How Do We Get People (Back) to Church? A Post-Pandemic Answer

by | Jun 1, 2022 | 2 comments

How do we get people back to church – or even get them there for the first time? This is the second of the top three questions most on people’s minds post-pandemic. Worshiping together is the heart of the church. Empty pews are a tough reality to face now that the world has opened up again.

“How do you get people back to church?” isn’t a new question, though. It’s one we’ve been asking for years. The truth is that people have been leaving church for a long time.

This week’s blog is part three of a four-part series that sheds light on the top three questions church leaders are asking in a post-pandemic world.

 

Why Aren’t People Coming Back to Church?

As I’ve discovered while researching Forging a New Path, according to many studies, religious affiliation has waned in the decades since the Third Great Awakening of the 1950s. Church attendance has dropped year by year since 1960, with the most dramatic declines in the last ten years. While church attendance regularly fluctuates based on societal changes, studies indicate that beginning in 2000, the decline was twice as great as it was between 1960 and 1970, marking this period as the Great Decline.

 

Tips for Building True Community that Bring People Back to Church

Even as people leave church, they are still hungry for community. What if we could create strong, spirited community at church? Here are four strategies for building the kind of spiritual community that makes people want to stay.

Before you start, though, let me dispel one myth. You may think you have to do things on your own. You don’t. In fact, you can’t.

Remember that no one person can do this work alone. As the church comes together to create spiritual connections, approach community-building as Creating a Culture of Renewal® participant Rev. Heather Bailes Baker learned to do. At first, Heather went about her work in the church, fearing she was burdening others when asking them to help or lead ministries. This fear left her shouldering too many responsibilities for rebuilding and growing the church. As she learned to delegate responsibilities to others, she saw a new way to approach the work ahead, referring to it as “our” work, not simply her work as the clergy. Building community is always “our” work.

 

1.     Start Small Groups

Small groups have always been at the heart of the church. Jesus conducted the first small groups as he called disciples and then sent them out as apostles. His small group lasted a mere three years, but all of his students became teachers of new classes after he died and was resurrected.

Many churches are creatively reinvigorating their outreach by crafting “fresh expressions” of faith, including initiatives like Pub Theology or Bibles and Beer. Instead of insisting that new people come to the church building to worship with them, church folks meet people at bars, pubs, coffee shops, laundromats, and restaurants to engage in faith discussion with them. Sometimes informal settings outside the church encourage greater self-revelation and create an easier way to get to know each other.

 

2.     Keep it Short and Sweet

Spend time together but keep your offerings short and sweet. People’s attention spans have shortened, and their lives have gotten busier. Instead of a year-long Bible study, offer a four-to-six-week study. Instead of a ninety-minute learning session, try forty-five-minutes instead.

Instead of a three-day retreat, invite others to a three-hour retreat. The point is to build togetherness with the time that people have. Many touches with the same people over time will build a more enduring community than one long experience never to be replicated.

 

3.     Mix Social and Spiritual

Intentionally combine the social and the spiritual to create stronger community. Often small groups are organized around spiritual material, and the social part gets added in. But I want to encourage you to think about having groups based on social activities that add in the spiritual. For instance, gather a group that enjoys going to the movies, with a meal before or after the film.

Discuss religious or spiritual themes in the movie, letting the movie prompt discussion about your own lives. End your time together by praying for one another.

 

4.     Start with an Existing Community

Another Creating a Culture of Renewal® member, Pastor RJ Davis, noted that the congregation he serves was founded out of a housing development. These neighbors already had strong relationships and realized they wanted to be able to worship together, so they contacted denominational authorities and asked for a church to be planted there. True to their community nature, this congregation is all about doing life together. “People go to dinner together, take vacations together, and celebrate their kids’ birthdays together,” RJ notes. Others want to be part of this level of community, and it’s brought new people to the church. Their vision is to “Bring intentional community back to the neighborhood.” What already existing community can you build upon to create spiritual community?

 

How the Power of Being Social Gets People Back to Church

I admit, “being social” sometimes gets a bad name in the church. Inward-focused church communities may be dismissed as little more than social clubs. Churches that focus less on being of service in the community than on hosting potlucks, socials, and meals for each other, can be seen as selfish or not really a church. In fact, I used to share that critical view: these weren’t churches as much as they were social clubs.

