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'Churches Are Struggling': Coming Out of COVID, Pastors Rethink 'Engagement' to Fill the Pews


With the threat of COVID-19 easing, the country continues to take steps toward reopening, however, pastors are now faced with the challenge of encouraging congregants to come back to church.

When the pandemic forced houses of worship to end in-person services, many changed course and switched to online streaming. Some churches adapted successfully while others struggled to conform and had to close their doors for good.    

Church leaders who survived the changeover say they're trying to figure out how to grow in-person attendance once again. 

Pastor Nate Hogan with The Journey Church in Chesapeake, Virginia told CBN News that the change in church attendance has led pastors to reassess their discipleship practices. 

"Where before, the number of persons who gather on Sunday was an indication of a church's discipleship success, that can no longer apply," he explained. "Churches must now consider how they create 'engagement.' It is the current buzzword in church leadership. It is defined as creating clear pathways for a person to take action in their discipleship journey - whether participating in sacramental worship, doing justice activities (what many call missions), exercising personal spiritual disciplines, or serving the community of believers."

Hogan said prior to the pandemic, attendance at his church ranged between 100-155 people for Sunday service, however, an average of 50 churchgoers typically show up now.

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Executive Pastor Alan Meads with Fountain of Life Church in Elizabeth City, North Carolina said he is seeing 10-12 new people each week, but his congregation is half of what it used to be. 

"We are seeing a very slow rise, but the surprising thing is that we're seeing new people," he told CBN News. 

"We are not where we were number-wise but we feel positive about where we are going," Meads added.

He feels that Americans have become accustomed to a new way of worshipping.

"People have gotten used to watching it on TV and live streaming," the pastor pointed out. "I think the day and time we're in - the phone is what they do. It's made it really easy to watch church service on the phone." 

Pastor Meads said in-person attendance at Fountain of Life was around 900 people before COVID and now about 500 attendees are showing up for service. 

During a recent episode of the Carry Nieuwhof Leadership podcast, Tony Morgan, founder and lead strategist of The Unstuck Group, shared the latest data on church attendance throughout the country.

Morgan notes that pastors were clearly caught off guard by the pandemic but did well with modifying their methods of bringing God's message to the church.

"What surprised me was how quickly churches adapted," he highlighted. "For organizations that are not notoriously known for rapid, helpful change, churches pivoted pretty quickly in a number of ways related to their services, getting those online, shifting discipleship strategy and getting community groups and getting their Sunday school classes online, giving online."
Morgan also explained that people aren't coming to church as much because, "It's been pounded into us for a number of months ... large, indoor in-person gatherings is not a safe place for us to be."

"What we're seeing is churches have seen a decline in in-person attendance by close to 30 percent," he added. "Churches in the last year have almost more than doubled the number of online views for their services." 

Additionally, Morgan said smaller to mid-sized churches and rural churches have seen more people return for in-person services. But larger and urban churches are only seeing 30-50 percent of their pre-COVID attendance.

He also mentioned that fewer people are getting baptized.

"The number of new people and the number of baptisms is actually much lower. The decline has been more significant than even the decline in in-person attendance," Morgan said. "What that tells me is that the people re-engaging in our churches are folks that have been a part of our church. If anything, right now in this season where churches are struggling, it's about engaging people outside the church and outside the faith. It's about connecting with new people." 

"I think this is an opportunity where churches are going to have to revisit not only their digital strategies but their physical gatherings," Morgan added. "To not only re-engage the church to get them to come back but how are we going to have a strategy to engage folks that are outside of the church and outside the faith as well?" 

However, some church members in the U.S. say they will gather together again with their brothers and sisters in Christ when the threat of COVID-19 is over.

CBN News previously reported on a recent study of 1,000 Protestant churches conducted by Nashville-based Lifeway Research, where church members said when COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people's health, 91 percent plan to attend in-person worship services once again.  

Those surveyed said they intend on going to church at least as often as they did before the pandemic. This includes some 23 percent who plan to attend even more services than they did previously.

As COVID continues to recede, Meads says he is hopeful that people will have a yearning to be in community with one another again.

"After a year of isolation and being removed from other people, I think the opportunity for churches coming out of the pandemic to engage people again, I think people are going to be craving these opportunities," he explained. "I'm actually praying that the church broadly sees a bit of a revival coming out of this because people are going to be looking for those opportunities to gather with other people again."

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