By Joe Sorah
Harvest Field Team Leader, TBMB
What do you do when no matter what you do will be second-guessed or criticized by others?
That is what it has felt like for many pastors over the past two years. Questions like: “Do we have in-person services or just virtual services?” and “Do we mandate wearing masks or are masks optional?” In conversation after conversation, pastors have related the frustration of being placed in the proverbial double bind.
Pastors were forced to make decisions they never wanted to make, were never trained in seminary to make, and had not been asked to make in all their years of ministry.
Now we find ourselves two years into this pandemic and new questions are starting to emerge: “Why has attendance not returned to pre-COVID levels in our church? Did we make the right decisions at our church?” Despite the promises of former attenders, many have not returned and show no signs of doing so. It leaves us asking, “Where did everybody go?”
Before we place all the blame at the feet of our pastors and the decisions they were forced to make, let’s consider why attendance has not returned to pre-COVID-19 levels.
- Some church attenders have died. If you do not know someone who has died from COVID, you are in the minority. Most of us have lost friends, family members, and fellow church members due to complications from COVID. The virus has been no respecter of persons. We have lost pastors, staff persons, church leaders, and faithful members due to this pandemic. Our attendance numbers reflect these losses.
- Some church attenders are fearful to return. Some are immunocompromised or are caregivers to someone immunocompromised. Some have concerns due to their own health conditions and are rightfully cautious. They have taken great care to follow the mandates and recommendations. They have great faith in our Lord and respect the medical authorities at the same time. They feel the double bind as well. They have chosen to watch online and faithfully support their church the best that they can.
- Some church attenders have changed churches. Many pastors have related that they have had several people transfer their membership to their churches during this time.
More than a few pastors have said they have seen more church visitors than normal.
The reason for changing churches varies by the person, but many church attenders have chosen this time to look for a new church.
- Some church attenders have dropped out. Aaron Earls recently wrote an insightful article for Lifeway Research that outlined current attendance trends. Earls reports church attendance was declining before the pandemic and COVID has only accelerated the decline. Current attendance is reported to be at 72 percent of what it was pre-COVID. Some of those not attending have simply chosen to drop out of church.
If your church is averaging around 30 percent less than you were before COVID, you are experiencing what the average church is experiencing. It isn’t anyone’s “fault.” It is where we are. So, resist the temptation to point the finger and place the blame. Such actions aren’t helpful anyway. Maybe the more helpful action is to make the call to someone that you have not seen at church in some time. Let them know you miss them. And maybe one by one, we reclaim some of whom we have lost.