7 Minute Read…
When you consider the early days of your church, who were you trying to reach?
Perhaps your visions statement pointed the church toward those far from God. Or maybe it wasn’t an official public statement but rather an internal drive to reach all the unreached in your community.
If you planted a church, I suspect you deeply desired to reach those in your surrounding community who didn’t yet attend a church. You weren’t trying to steal people from others churches. You were trying to help reach the unreached. You were hoping to grow the Kingdom, not swap some sheep.
Like me, many of you took over the leadership of an existing church. Your goal was similar to the church planter, though. You wanted to see your church grow by reaching those not yet engaged with any church.
During my days of pastoral ministry, I was primarily concerned with reaching the unchurched and dechurched. Of course, we equally cared about discipleship and developing people in their Christ-likeness, but you can’t grow people if you don’t first reach people.
Those groups are somewhat unique. We defined them as such:
Unchurched: Never (literally) been to church.
Dechurched: Haven’t been to church in a really, really long time. Like five years long.
Programmatically, these delineations were helpful in how we planned services, chose language, and engaged with our congregation.
The pandemic brought with it a multitude of church implications. Here’s one we all need to consider:
The majority of your pre-pandemic congregation disengaged from your church during the pandemic.
I know a portion watched online. Some even weekly. But, the vast majority disengaged more and more with each passing month.
Do you know what that makes the majority of our previous congregation?
Perhaps not in the pre-pandemic sense of the word, but let’s consider for a moment the church pandemic experience for an average congregational attendee. Before we begin to argue, this is for the average attendee. There are always exceptions. There’s a reason we call them “exceptions.”
The Pandemic Church Experience for the Average Church Person:
Before the pandemic, the average congregant attended one to two times a month. At my former church, the average was 1.4. That was trending down year over year, as well. In March 2020, we all shut our doors for what we thought would be two or three weeks. Massive numbers of people watched online, and we celebrated our digital success. For most, online attendance remained strong (and even grew) through Easter, but then the bottom fell out. Not for every person and not for every church, but for the average person and typical church.
A digital church service isn’t the same as a physical church gathering. Digital ministry is critical and has a place, but not as a complete replacement of the physical gathering. During the pandemic, people began to establish new rhythms, which did not always include church. More often than not, people’s new rhythms absolutely did not involve the church.
As the pandemic raged on, it wore everyone down — including your congregation. Add the racial unrest, the political fiasco, COVID mis and disinformation, working from home, and homeschooling, and complete exhaustion set in. None of which led to increased church involvement in any of its various forms.
One more thing: Crisis serves to accelerate. The pandemic accelerated church trends and created new rhythms that didn’t include a Sunday morning drive to a physical church location. It barely involved turning on a screen to take in some church content.
There you have it. Most church people became dechurched. They may not have been away for five years, but the year plus was plenty to normalize church disengagement, especially in an accelerated environment.
Reengaging Our New Dechurched Church:
What should we do? That’s the billion-dollar question, right?
Do we invest in massive digital experiences? Do we double-down on getting people back in buildings? Do we attempt to become the “Amazon” of church? Do we treat digital church as our side-hustle?
Here’s a thought: What if we stopped trying to get our old congregation back and, instead, tried to reach the dechurched people in our community — including those formerly churched in our church? That was our focus in the beginning. And that is what our community needs from us again today.
How did you do that in the past? How did you previously engage the disengaged and dechurched?
Getting back to some dechurched church basics:
Inviting: Considering the faith needs of others (evangelism) is both caught and taught. In the early days of your ministry, you frequently reminded your congregation to invest in the lives of others and invite them when the time is right. Today, you can invite people to experience your church digitally before attending physically. Invitations have never been more accessible. The pandemic forced us all to better understand and utilize digital experiences. We experimented learned. Now we need to remind.
Groups: Early on, you taught your church to engage in small groups by creating incremental experiences that provided a taste of community. Perhaps you hosted topical conversations in a larger group setting. Maybe you created a conversational short-term group experience for people seeking to learn more about the Christian faith. Or possibly you connect people to a mentor relationship as a first step. It’s time to reset groups by going back to group fundamentals.
Serving: In the beginning, you inspired their participation, provided easy on-ramps to engage with a volunteer team, and limited the initial commitment. A dechurched person will rarely go from not attending to weekly attendance, much less weekly serving. The chasm is too great. If you want to engage the dechurched in volunteerism, you must provide simple, incremental steps with limited commitment. One-time experiences are significant first steps. Monthly options can engage people without fear of commitment. Remember, most of these people have not been actively attending church for over a year! Make volunteering easy, simple, and meaningful.
Giving: When you were getting started, you inspired generosity through sharing stories, creating need-based giving opportunities, and teaching on the power of stewardship. In the beginning, you worked hard to build financial trust between yourself, the church leadership, and the congregation. You didn’t expect a dechurched person to give sacrificially. If anything, you helped them become a needs-based giver as a first step. The dechurched person needs time to choose generosity. Incremental giving steps can build the trust and repetition necessary to grow their stewardship.
I wrote extensively about this HERE.
In summary, you previously treated the dechurched as if they were dechurched. You were intentional and strategic in moving them towards incremental, and eventually deeper, levels of engagement.
I’ll tell you what you didn’t do! You didn’t expect a dechurched person to engage like a churched person.
Face it. Today, for the most part, your congregation is predominantly dechurched. We can’t expect them to behave like church people because they really aren’t any longer. Even if they were previously churched, presuming pre-pandemic behavior from the now mid- to post-pandemic dechurched sets us up for massive frustration. Worse, these expectations do nothing to engage the dechurched to re-become churched.
How can I help?
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