Who Is Coming Back To Church? (And How Do We Lead?)

It’s obvious that attendance in physical buildings has dramatically declined over the past year, and with so many still disconnected from true engagement, what’s the best way to go forward?

Let’s start with something encouraging, people are coming back! Even some who have been away for a year!

When you consider who has and who hasn’t returned to church, what’s the best way to lead?

Start by knowing who. That will shape how you think, pray and make your next steps.

Question 1. Who is returning?

There seems to be four main groups among the first to come back:

  • New guests are coming to church, those who haven’t attended in years or never attended!
  • Regular attenders who are now more comfortable with large crowds again.
  • Volunteers who feel a heightened sense of calling to serve.
  • Those who are hungry for worship and have not kept that practice on their own.

Do these groups match what you are experiencing at your church? Know who is returning and lead in that direction.

Question 2. Who is not returning?

Perhaps the more important question is, who has not yet returned and why?

1) Those who have developed new habits and patterns for their weekends that do not include corporate worship.
Those who have drifted from their habit of attending church do not deserve judgement, or even criticism, this merits our prayers and very best effort to offer an experience worthy of their return.

2) Those who are not ready to return yet due to COVID concerns.
COVID started as a crisis, became a reality we live with, and we continue to pray for its end.

A twofold approach is helpful regarding COVID and the return of your congregation: First, be respectful of people’s lingering doubts and concerns. Second, it’s good to encourage them to come back as soon as they are ready.

There is a saying that old habits are hard to break. New habits can be hard to break too, so many people need your encouragement to return to church. Not guilt or pressure, but genuine encouragement.

3) Those who are attending now, but not at your church.
They have chosen another church.

I truly understand how people leaving your church to attend another can be very discouraging, but the best choice is to be glad they are worshipping somewhere. It frees you up to serve well those who want to be at your church.

If possible, it’s important to let them know that should they ever sense the Holy Spirit leading them back to your church, they are fully welcomed no questions asked.

NOTE: The above lists are not based upon statistical data from surveys. They are, however, from first-hand conversations with many dozens of churches across the country, and secondary conversations from hundreds of churches. If your experience differs, we’d love to hear from you in the comment section.

Let me establish an important caveat before going further:

In the world of digital worship, online is important and needed. In addition, something really cool is gaining momentum through varieties of micro-site strategy. Small groups of people who are committed to their church are meeting in homes and other venues, fully engaged in the worship service, and reaching their communities!

With that acknowledged, let’s not miss the obvious opportunity, there are millions of people in the US alone who don’t engage any option and you probably have room in your church building.

5 priorities to focus on as you rebuild your congregation:

1) Spiritually engaged worship

Your weekend worship services do not encompass the full scope of your ministry, but that is typically where people first engage. Are they life changing experiences?

Excellence in planning and execution are vital, but the presence of God’s spirit brings life changing power and creates an unmistakable difference in your worship services.

How do you evaluate and elevate the spiritual component of your services?

2) Authentic community

Knowing and being known is at the core of Christian community, both in relationship with Jesus and with each other.

This is not meant imply an unhealthy sense of an ingrown lifestyle, but one that matures together for the purpose of reaching out to bless others with the good news of Christ.

Authentic community includes honest relationships, encouragement, serving, challenge toward maturity, personal growth and a sense of unity in Christ.

3) Opportunity to serve 

Many churches are struggling to rebuild their volunteer teams right now, especially in children’s ministry. (Children’s ministry requires such a high number of volunteers and that corelates with how many adults you can handle.)

Despite the complexities, serving others was designed by God and modeled by Jesus for us all to engage our faith. God gave us spiritual gifts and unique passion for the purpose of fulfilling God’s plan.

Unleashing the spiritual power of service in your church and community is truly life giving and life changing.

Are your serving opportunities clear, organized and well trained?

4) Connection for family

One of the most powerful ways to engage the families in your church is to help spiritually develop and mature their kids and teenagers.

Not to mention, some of the best stories are those of parents who gave their lives to Christ because of their kid’s influence!

