Who’s Coming Back to Church?

I have some good news and some challenging news about what we’re learning regarding the post-pandemic church and worship patterns. The good news is that those who were committed to coming to church before the pandemic are returning to worship. Even though churches are seeing 75 – 85% of members returning, chances are that the 15 – 25% of people who are not returning were on the edges of membership before the pandemic.

The January 2022 survey entitled Faith After the Pandemic: How COVID-19 Changed American Religion finds that “very few Americans who were most active in their places of worship before the pandemic have since left. However, those who were attending infrequently—attending just a few times a year—dropped at a much higher rate.”

The people who are currently attending worship are the people who want to be there! This may translate into greater participation in mission and giving. This is also the foundation of the church that will attract the next generation of members and participants.

Here is the challenging news. For the first time since tracking these statistics, more congregations closed than were planted or started. In the online Guardian newspaper article, Losing Their Religion: Why US Churches Are on the Decline, Adam Gabbatt writes, “About 4,500 Protestant churches closed in 2019, the last year data is available, with about 3,000 new churches opening, according to Lifeway Research. It was the first time the number of churches in the US hadn’t grown since the evangelical firm started studying the topic.”

There are many reasons a church closes. These include loss of young people, aging of congregation, death or leaving of large donors, disconnection from community, and financial decline. Over the past 4 years in the Presbytery of Chicago, we have closed or merged 9churches, reducing our membership from 89 congregations to 80.

From this article, I find at least two takeaways for our presbytery. First, our presbytery should continue our focus on creating New Worshipping Communities (NWC). These new expressions of church are the future and life of the presbytery. One of my mission priorities is to increase the number of NWCs from 3 to 6 over the next 3 years. Perhaps that isn’t aggressive enough, but it is a step toward the right direction.

Second, the presbytery along with our congregations need to develop ways to hear the voices of those young people who are outside of our church walls. How can we listen to the children and grandchildren of members who are not attending? Most are probably spiritual but not religious, which is the fastest growing segment of the population. Perhaps they can tell us what the church can do differently and where the church is missing the mark. We may also be challenged by their statements. How much is the church willing to adapt to attract the energy and participation of young people? Are we willing to adjust the Book of Order? What does membership or leadership mean to these newer generations?

Sometimes it’s difficult to look at these realities. May we have the courage to face and grapple with the challenges of adaption and change in these times.

Rev. Craig Howard