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The Two Largest Groups Who Have Not Returned to In-Person Worship Since COVID

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“I really want to see all of our members return to in-person services. I really miss them.”

This sentence was from a pastor in North Carolina. We were in a conversation about a church consultation. His comments quickly turned to the often-asked question today: When will our churches get back to normal?

As I have noted on several occasions, if “normal” means pre-COVID behavior, we will not return at all. We will, however, experience a new normal. We have to be ready for it when it comes.

I have notes from recent conversations with over 60 pastors. Some of the conversations were by Zoom or phone, others were interactions at Church Answers. While 60 conversations do not constitute a large sample, they do provide us some guidance on reality in churches today.

In that regard, we are hearing about the two largest groups who have not returned to in-person service. These groups are mentioned consistently when we hear from church leaders.

Senior Adults

The pastors with whom I spoke categorized senior adults in one of three groups: 65 and up; 70 and up; and 75 and up. The most common group noted was 70 and up.

The reasons for many of these seniors’ hesitancy to return are obvious. They are one of the greatest at-risk groups for COVID. Secondly, many of them have not received both COVID vaccinations.

Families with Young Children

As a rule, parents whose children are back in school classrooms are likely to be comfortable bringing those children to in-person church gatherings. But if the child is younger than school age, the hesitancy to return is greater. The entire family typically does not return to church.

This group of non-returnees is typically not as large in number as the senior adults who have not returned. But the combination of these two groups can be a significant number in a given church.

Will They Ever Return?

The good news is that, at some point, the pandemic will abate significantly. Eventually, the deadly virus will run its course through vaccines and natural immunity.

The challenging news is that many of these stragglers are not planning to return at all. Any discipline, including the discipline of attending church, develops through habits. Those who have not returned are out of the habit of attending church. Many have already decided they can do fine without attending church.

What can church leaders do in the meantime? You can stay in touch with the stragglers. A simple contact can go a long way. You can start a new digital Bible study group. Though it’s not as good as the in-person experience, it can connect them to others. And you can minister to them. Start a prayer ministry or use your existing prayer ministry to pray for these stragglers. Ask them for prayer requests. Follow up with them.

We will continue to monitor the post-quarantine church carefully. In the meantime, let us know what you are seeing in your church regarding non-returnees. Comment here and share your knowledge and wisdom with others.

It’s a challenging time.

But it is also a time of great opportunity as God’s Spirit continues to work in our churches.

This article originally appeared on ChurchAnswers.com

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thomrainer@churchleaders.com'
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.