The Two Largest Groups Who Have Not Returned to In-Person Worship Since COVID


“I really want to see all of our members return to in-person services. I really miss them.”

This sentence was from a pastor in North Carolina. We were in a conversation about a church consultation. His comments quickly turned to the often-asked question today: When will our churches get back to normal? 

As I have noted on several occasions, if “normal” means pre-COVID behavior, we will not return at all. We will, however, experience a new normal. We have to be ready for it when it comes.

I have notes from recent conversations with over 60 pastors. Some of the conversations were by Zoom or phone, others were interactions at Church Answers. While 60 conversations do not constitute a large sample, they do provide us some guidance on reality in churches today. 

In that regard, we are hearing about the two largest groups who have not returned to in-person service. These groups are mentioned consistently when we hear from church leaders. 

Senior Adults

The pastors with whom I spoke categorized senior adults in one of three groups: 65 and up; 70 and up; and 75 and up. The most common group noted was 70 and up. 

The reasons for many of these seniors’ hesitancy to return are obvious. They are one of the greatest at-risk groups for COVID. Secondly, many of them have not received both COVID vaccinations. 

Families with Young Children

As a rule, parents whose children are back in school classrooms are likely to be comfortable bringing those children to in-person church gatherings. But if the child is younger than school age, the hesitancy to return is greater. The entire family typically does not return to church. 

This group of non-returnees is typically not as large in number as the senior adults who have not returned. But the combination of these two groups can be a significant number in a given church.

Will They Ever Return?

The good news is that, at some point, the pandemic will abate significantly. Eventually, the deadly virus will run its course through vaccines and natural immunity. 

The challenging news is that many of these stragglers are not planning to return at all. Any discipline, including the discipline of attending church, develops through habits. Those who have not returned are out of the habit of attending church. Many have already decided they can do fine without attending church.

What can church leaders do in the meantime? You can stay in touch with the stragglers. A simple contact can go a long way. You can start a new digital Bible study group. Though it’s not as good as the in-person experience, it can connect them to others. And you can minister to them. Start a prayer ministry or use your existing prayer ministry to pray for these stragglers. Ask them for prayer requests. Follow up with them.

We will continue to monitor the post-quarantine church carefully. In the meantime, let us know what you are seeing in your church regarding non-returnees. Comment here and share your knowledge and wisdom with others. 

It’s a challenging time.

But it is also a time of great opportunity as God’s Spirit continues to work in our churches.

Posted on February 14, 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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  • There’s a group that no article I have read on this matter has yet to mention; those of us who have a medical condition that makes wearing a mask a hazard to our own health. Because of that, I have legal exemption to wearing a mask. But that carries no weight with most people. Since the declaration of the coronavirus “pandemic” I have been inside a church once. It was the church I’ve been attending since 2008 and have been actively involved in through teaching classes. When I entered, I carefully practiced “social distancing.” But I was neither welcomed nor was I asked why I wasn’t wearing a mask, I was simply shunned as if I were a bio-terrorist. Since so many remain in the grip of hysteria and phobia, my return to in-person worship remains far over the horizon. I wish it weren’t so, but trying to reason with hysteria and phobia is both tiring and futile. The Lord understands, and that is enough

    • Mike Marion says on

      Hysteria ? Phobia? Shunned? Mr. Sneller’s choice of words is revealing. I’m sorry he has a medical condition. But that doesn’t give him the right to spread a potentially deadly disease. And calling people who are concerned about others safety hysterical or obsessive demonstrates a total disregard for their neighbors.

  • Barbara D'Camp says on

    As a parent of a teen who has faithfully gone to church pre-covid, we have been really disappointed with the outcry of believers who simply don’t want to wear masks in services. My immune suppressed teen has been instructed by her doctors that unless masks are being worn and social distancing observed, she isn’t able to go places people aren’t masking up. What does this mean? It means that bc retail shops have enforced masking she feels safer going to the store than going to church. And I understand this. It also means that what she thought to be true about what it means to be a Christ follower, loving one another and putting another’s needs before your own, doesn’t appear to be actually true. So please tell me, what should We do?

  • Chris Davidson says on

    In my experience, seniors and families with children are heavily influenced by the continual fear mongering put out by the media. The more they watch the news, the more fearful of the “what-ifs” they will become. If we, somehow as the Church could saturate people with the truth of the Scriptures that they get with “media” fear would be replaced by Faith. God knows the number of our days and we are to live out our lives for the Glory of God and not to be paralyzed by the fear because after all our life rests firmly and securely in our Blessed Lord’s grip and NOTHING can separate us from Him!

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