But the pandemic has changed my mind. I now believe that the church, in addition to being spiritually focused and service-oriented, needs to be a lot more socially minded. Here’s my thinking. Social connections create a sense of belonging. A sense of belonging leads to emotional and relational stability and provides an ingredient essential to the formation of spiritual community: trust. Trust is built by the hard work of honesty, vulnerability, celebration, and accountability. In addition to trust, belonging and stability are the blessed results of living in true community.

Ironically, I think there’s a connection between the disconnect people feel in society and their  disconnect from each other. Even before the pandemic, America was experiencing a crisis of connection, of belonging. Interestingly enough, according to a study of American life, this crisis of belonging isn’t limited to a specific demographic or generation. The study shows that people of all demographics – including both Democrats and Republicans as well as the young and the elderly – experience a lack of connection with others. The shutdowns fueled the rise of mental health issues by forcing us apart even more than we already were. Longing to belong is as basic to human makeup as spirituality. In fact, satisfying the longing to belong is fundamental to creating a spiritual community.

Now that you have these four strategies, it’s time to put them into practice! This can be trial and error, so don’t give up too soon. I’m always interested in helping people forge a new path, so let me know what you discover.

 

Excerpted and adapted from Rebekah’s new bookForging a New Path: Moving the Church Forward in a Post-Pandemic World (2022).

Copyright © 2022 rebekahsimonpeter.com, All Rights Reserved.

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2 Comments

  1. LeeRoy Wolfe

    I like your plan of action trying to get us back in Church, every Church need this model to reflect on for Kingdom building!

    Reply
  2. Harvey Chiles

    The church has used Jesus Christ as a weapon against people. Against LGBTQ in the most recent schism, even tho Christ himself was never attributed in saying anything about the issue. The United Methodist Church may be the second largest protestant denomination in the US but it will not last. While I enjoyed your solutions and have read them in other places they will not work as long as “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “have no other Gods before me” are ignored. The greatest of the commandments attributed to Christ are ignored while the church picks through the Old Testament and New Testament to find reasons to exclude and not include.

    Churches are dying and many of them should be dying because they are awful, arrogant, and hate-filled places full of people who think they are “better than” some other denomination or color, or orientation. You can’t expect an all-white elitist organization to suddenly be transformed because membership is down and the endowment is being eaten up. You are using a business model of getting new customers and clients that will not work in a faith-based setting. It is not genuine nor sustainable.

    Transformation begins with the individual and then the individual transforms the organization or leaves it. Organizations are not bad or evil the p[eople that lead them are bad, ugly, nasty, evil, well decent, and loving and the majority behavior becomes visible to the public and they see it.

    Churches and religion have caused their own downfall. The ultra-conservative non-denominal churches attract, by and large, people, people who neither think nor are able to discern. Churches like schools do not like people who think. They want followers who are compliant. Which is the anthesis of the teachings of Christ in the New testament. They are followers. Americans read at a 6th-grade level and comprehend at a 4th-grade level so thinking is not big on their list. And discernment is not possible withouit facts and truth. Neither of which are very big these days.

    When people begin to see a change in the behavior of Christians they will be more likely to have a better view of God. The church will not lead the way because religion, the United Methodist Church being one of the greatest inflictors of pain next to the Roman Catholic Church ignore the two main commandments of the New Testament, the toughest ones, and instead focus on minor rules and regulations established by men, for men and with the intended purpose of keeping men in power.

    Behavior is everything. Talk is cheap. Stephen Covey wrote years ago that “you cannot talk your way out of something you have behaved your way into” and that is precisely what religious and mainline denominations are facing. Your public and private behavior, by and large, is deplorable and no one can see Christ in your words or your actions. The Christ that you present is a judgemental, mean, and despicable elitist white man. And we have all seen and heard and experienced enough of that propaganda to last a lifetime. Live the two greatest commandments and teach them in all that you do each moment of every day and a revival will happen that will make the Azua revival look like amateur night.

    Reply

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