the shape of leadership

Why Aren’t They Coming Back?

Reexamining your discipleship ministry after COVID

Heidi Keeler on April 19, 2021

Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the door, and see all the people!

It’s a familiar children’s nursery rhyme. But sadly, it doesn’t reflect every church’s reality right now. When churches were able to reopen their doors following pandemic shutdowns, many pastors were surprised to see how many people didn’t return.

I get that staying home feels easier. Personally, there were things I enjoyed about the slower pace at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a relief not having the morning rush out the door to get kids to school and myself to work. Our evenings were quieter. Wearing sweatpants became the norm.

The changes were challenging at times, but we got used to a new routine.

When things began to reopen in Washington state, the readjustment happened slowly. Most people didn’t immediately return to life as usual. They made decisions about which activities were most important. We assumed committed Christians would opt back in to church, but it seems many did not.

So, where are all the people? I’m not talking about those who attended sporadically before COVID, or those who are staying home because of health concerns. I’m talking about regular attenders and lead volunteers who have returned to other kinds of gatherings and events in the community, but not to church.

Why aren’t they back, and where did they go?

We will miss one of the greatest lessons of this trying season if, in our urgency to get back to business as usual, we don’t stop and ask the Holy Spirit to show us whether business as usual is what He wants. Could it be that the past 12 months have revealed some gaps in our ministry approach?

When someone attends regularly and serves in some capacity, we often make assumptions about their spiritual maturity. But I wonder whether we’ve been using the wrong metrics.

Recently, our staff was discussing the number of people who have not returned to church, and one of our pastors said, “Inertia is powerful.”

It’s true. After a long season of staying away, it can be difficult to get back in the habit — especially if we think church is all about content we watch, stream or download.

To be clear, I believe a thriving, intentional online presence is essential moving forward. We must reach people online. The internet is an amazing tool that makes it possible to share the gospel with people in their homes, cars, schools and workplaces, at any time of the day or night. It represents an incredible opportunity we dare not overlook.

Still, if we want our online and in-person expressions of church to look like the Church Jesus intended, we have to offer more than just great content.

If people didn’t know before COVID, they certainly know now that all the teaching and preaching they could ever want is available to them literally in the palm of their hand. I love the ability to learn and grow from so many different godly voices. But again, church is much more than content.

Church is also more than serving. It is more than leading a ministry or a team. This is a part of church and a part of being a disciple of Jesus. But it can’t be the main thing.

After a long season of staying away, it can be difficult to get back in the habit — especially if we think church is all about content we watch, stream or download.

If serving on a Sunday is the driving reason a person is at church, after a while it will begin to feel like an obligation that is draining away more and more time. Once the obligation lifts for a season — as it did for many when churches closed — people may realize they are tired and don’t want to sign up again.

Service is an inseparable part of discipleship. God calls us to invest in others and build His kingdom. We discover our place in the body of Christ when we step out and use the gifts He has given us. But if leading and serving do not flow from relationship, they will begin to feel burdensome. Eventually, people will walk away.

COVID stripped away many of the things we took for granted. But this upheaval caused us to see more clearly, and feel more deeply, what is most important. At the top of this list is relationship — a relationship with God and relationships with people.

Unexpected adversity has a relentless way of exposing the true depth and maturity of our relationships. And as pastors and leaders, it forces us to ask some hard questions:

  • How are people growing in relationship with Jesus?
  • Are people more in love with Jesus today than they were a year ago?
  • Do people have a hunger for God’s Word?
  • How are we coming alongside people to encourage them in their faith?
  • Do our times together as a church merely provide great messages, or do they also create space for encountering the presence and person of Jesus?
  • Amid our individualistic culture, do our churches feel and operate like an expanding, loving family?
  • Do we invite people to experience more of Christ’s love and model it for them in a way that makes them want to be a part?
  • Is it easy for people to slip in and out of church participation without anyone noticing?
  • Are we building communities from which people do not want to walk away?

If our gatherings — whether large, small, online or in-person — consistently lead people to a growing relationship with Jesus, the truth of His Word, the blessing of Christian community, and fellowship with the Holy Spirit, we will be meeting the most important needs they have. When a local church is doing those things, people will make the effort, even under difficult circumstances, to stay connected.

Hebrews 10:23–25 says this:

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

I have more questions than answers when it comes to getting people back to church. The solutions will likely look different from church to church, and from community to community.

But if we pay attention, we will discover that people are hungry, desperate even, for what is real. Real relationships. A real encounter with a real Jesus. Real hope. Real purpose and meaning for why they are on this planet. And real is always discovered and planted deep in the context of relationship.

God knew this pandemic would shake things up — including the way we do church. But we are part of a Kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28).

Our job is not to fix things and get them back to where they were. Our job is to ask God what He wants to show us through it all, and then be courageous enough to act on what He reveals.

Jesus does not call us to go back, but to follow where He leads. We must move forward, led and guided by the Holy Spirit, to be His Church, in this time.

This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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