Are your next generation ministries relevant and creative? Do they consistently demonstrate that you care about the kids and students?  

Of your kids and student ministries, which one needs improvement most right now?

5) Compelling vision

Vision is the foundation of your ministry. Now more than ever people want to know what you are about and what you believe in. They want to know where you are going.

As Carey Nieuwhof recently and aptly said, getting people to come back to church is not vision.

Encouraging people to come back to church is an important endeavor, but it’s more effective to create a vision that people want to return to and be part of.

On a scale of  1 – 10, how would you rate the clarity and compelling nature of your vision?

18 thoughts on “Who Is Coming Back To Church? (And How Do We Lead?)”

  1. 10- thanks Dan,
    Compelling: I believe in GOD. GOD IS LOVE. When I unite with others in community…common unity, I feel GOD’s LOVE ❤️ being shared. Everyone lifts my ‘Spirit’ with friendly greetings, unspoken compassion and heart ♥️ energy ‘Spirit’ I didn’t have before I came to worship GOD within the community.

  2. This is the hot topic among Pastors that I have experienced as well. Your wisdom and counsel is spot on as Pastors rebuild, retool, reboot and reimagine church different. Excellent. Thank you Dan

    1. Thanks Randy.
      It’s a strange time for all of us. No one has been here before. I love how much more united we are, helping each other figure this out to continue moving the Church forward!

  3. Dan, I think this is spot on. I would like to offer another reason why people are not attending church – it’s too easy now just to watch online. Their routine now is just catch the service when it suits them; not a bad thing if you want to worship 2 dimensionally.

    1. Right!
      It’s not bad at all, but there is so much more when the body of Christ is together in some form.
      Thanks for your comments Mike.

  4. Thanks Dan. Great insight regarding people returning to church. We do feel blessed here in Australia, or at leased we do in our church. For us we are pretty much back at full capacity “I think”.

    If I can add something it would be that if the congregation themselves will talk it up re getting back to church to their sphere of influence it can have a snow ball effect.

    EG; Fred says too Bill. Hey you really should get back to church bro! The atmosphere in the place is amazing!!!! Etc etc.

    1. Tim,
      So glad you are mostly back to full capacity!

      Great add… when the congregation tell others about their own experiencing of returning to church that’s a powerful invitation.

      Thanks for your comments!

  5. Great info, Dan! We are also seeing people in crisis and great need coming “to” the church for support and recovery ministries. COVID brought marriage issues, substance abuse, and of course, death and isolation to the surface for many people. The ability to serve the community well in their healing journey holds great opportunity for the church. When they know we truly care and they feel seen they are more likely to step further into the church and become part of the family.

    1. Thanks Donna, that’s a great add.
      The combination of the power of the gospel and the compassion of people ministers so strongly to people!

  6. Rachael Collins

    Hi Dan,

    I believe you have hit the nail on the head. I have been meeting with people in small discipleship groups for 6 months or more that have only recently begun coming back to Sunday Service because their fear of COVID was very real. I’ve even started to meet with people from other churches for these groups while they’re attending their regular Sunday service. I fully believe people are hungry for the discipleship aspect that the Church as a whole has failed on.

    People are coming back, but they want real, authentic fellowship. Our church is taking the three fold, Jesus model approach. Corporate worship & preaching (Sunday service), Small groups for teaching & encouragement, Discipleship/Mentoring groups (3-4 people) for accountability and growth.

    Someone above mentioned word of mouth being a factor in people returning to church. I couldn’t agree more!

    I appreciate your article & insights today!

  7. I have not gone to church in a long time and frankly do not miss it. That is because I have found community in other places where there is freedom to be real and authentic in relationship with God and others who love Jesus. Organized Church has become something that I do not believe God intended, a big business, concerned with raising enough money to have this fantastic building, recruiting the best musicians to put on a great show every Sunday to attract people, turning those away who have lesser talent in their eyes, and creating an environment where every has to look and act good, despite the realities of their life. While polished and planned services, and nice buildings are not wrong, immoral or unspiritual, they do have the consequence of making people feel like they have to pretend to be in a spiritual place they are not.

