We are still living with the hangover effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the church. I suspect these things will still be with us for a long time. Churches are still very much dealing with the aftermath of things. Church leaders continue to wrestle with what is possible. Many churches reassessed their ministries that were necessarily shut down and, this side of things, find that many simply do not have the will or energy to continue all that they were doing before.
One of the issues I continue to see and which rolls around with some frequency is how we coax back those who fallen away during the pandemic. People were attending church regularly, the pandemic struck and they simply never got back into the habit. How are we supposed to win these people back?
For some, live streaming was the issue. If people can tune in online, can we be all that surprised if they see no need to come in person? For many, the solution was simple. Turn the live stream off. Then they will have to come.
I suspect those who took this view have probably found that switching off the live stream hasn’t led to everyone returning. Because, in truth, whilst the pandemic might have been the face value cause of people no longer coming, other issues lie behind their not coming back. After all, if the pandemic really was the problem, they would be back now they all can be. If we are convinced that the most important thing for people is to get them in church, then I can see why this would be a major concern.
But I think what we are seeing is a realigning of priorities. Those who have not returned haven’t come back because the church was never that big a priority for them. It was very much a habit they never kicked. The enforced break during the pandemic meant that the habit was kicked and there was no great desire to pick it up again. Which begs a question: how keen should we to be to woo such people back?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything. I don’t think it ever hurts to phone someone, or drop them a message, and see if they’re okay. I don’t think it wrong to ask them why they haven’t come back or to re-invite them. But, at the end of the day, if people know you are open and meeting yet choose to stay away – and there was no specific reason beyond the pandemic whose restrictions have all now been removed – we are only really learning something about the state of that person’s heart. I suspect those who have been surprised by the scale of the number of people who have not returned are those who have been lulled into a false sense of just how healthy their churches were to begin with.
Which is why I think measures like turning off live streams miss the point. If people really are saying they would rather watch online than obey Christ and meet with his people, they are really only revealing the state of their Christian walk. If people are willing to go to cinemas, cafes, workplaces and wherever else but not to church, the pandemic is not the real issue at play. It is the state of people’s hearts. The health of our churches can rarely be judged on the numbers.
And when we talk about trying to win these folks back – which is a perfectly fair and reasonable thing to want to do – we have to be clear sighted about what (and, more importantly, who) we are asking. The bottom line, the reason people haven’t come back is because the church is not such a big a priority to them. If it were, they would be back. And the reasons for that will owe very little to the pandemic – it only provided the easy opportunity – and we have to be clear that winning such people back may get bums on seats, but it won’t of itself make them healthy believers or change their ultimate priorities.
Whilst the church may yet still want to reach out and draw them back in, it helps to be clear-sighted about who we are calling back, what we might expect from them if they do and what we might yet hear if they say no. We also have to work out whether our focus ought to be on calling such people back or whether we are better served pouring into those who – without cajoling and encouragement – came back because the Lord and his people are priorities for them. Of course, we may well determine to do both such as we are able. But what a shame it would be if we poured our time and energy into chasing the uninterested and uninvested at the expense of those who want to be there.
In the end, we have to give people agency. If folks only come to church when someone encourages them to come, that tells you something about where that person is at. And it is not sustainable to have a church full of people who will only come when someone reminds them, or gets on their case if they’re not around. If people don’t want to come under their own steam, I often wonder if we miss the key point when we desperately chase them back. After all, we don’t want people to stick around because I called them, but because Jesus did. We don’t want those who will come because they’re worried about being hassled by church members, but because they love the Lord Jesus. We can obscure this in our desperation to chase those who haven’t really been moved by Christ, and that strikes me as less than ideal.