Years ago, we used to tell ourselves that young adults who had strayed from the church would come back after they got married. When that didn’t happen, we shifted our hopes and proclaimed that they would return when they had kids. Some came back for baptisms, but the tsunami of baby-toting individuals never quite hit the shores of our weekly worship.
And so, we edited the story, confident that the returns would happen once their kids reached school age. As school-age children began signing up for all sorts of activities, we figured that our amazing youth programs would make the list of prioritized pursuits. While many congregations saw some waves of church reengagement, many others experienced something entirely different about “their” young adults: They weren’t coming back.
The reality is, this is the story for many churches for many years; it isn’t a truth we found out in 2020 or even 2021. And surveys and church statistics continue to reveal that missing church members are more likely to stay home than to go to a different church. So it’s not that they’re going somewhere else. They aren’t going anywhere. And they certainly aren’t coming back.
Then came the pandemic.
Churches around the nation had a reset button hit. In-person church was halted and then, slowly, restarted. In the meanwhile, online methods of worship filled the gaps. In the beginning, many churches experienced numbers that exceeded their previous in-person numbers.
“We’ve got so many people attending our church from out-of-state!” we exclaimed with delight, as evangelism seemed to thrive despite the pandemic. At the same time, our church members were laying down some of the activities and hustle of everyday life that used to conflict with church options.
But they were doing this all while at the same time picking up the stress of daily pandemic navigation. And experiencing the rise of political and social tensions. And a general feeling of exhaustion grew in our people.
Then we started to notice that the proverbial back door of the church was propped open.
People were starting to drop off of the Zoom gatherings and online worship events. Online children and youth ministry activities saw an increase of cameras turned off and eventually a decrease in participants. Our masked and socially distanced gatherings that started to emerge attracted fewer numbers, but we figured the people would return, volunteer and help us rebuild the church once we reached that “new normal.”
“We started editing the story we told each other — making excuses for individuals and families who were not showing up.”
We started editing the story we told each other — making excuses for individuals and families who were not showing up.
While church leaders did the hard work of navigating health guidelines and exercising creative adjustments, many people got used to life with less church. Or, perhaps, even life without church.
As our society is opening up more and more, people are starting to pick up the weight of busy lives again. With the pandemic and virus variants over their heads, people are finding they have a reduced capacity for weight bearing. Even joyful activities are getting sidelined in this “new normal.”
Now, the church is realizing something not just about young adults, but also about people of all ages in our churches. They’re not coming back.
- The super volunteers who used to carry 20 positions in the church are now looking to do just a few things.
- Our regular attenders are becoming semi-regular.
- Our fringe folks are fading away.
People are not coming back to the church at the same level of engagement. So, what do we do?
First, we need to stop telling stories that we know are not true. Our excuses for the absence of others don’t help anyone. We can hope — and speak in goals and prayers and aspirations — for a someday return. But there’s a reality to our relationships, or lack thereof, that’s been hushed or is being ignored. And our stories aren’t as true as they could be.
“We need to stop telling stories that we know are not true. Our excuses for the absence of others don’t help anyone.”
Second, we need to see this situation for what it is. It’s not even that people aren’t returning — they might never have been connected in the first place. People have experienced how easy (or how difficult) it is to live without their church. Obligation and duty no longer make up for a lack of connectedness, devotion or faith itself. People learned who their friends are and some discovered — or finally acknowledged — that the church isn’t a necessary part of their lives. As much as churches miss people, people just aren’t missing back.
Third, we need to understand why. The story many are not acknowledging is that we are a traumatized people. For each and every one of us — all at once — our world stopped. And now, every single person — from the ones present to the ones we claim to miss to the ones we don’t even know yet — everyone is recovering from a shared trauma. The events we’ve walked through have had many questioning their livelihoods, their safety and their relationships.
And if the church hasn’t offered answers for those questions yet, then we need to figure out how to do so now. We need to figure out what it means to be a spiritual trauma center for our communities. We need to reintroduce ourselves as a place that can tend to the wounds this pandemic has opened. Each church needs to consider how it might evangelize to its neighbors (and some of its own members) — almost as if launching a new church in 2021.
For years we’ve had no magic answer for the young adult losses that many churches grappled with before the pandemic. In that context, though, we believed too many false narratives and failed to adequately address the motivations involved. Similarly, no magic answer exists for the receding engagement across multiple age groups that we are seeing post-pandemic.
“No magic answer exists for the receding engagement across multiple age groups that we are seeing post-pandemic.”
But what we do know is that the future of the church will require innovative changes. We have experienced how developing healthy systems is essential for all church seasons to not just survive — but thrive — and it’s time to admit we cannot move forward with our pre-pandemic approaches.
The need for a major pivot is before us, and we know that God will provide for the times and places where we are found. Therefore, let us walk into this valley with eyes wide open, ready to step forward with intention, believing in the presence of the Good Shepherd, the proximity of green pastures, the provided meal amongst adversity, the anointing of our heads, the overflowing of our cups, and our place in the House of the Lord forever.
Rob Dyer serves as senior pastor at First United Presbyterian Church of Belleville, Ill. He has spent the last several years working in the areas of community missions and leadership development in Southern Illinois, where he lives with his brilliant and supportive wife, Sarah, and their four children. He also serves as lead consultant with Ministry Architects, where this column originally was published.
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