    I believe church should be messy, spirit lead, and ready to ditch the well laid out plan, 2 songs, greet each other, announcements, 3 songs, prayer, sermon, prayer and slick worship, and get into the muck with people, because most of us are there at some point in our life, even though we all deny it most of the time.

    True community happens in small committed groups, ready to deal with the realities of life, not in a rigid, polished Sunday morning service, packed with large tithing people, who act like everything is okay.

    There are many people who are looking for more than what our western church offers, I know because I meet with 8 of them every week for the past 8 years, former elders and leaders, and worship leaders, all who long for more, and find it in our group, because we have a plan that we often through out the window when someone is in great need. Try that on a Sunday morning and I bet your church will change.

    I would love to find a church that is willing to be real and messy and focus on building deep community, but that is risky because people will get scared and leave for something safer, even though they need messy, real and deep, and number dropping goes against the mentality of we need to grow in numbers. We do not, we need to group in depth of character, and that is hard and scary. But people want it, even though they act like they want safe and comfortable.

    I want a church that says, lets sell out building, meet in home churches, rent a theatre once a month and worship and celebrate together, then live life deeply in small groups. I have that, and life is so much better for it. So until church really changes, count me out.

    1. Hi Dan,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts we me and other readers. I’m sorry you feel that way about all churches and it seems like your mind is made up. But should you consider another try, I can recommend many churches, even very large ones that genuinely care. I’m glad you have found the fellowship and connection you feel comfortable in and that you regularly worship and serve others.


    2. Dan,

      I talk with people, almost daily, that are struggling with the same concepts of organized religion. The same people often struggle with organized government in the same way. Either they want government to take care of everyone or to simply leave everyone alone.

      However, the heart of our existence is in God’s love. Our yearning is for God’s love. Our sense of desire for community is based on God’s love. Philippians 2:3-4 – “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” The community is the interest of others; all of the community. The problem with small “set alone” groups has always been that the small group becomes attached to group think. Setting among themselves the proper interpretation of the Gospel that they develop over time. The group therefore becomes heightened in subjectivity and to a lessor degree of objectivity.

      The large buildings and etc are not the issue. The problem is with the people contained within; they forget how to smell like sheep. Instead, mostly in interest to the community, they build structures in ministry and administration that are known to create stability in their foundation. It’s the money changers, (Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes) that create the discord within the church militant.

      Walking away from the fight for the Gospel is what creates the vacuum. Maybe your group could spend time making an attempt to enact change in the very institutions your so deservedly disparaged.

      For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

      (Romans 12:4-5)

  8. I enjoyed reading this article but I think we need to ensure not to so easily dismiss those who may not be coming back due to COVID. The article says to be encouraging and not pushy, and that’s it. It doesn’t talk at all about how to engage those individuals. I am a board member, a ministry leader and a worship leader at my church. I am heavily involved in the day to day activities of our church. I will not attend in person though. We have a large number of anti-vaxxers in our church community and I will not put my young daughter at risk (because she still can’t receive a vaccine). It does not in any way mean that I am not truly engaged in the work of my church. Many of the leaders at my church feel the same way. as I do. Without knowing people’s vaccination status, I can’t take the risk. If you dismiss leaders like myself, than you may be left with a very small group of leaders when COVID is over. I think it’s important to find ways to engage people who have legitimate reasons for not coming back in person. I love my church but I feel that I can participate online and that should be equally valued.

    1. Hi Julie,

      Thank you for writing, I appreciate your thoughts and comments.

      I absolutely agree, if there is a health concern or personal conviction about not yet attending in person due to Covid, follow your heart in the matter. We should not let these things become divisive.

      About engaging those who don’t attend in a physical place, churches are working really hard to figure out how to do that. Churches are so relationally oriented, a good thing, that it’s not always easy to connect and engage from a distance. But good progress is being made. I’m sure your church values you and participating online. We surely do at 12Stone.

      And most definitely, the church is not a building, its people. When as individuals can, however, connecting in person something of great value and meaning.

      Blessings Julie!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.