Navigating the rules, timing, and strategy is tough enough.
But even when you’ve worked out all of the official details, encouraging people to come back to the physical church service will be an uphill climb.
You will have members who, for one reason or another, are not ready to physically re-engage with church services. And to be brutally honest, many of your people will have gotten used to simply not attending.
Then there are people in the community, the people you were trying to reach before COVID, and the people you’re still trying to invite. It was difficult connecting with this audience last year…now it’s an even bigger challenge.
So here you are, with a carefully constructed reopening plan in place, about to embark on one of your biggest challenges: asking people to come back to church.
I want to give you several practical ideas and steps you can follow.
But before I get to the steps, I do want to pause and ask a question about the question we’re asking.
How do we get people to come back to church?
Because you’re thoughtful, you’ve probably already considered this question. But let’s push on it a little more.
Carey Nieuwhof predicts: “Churches that love their model more than the mission will die.” Those are strong words, but I think Carey is right.
For years, attractional churches have focused on gathering and then driving people to small groups, volunteer teams, or more relational environments where discipleship can happen. For the most part, church engagement has started with service attendance. There’s nothing wrong with this model.
But COVID, at least temporarily, has flipped this on its head.
Maybe getting people back into the building for a big Sunday service is the wrong goal. Maybe returning to pre-COVID attendance levels is the wrong goal.
It’s not that gathering is bad or out of style or will never be a thing again But it could be that there’s an opportunity hidden in this pandemic.
I love what J.D. Greear, the pastor of Summit Church, says:
“We are going to gather, it’s just not going to be in large groups of 500 to 1000 on the weekend in our facilities. Instead of The Summit Church being 12,000 people meeting in 12 different locations on the weekend, now we are going to be about 15,000 people meeting in about 2,400 locations.”
Finally, even if people are not ready to return to a large physical church service, it doesn’t mean you can’t devise and execute a strategy to reach them.
It requires new thinking, a new approach, and maybe some new leaders in new roles, but you can absolutely reach people without a big Sunday morning service acting as the front door.
But still, you came here to read about how to get people to return to church. So I’ve got practical advice for you and some practical steps you can take.
How to Get People to Return to Church After COVID
When you’ve wrestled through all of the philosophy and opportunity and are ready to undertake the uphill battle of encouraging people to come back to church, here’s what you should do.
#1 – Make it about the kids.
For the past year or so, our church has not been gathering.
And to be honest, I’ve actually enjoyed watching the livestream from my kitchen while making bacon and scrambled eggs. The coffee pot is nearby and I can refill my coffee cup in a matter of seconds. Plus, the music isn’t too loud.
And since our small group has still been meeting, I’ve been okay. Yes, I miss a lot of things about going to church on Sunday morning, but it’s been alright.
But what I’ve absolutely hated is not being able to go with the family. I miss the fact that our high school daughter hasn’t been able to volunteer with the three-year-olds. I miss that my middle schooler’s small group hasn’t been meeting in person as much. Gathering for services and small groups has been so helpful to their spiritual lives, and it hasn’t been the same.
Many people feel this way too. Kids have always been a driving factor for adults being involved in church.
That’s why when you’re ready to go big with asking everyone to come back, make it about the kids. Lean into language that emphasizes the importance of kids being with small group leaders and teachers and positive examples. Lean into the relationships that have been put on the back burner for too long.
Andrew Brown from Ministry Spark says, “You cannot afford to not have an option for families when you reopen.”
Andrew is right, but I’d even take it a step further. You should FOCUS on your options for families, even at the expense of adult programming.
We know some churches that are ONLY reopening kid and student environments, using all of the facilities to provide more space to distance.
#2 – Focus on community, not content.
Reports from a recent Gallop Study show American’s mental health ratings have sunk to a new low.
Across the board, people report that they are doing worse this year compared to last year. It’s the worst it’s been at any point over the last two decades, with a nine-point drop from last year to this year.
The ONLY group doing better?
People who attend religious services weekly.
Let this sink in for a minute.
- Men say they are doing worse.
- Women say they are doing worse.
- Republicans say their mental health is down.
- Democrats say the same thing.
- Marital status and income…all down.
But those who attend a religious service weekly are +4.
I’m convinced one of the reasons for this is the communal nature of church gatherings. Church isn’t just where we worship…it’s where we worship together. Church isn’t just where we pray…it’s where we pray together.
When you invite everyone back to church, focus on the relationships—not the sermon or the Bible Studies.
Those are the things people have been missing. That’s what people are craving.
Use language like “we can’t wait to see you face to face” or “we’ve missed you.” Work hard and leave space for creating human connections.
Too many churches focus on their content—the sermons, the studies, the songs, and the services. These are great things! But most of these things can be experienced digitally with little to no drop off. Listening to someone talk for 30 minutes is arguably better and more efficient via video. Over the last few months, we’ve gotten pretty good at consuming content online.
But community is different.
No matter how many Zoom calls or FaceTimes we do, it’s not really good enough. There’s something special that happens when the body of Christ gathers.
Lean into this and make your re-gathering plan about the people, not the programs.
#3 – Develop a communication plan.
When you’re ready to start gathering, some people—your raving fans—will be first in line to walk through the doors.
But it’s going to take a lot more effort to convince the masses.
A few announcement emails and some social media posts for a couple of weeks won’t be nearly enough.
You need a long-term communication plan that addresses all the facets of re-opening, from safety protocols to inspiration. And this plan will likely need to span six months or more.
As you build this communication plan, here are a few things to consider.
- Focus on all the channels, starting with email. Hopefully, you’ve made a concerted effort over the last few months to get an email address from everyone. This may seem like the most boring way to communicate, but it’s the most efficient. It’s an audience you own and your message isn’t dependent on algorithms. Think through an entire email campaign, focusing on different angles in each message.
- Then expand to all the social media channels, video, testimonies of members, and more. Think of every channel and tactic as a tool in the toolbox. Each tool has a purpose but you need them all. It’s nearly impossible to over-build the plan.
The Senior Pastor’s Guide to Reopening has some great resources you can use to develop a reopening communications plan.
#4 – Lay off the pressure.
It’s going to require a significant effort, particularly when it comes to communications, to invite your members and community back to a service.
But my final piece of advice is to do all of this without laying on any guilt at all.
People will return when they are ready and when they think it’s worth it. Keep preaching that to yourself and recognize that you can only influence one part of that equation.
You can work hard to create a great (and safe) experience, and you can communicate the why behind the what, but you can’t make a decision for people.
So don’t pressure and don’t use guilt. That will backfire.
Even though things are changing and ministry will continue to feel different, there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful about the future of the church.
Gathering is good.
Whether we’re meeting in homes or auditoriums, getting together with other Christians has been and will continue to be an important part of practicing our faith.
Let’s rise to the challenge and, when ready, find appropriate ways to invite people back to church services.
If you want to move past the reopening conversation and start working on how your church can REBOUND in this next season, we have a premium course for you. It’s called REBOUND, and it’s about transitioning from defense to offense.
You can enroll in the course for a one-time fee or get it included with a Church Fuel membership. Get the course here.