Post-Covid’s Big Question in Churches Across the Country: Wonder Where the People Are?

You remember the childhood rhyme and pantomime:  Here’s the church (Hands Clasped with fingers touching one’s palms). Here’s the steeple (index fingers pointed up and touching), Open the doors (thumbs are the doors) and see all the people (palms up and wiggling fingers which represent the church full of people). 

Post-Covid there is a slight variation. There is still a church (hands clasped but fingers are on top as the “the roof of the church”). There is still a steeple. You still open the doors, but there are no fingers (no people) inside. As a kid, we’d play the game that way and recited this rhyme (to the irritation of my mother): “Wonder where the people are? They’re across the street at the corner bar (Our hands once again clasped with fingers wiggling and wobbling). My mom was not amused.

No one is amused by the church attendance numbers, post-covid and are asking, “wonder where the people are?” Most churches have less in-person worshippers than before the pandemic. Pew Research found that only 2/3 pre-covid attenders have returned (see the research here). Of those 2/3 returning attenders, many are not returning to the same attendance pattern as before the pandemic. Where have all the people gone? 

There are probably several answers to the question: some people used the pandemic as an opportunity to shop for a new church; some are still cautious about covid; some regular attenders have died; on-line viewing is favorable to busy schedules or introverted ways; fewer people are visiting churches; and some, frankly, gave up on the church.

Most churches have examples of all of the above reasons. Anecdotally, it seems most folks missing-in-action are for a hybrid of reasons. Most non-returning attenders, would not say that they have given up on God (a few have). In fact, most non-returning attenders would not say that have given up on the church (a few have). Instead, they are just are not attending in person with the same consistency and regularity they once did. 

In the past, sickness didn’t keep worshippers from church. They still came unless they were running a high fever. Now, who wants to sit next to a person coughing and sniffling throughout the service? If they’re from a family, if one kiddo is sick the whole family stays home. In fact, if a person has been around someone sick (even if that person didn’t test positive for covid), they stay home. Just in case they may be contagious too. If on Sunday afternoon, they are to meet up with an immune-compromised or elderly relative, they stay home. They don’t want to catch something at church and bring it back to their loved one. Few thought in those terms, pre-Covid. People just went to church never worrying about the germs that might pick up and pass on. 

Pre-Covid the average “regular attender” worshipper attended church less than two times a month. Those numbers were trending south even before the pandemic. When I was a kid, our family attended church every Sunday unless on our death bed. Counting two weeks of vacation (see next paragraph) and maybe a sick day (maybe), we probably averaged 49 Sundays a year in our local church. Those days are over.

On vacation back in the day, we’d still attend church. Preferably, it was a Nazarene church (or closest thing to it). We’d take the bulletin home to prove our faithfulness to the pastor (under the guise of “Hey preacher, maybe you can get some new ideas from this church we visited on vacation.”). My wife’s family even attended Sunday School on vacation. That doesn’t happen anymore either. Folks on vacation might (emphasis on “might”) watch or listen to their home church service while driving, at their camp-sight, hotel room or relative’s house. Out-of-town visitors with no connection to the church are as rare as an attendance board in the foyer. 

If one was running late in the old days (by “old days,” I mean before March 2020), the parishioner drove fast. Pulled into the church parking lot barely missing a couple of teenagers who were sneaking out of the service. Rushed in. Took a back-row spot sometime between the third song and the passing of the offering plates (remember when we used to pass… offering plates, communion trays and “the peace”? No more.). Now if one is running late, the go-to response is, “I’ll catch this week on line.” No need to rush around like a maniac. 

Bad hair days; no clean clothes; early football games; late activities on Saturday night; busy week ahead; and a million other reasons are enough for folks to stay away from church on a Sunday morning with the understanding they can catch the service on-line. Such occurrences happen with far greater frequency than before Covid. 

Wonder where the people are? They are all over. Complaining about his reality doesn’t help. Brow beating current in-person worshippers will only lead to less worshippers. The answer to this dilemma is a simple one: Keep being faithful. Keep praying. Keep singing. Keep preaching the Word. Keep participating in the sacraments. Keep serving in the community. Keep loving your neighbors. Keep being the church of Jesus Christ, and the gates of hell shall not prevail. 

Lastly (most importantly), keep the welcome mat out for the not-as-frequent-as-they-once-were-attenders. When they walk through the doors, don’t say things like, “Where in the world have you been?” or “look what the cat drug in.” Instead say, “Glad to see you. Hello dear friend.” If you are a hugger, give them a hug. A fist bump will work too. Pray that while in the worship service, they will encounter God and recall all that they have missed since the last time they were in-person in church. Pray that God will strike a holy fire within them. Pray that the church will once again be filled with people, filled with the Holy Spirit, determined to reach our world with the love of Jesus.