Will They Come Back?


Recently I was taking part in a Session conversation about the future of their church. It was clear to me that these ruling elders were living up to the standards of leadership any church would want on their Session. They were bright, articulate, deeply faithful, visionary, and sensitive to the needs of the congregation. I listened as they struggled with the question I am hearing echoed throughout the presbytery and the church beyond: “Will they come back?” Will the church be able to return to the pre-COVID attendance? How many families have discovered that it’s easier to sit at home with their children and take a “rest day” on Sunday while watching worship online? How do we plan, budget, get volunteers if we don’t know if they are even coming back? 

Sometimes we are faced with more questions than answers.

I believe we are in a unique time in the life of the church. The pandemic has simply accelerated the direction things were going before COVID. Remember those times? Membership decline. Merging, yoking, and closing of churches. Conflict over politics, leadership style, and power struggles within the congregation. The previous way we were doing church was shaking and buckling, and now it is crumbling and making the way for new forms of faithful expression. I believe we are experiencing the end of something and the beginning of something else. How exciting! How fearful!

I would like to reframe the central question from, “Will they come back?” to “Who is coming back?” One observation is that the people who are attending worship are folks who want to be there.  

I once attended a church where the pastor also ran a business, and most of the people in attendance at the church were his employees. He made it clear that if you are going to work for me, you are also going to attend my church! They didn’t want to be there, and their lack of spirit, enthusiasm, and willingness to volunteer was also evident.

The people who are sitting in our pews are present because they want to be there. Our challenge then is less about membership and more about purpose. Our focus should be less about membership rolls and more about the identity of the church. The question then shifts to, “Who are we, and who would want to be a part of our church community?”

In his book, Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World, Gil Rendle writes, “Stepping into questions without answers produces chaos, and chaos is the right condition in which deep change can happen. . . I simply want to recognize that the appropriate role of the leader is simply to stand with the people in their confusion and discernment in their chaos.”

The in-between time we are experiencing often feels like chaos. But when leaders stand with the congregation and with one another, God seems to sustain them and reminds all of us of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, especially during change.

Rev. Craig M. Howard