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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  • Hi Thom,
    Do you have anything on leaders who is not yet returning to church? Most of the simple members young and old have returned since our church didn’t close down. Leaders wanted to function as leaders in absentia. They wanted the church to follow them even if they are absent for almost a year now. Any related situation? Thanks.

  • Jaime Jimenez says on

    I recently made a home visit to a young couple (mid 30s) with children (jr high to elementary) who related their reason for leaving our church was “churched out” and tired of not having enough volunteers. They attended our church for 8 years. They still watch online.

    • I truly don’t understand that logic. There aren’t enough volunteers, so they simply decided to drop out and make the situation worse?

      • I understand it Ken. I have seen situations where willing workers keep being asked to do more and more because no one else will step up. I’ve seen it several times actually. Blame it on the pastor, blame it on the church, blame it on whomever. The fact is that when people get over loaded they do experience burn out. I saw it in business as well.

        To your point about making a bad situation worse, you are correct. There comes a time however when you simply need a break. That is a basic human need. One of the main causes of burnout in church volunteers is they haven’t learned to say “NO”. Turning down a sincere request from the pastor brings with it a degree of guilt, so to avoid that the member usually agrees to the request. Which of course exacerbates the problem.

        The bottom line is that if a church has willing workers who feel forced to step away because they are overwhelmed with the workload, there is a far more serious issue with church leadership that needs to be addressed.

      • Totally agree with Ron’s response… burnout-and then the show must go on attitude.

  • Hi Thom,
    I would say that in Canada, my experience has been slightly different. Our seniors have been very mixed in return, saying how much they miss the community. So, while some have remained at home (or elsewhere), many are now coming. In Manitoba, we were limited to only 5 people until this past Sunday. We were allowed 32, which is 10% of the building occupancy capacity. 32 people gives us not quite half of of church population.
    Where we see the greatest failure of return is among young families with school aged children. This makes up almost half of our total church population. In the summer of 2020, we were running service with max 75 people (which we were struggling to ensure everyone a space) as well as a Sunday School time following the service. This SS time had upwards of 40 kids (aged 2-18) and 23-28 adults as regular attenders. Now, this families population is largely saying they are more comfortable to stay home or go fishing or visiting of other people, even among themselves, all the while deliberately not returning to church. This has been discouraging, even though i know that the gathering of the people is not the only measure of the people. However, Hebrew 10:25 continues to remain consistent in my mind as we continue. I pray for greater capacity opening. However, I do not trust any human government to value the church.

  • Larry Robeson says on

    My concern is being a member of an older church in which a lot of the members have spend a lot of their lifetime being a part of is dying because of their resistance to change. Part of this is introduction to technology is challenging too people who are set in their ways and the other is the obvious they are limited in their knowledge of technology. In the meantime life takes its natural course and some have been called home to glory and no new members are being disciple. I’ve been encouraged by the fact when we begin to stream services at the beginning of this pandemic by the number of people joining in online. Our membership is in the 175-200 range but monitoring the site I would see an average of the 400-500 range. The pandemic has definitely turn folks toward God. How do we connect to these people on line that will bring them into fellowship?

  • Patrick Kelly says on

    What a completely non-empathetic and negative way of referring to people who continue to support the ministry even though they aren’t there physically. Stragglers? Young families don’t just stay home because of broken habit. They stay home because their church hasn’t developed a plan to handle them effectively yet. The local church has not come up with good enough answers to the children’s ministry needs they face. “None” is not a good enough answer for the family to return. “Partial” isn’t either. “Normal” won’t cut it if the family is concerned. This article has not been very understanding or respectful toward those who have not returned to in-person worship. Please respond to this.

  • Larry McGee says on

    After, being out of church almost for one year, we have yet to receive any communication from the leadership of our
    church. Numerically, we were not a large church prior to the virus and now like many churches we are less. We were
    active and frankly our feelings are not hurt but we are very disappointed in the leadership.
    Not expecting a visit or a phone call or a postcard but just maybe a brief text would have been possible. We are not
    new to the church as believers we have seen the best in leadership and the not so good in leadership.
    Compromised immune issues have kept us away NOT apathy .

    • I’m in the very same situation. I was very active in my church but when Covid arrived I chose to stay away to be safe for myself due to health issues and for my elderly parents that I see to. I received one call from an associate pastor in March of 2020 and that’s it as far as church leadership. My Sunday school class sent a card nine months after I had been gone. I am hurt and I feel very much like I don’t matter. I’m praying for Gods guidance as to when and where I will return to church.

  • We are a multi-ethnic church in an urban setting. We have seen a much lower percentage of our African-American members return to worship – across the age spectrum. Many older adults have come back – when they aren’t in quarantine or lock down. These have been primarily anglo members, however. Have you got any read on how this breaks down in relation to ethnicity?

  • There is another group which is probably in a close third place. This is the “lazy” bunch. They’ve become accustomed to worshipping from bed in their sleepwear and do not want to make the effort to bathe, change clothes, and drive to the church building. At first, I thought these were victims of the COVID scare, but as time goes on, I see them making appearances at all other places.

    As a pastor, I was initially “overly concerned” about this situation. Through your encouraging messages about these folks probably never returning, I have given them to care of the Great Shepherd. I pray for them daily and ask the Lord to show them the reality of serving the Lord in His New Testament Church. I try to regularly use Hebrews 10:25 in communications and newsletters. May the Word and the Holy Spirit bring conviction on this group.

