shipping and retail sales and commerce.

      But the church is doing just fine even as some local congregations do falter.

      Looking forward to in person services but not until there is a good vaccine or the virus dies out, or at very least our town and church embraces no singing indoors, face masks, and social distancing for the duration of the pandemic.

    • To put mask wearers in with spiritual degradation….there it is. The hypocrisy of many churches influenced by politics and led astray by a false idol. I call it spiritual enlightment. I call it exposing the heart.

  • I miss in person Church very much and I am looking forward to being able to attend as soon as conditions with my health are at a better level than they are now. I love my Church family and miss them very much. I will be back!!!!