How Church Engagement Is Shifting
Now that we are emerging from the pandemic, we’re all asking, What is the future of the church?
Truthfully, there is a lot that we do not know. For instance, we do not know the size of most churches anymore. We speak of attendance in terms of B.C. (Before COVID-19). Many churches are still figuring out who will come back. Furthermore, we don’t even know what church will look like a year from now. The exponential growth in online services during the pandemic only adds to the difficulty of tracking numbers of attendees.
With that said, the most likely scenario is church will look like it did in the past. As a matter of fact, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Early on in the pandemic, some predicted this as the beginning of the end of the large church. It doesn’t seem like those who made such predictions took history, or even human behavior, into full account.
History tells us that Christians gathered after pandemics. COVID-19 is not the first pandemic in the history of the church, nor is it by any means the worst pandemic the church has faced. The church survived and thrived after the Black Plague, and the church survived and thrived after the Spanish Flu. And at some point in the future it will be said that the church survived and thrived after COVID-19. But what will surviving and thriving look like for the post-pandemic church? Here are three trends shaping the post-pandemic church today.
1. The ‘Great Sort’
I do predict the attendance numbers that we have seen in 2020 and still see in many cases in 2021 will return to normal in 2022. However, there’s one major caveat: the “Great Sort.” This Great Sort took place in 2021, not because of the pandemic, but because of social and cultural concerns.
Huge numbers of people have moved from church to church for reasons only tangentially related to the pandemic. For example, some people left their church because the church wore masks. Others left their churches because the church did not wear masks. They sorted themselves into churches that followed their view of masking.
Some people left churches because they heard the name George Floyd, others because they did not hear his name. Some people left churches because the Sunday after the U.S. presidential election the pastor prayed for former Vice President Joe Biden. Others left churches because the pastor didn’t pray for President Biden.
This is heartbreaking on many levels, but certainly one of the more lamentable realities is that people left their church—churches they had been members at for years or even decades—over either minor disagreements or major political differences. I remember speaking to Andy Stanley on a podcast where he explained how some people whom he’d pastored for decades decided to change their entire view on him because he chose to keep North Point closed for worship gatherings through 2020.
The Great Sort has affected churches of all sizes. While I believe attendance numbers will normalize over the next year or so, once the dust settles a major reshuffling of people between church will result.
2. Layers of Engagement
Beyond the Great Sort is what I call layers of engagement. During the pandemic there were three kinds of churchgoers. I will call them the people in the front rows, the middle rows and the back rows. Those in the proverbial front row actually became more involved in ministry during the pandemic. These people increased their engagement in their community. In fact, one of the reasons that many churches have actually done well in the pandemic is because of the front row.
The middle rows engaged, but not to the extent of the front rows. Some people in these middle rows participated in the Great Sort. Their engagement transitioned into a process of finding another church.
However, I want to really draw our attention to the back rows. Those in the proverbial back rows represent a far larger number than those present at church on a typical Sunday. Why? Because those in the back row tend to come less frequently than those on the middle and front rows. Before COVID-19, those in the back rows typically attended church one or two times a month. But in many ways, and for many reasons, many of these people have been disconnected from their church during the pandemic. Some experts say that many churches will see a 20 to 30% drop in attendance post-pandemic compared pre-pandemic levels. Most of that loss will be from the people who once sat in the back rows.
While I argued way before the pandemic was ever a thing that the church in North America had pretty much reached all the dechurched, I now believe—thanks to the pandemic and those in the back rows that have disconnected—that the dechurched population has been replenished.
3. The American Cultural Convulsion
The last issue to consider as we think about what the church will look like moving forward is an American cultural convulsion. Every 60 years it appears that the United States goes into a cultural, or moral, convulsion. David Brooks, a relatively new follower of Christ and a New York Times columnist, wrote about this in his article, “America Is Having a Cultural Convulsion” in The Atlantic. Brooks writes, “Levels of trust in this country—in our institutions, in our politics, and in one another—are in precipitous decline. And when social trust collapses, nations fail.”
It’s important to remember that Americans faced more than a pandemic in 2020. We witnessed racial injustice, riots, political division, mixed messages from politicians and scientists, and economic collapse. A lot transpired in the past year that will have negative ripple effects for years to come. One of the effects is the U.S. fracturing into many smaller factions and tribes. We are deeply divided, so much so that people have referred to this time as a “cold civil war.” And this cultural convulsion will lead to greater conflict in churches that will last for years.
The Post-Pandemic Church
This is not only a challenging time ministerially and missionally, but culturally as well. Given these challenges, pastors will need reservoirs of resilience to help them get through this season.
In the past I said if 5% of your church isn’t mad at you at any given time, you’re probably not leading well. I’ve also jokingly added that you probably need to slow it down if 70% of your church is mad at you. However, today I would say if 15 to 20% of your congregation is not frustrated or mad at you, you’re probably not leading them through some of the harder issues of our day. In short, leading churches isn’t getting any easier, but harder, messier and more difficult.
While I don’t know exactly where things are going, I do know these are difficult days that have presented us with many challenges. On the flip side, I do believe with these challenges come great opportunities for ministry. How we seize these gospel opportunities will determine whether we emerge from this season in a state of survival or positioned for revival.
My prayer is that pastors and church leaders will courageously lead their churches to be salt for a decaying world, light for a dark world and gospel witnesses for the glory of our King. That’s not only my prayer but my hope for the post-pandemic church.