  • Rene Melendez says on

    I’ll comment on what I’ve seen. We seem to be missing an important point. Being in church physically does not take away any concerns that exist concerning COVID-19. For instance, are those like myself who are in the 70 plus age group happy with just being back in the building? We still can’t hug, shake hands or get too close too each other. That is what is needed! We want to reconnect physically, intellectually and spiritually. Fellowship is a complex combination of ingredients requiring much more than being in the same building together, although corporate worship is still possible I myself have been so discouraged that as soon as the pastor dismisses us, I’m out the door. There are congregants who meet briefly in the lobby to exchange greetings, but try getting the attention of a brother or a sister for more time than it takes for a simple greeting or inquiry. Those in my age group may be hopeless of ever connecting to the brethren as things are presently. It’s a struggle but one that can be dealt with by prayer and supplication. My prayer is that we all can connect as before and in the mean time reach out by getting together in small groups outside the church building. That way, a greeting means so much more. We can meet with new groups every week outside the church building. That way, we can stay connected.

  • William Bolin says on

    I am going to respectfully disagree with much of your assessment. I pastor a church outside of Detroit MI, and our churches response was different than most churches. Once we heard that our state was going to order church gatherings as non-essential, we chose to obey God rather than man and stayed open with modifications.

    At first, we took chairs out of the sanctuary and enforced social distancing, closed the “little’s” ministries with children remaining with the parents. We adopted a no hug/no handshake policy, and installed hand sanitizers. As we had begun streaming our services online 9 years earlier, there was no curve to learn. Most of our people opted on staying home, but some braved the risk of exposure and congregated on Sunday. The first three services had 25 people plus the team, 40 people and team, 55 people and team. 4 children attended the Palm Sunday service.

    All that changed Holy Week, as the media caught wind of what we were doing and proceeded to attack on TV, Radio and newsprint, plus social media. The Sheriffs office was inundated with complaints. And then Resurrection Sunday came. Around 200 people showed up after seeing the reports that a church was open. Yes, we had protesters and media, but we had worshippers. When people found out that our gathering was ongoing and not a Easter exception, they kept coming in increasing numbers.

    During the approximate four month official church shutdown, I announced every Sunday at offering time that our desire was for the refugees to send their financial support to their home church. We also ceased all follow up programs for visitors. It was never our intention to capitalize on the virus restrictions.
    Before covid, were a 150 +- size church.

    When the churches were allowed to reopen in June, many people left but quickly returned, as they refused to register to attend, wear masks, have the kids in service, and be restricted in singing. We never forced masks as they were a late addition and we had fully opened our children’s departments after Easter once it became apparent children were at low risk.

    Our initial opposition to closure was based on Scripture and not forsaking fellowship, the Constitutional protection we enjoy and a belief that surrendered rights are hard to regain, and a conviction that as leaders we need to be examples to those who are younger that there are things standing up for, regardless of risk of illness, imprisonment, or even death. We rejected the Romans 13 claim, as Paul was not proclaiming blind obedience to government. Rather, he was addressing the complexities of refusing to pay taxes and tariffs.

    I believed that I had heard the Lord tell me to stay open in the beginning. While questioning myself at times, the wisdom of remaining open has allowed our church to remain the same as before, as we never accepted a new normal. It took 8 months before a single case of covid affected anyone in our congregation. Those who eventually caught it, contracted it at school or work, and our sick numbers were extremely low, with most cases being mild and no deaths.

    Today, we have had to add two additional replica services and alter our meeting times to accommodate the crowds. The church averages 1200-1300 attendees plus a sizable online presence of 400-700 people. We have Bible Studies, Home Groups, Banquets, Children, Youth and Young Adult gatherings. The church is vibrant and financially healthy, and we are normal. It’s like covid never happened. Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Thom, I’m surprised the digital native wasn’t mentioned in this article. We’ve seen a lot of people who have grown up with technology not return to church. They’ve discovered the content and connection they get out of attending church virtually is practically the same as attending in person without the hassle of getting up, getting dressed up, taking the commute, etc…

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Joseph –

      I have not heard much at all about digital natives not returning. Perhaps if we did a larger objective study, we would see them.

  • If our local pastors are concerned about numbers then why are they not calling people who they have not seen in the vicinity or community of church in over a year. This pandemic has been in place for over a year now. People should be doing well checks on their former members and regular attendees who were working and volunteering their time pre covid. They should at least be mailing out We Miss You At Church cards. It’s not rocket science. It’s simple ministry and that is guiding my decision of whether or not I return to church and where. I’ve already crossed off several possible churches including the church where I worked&served faithfully for 3 years. My church showed me how quickly they could forget someone during a pandemic

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Dinah –

      Most pastors I know are doing a great job of connecting with both members and others during the pandemic. Of course, the laity are biblically expected to be the primary point of ministry in the church, so I hope you have been regularly reaching out to people as well.

    • Larry McGee says on

      I hear you Dinah. I am a believer and how worked and labored in the church for six decades. My wife and I are
      both 74 and we both have health issues which have caused us to be absent from church and other activities
      in our lives
      We connect through social media and we have checked on others at our church in the past year. When it comes
      to pastoral leadership, I am appalled at the lack of connection between the shepherd and the sheep. I am in no
      way being critical of my experience but rather realistic. ( My wife’s father was a pastor and we have had interactions
      with many pastors during this time.) Just a brief text from the leadership in the last 12 months would have been
      encouraging. Leadership is everything !

    • My church has done the same. If you’re not in the building on Sunday you’re not part if the church. I’m alone and my church was vitally important to me. I wish it went both ways.

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