After nearly one full year, we opened the Woodstock City Church building for in-person services on February 14, 2021.
We knew our physical attendance numbers would be much, much smaller than the previous February. We required registration, masks, temperature checks, and social distancing. We capped our registration at 40% of auditorium capacity, knowing our no-show rate would net us closer to 30% in attendance. We were cautious and careful, prioritizing science, safety, and influence as best we could.
All things considered, and all the frustrated emails and conversations had, our plans worked pretty well.
Fast-forward a few months, and many of our COVID protocols are going away. In our community, vaccines have been readily available for six to eight weeks. I received my second shot three weeks ago without any wait. We are now mask-optional in the lower portion of our auditorium and moving away from registration and even social distancing soon.
Under our initial, strict protocols, I expected physical attendance to be a fraction of the past. We guessed correctly. We’ve experienced anywhere from 30 – 40% of pre-pandemic, in-person attendance. That number has slowly increased, but only to around 50%.
Here’s my concern: As we remove the remaining protocols, I fear our in-person numbers won’t increase that rapidly. They may not increase at all. Not because everyone is still afraid of COVID or watching our online service stream.
I’m afraid we’ve lost a significant percentage of former church attenders for good.
Of course, some are attending in-person church services. Some have left our church permanently for other churches in the area. The intense polarization of virtually every topic created additional pandemics of anger and frustration that led to some unnecessary sheep-swapping. But even taking those who are attending elsewhere into account, we are missing a lot of people.
There are massive numbers of people completely missing in church action (MICA). As far as I can tell, they divide into two separate categories:
Group One: The church consumers with digitally reinforced behavior
Over the past decade, our increasingly consumeristic culture created space for churches to utilize consumeristic messaging and experiences to attract people to church. Hear me loud and clear: I’m not against the attractional church per se (after all, do any of us want to create an unattractive church?), but attractional churches can accidentally create an easy conduit for consumeristic Christians. And that was before the pandemic!
Without any in-person services for months on end, digital-only church further reinforced the ease of consumeristic patterns by allowing people to attend without “attending,” making church even easier for the predisposed church consumer. These people may come back to an in-person event or service at some point, but I’m not holding my breath. They were consumers before the pandemic, and now, the ease of digital church solidified their behavior.
BTW, they have children who aren’t coming back, either. While adults might have the willpower or desire to consume spiritual growth content (sermons, books, etc.) on their own, what about their children? This should frighten every pastor.