Why haven’t some people come back to church?

Lately I’ve been pondering the question of why some people haven’t come back to church. I italicized come back in that last sentence because I think that’s the focal point that needs attention in a variety of ways.

If people aren’t coming back, we should be asking the question – why not?

There’s a few things to consider here. For one thing, church attendance and membership has been in decline for decades – people have been leaving for a long time. Have we been asking why? Have we been open to listening to the answers? Do we really want to hear the answers? Are we willing to do anything about them? Is getting more people in the pew the correct thing? Is that really the goal? What is the goal? What is the purpose of the church? Are we even clear about that?

Secondly, I think when most people talk about people coming back to church, they are referring to people leaving because of the pandemic and not returning in person to their churches, or not returning at all. Again, the question needs to be asked – why not?

More to consider – what has changed for these people? What habits have they created? What trauma have they gone through? How has their lives changed over these last three years?

But we can’t just look at the people, we need to also look at the church as well. Has the church changed? In what way? Are those changes moving closer to the changes of peoples’ lives or further from people’s lives? And who? The existing folks? New folks? People who had walked away from church before? People who suffered some kind of trauma because of the church in the past but held out hope for a future relationship with the church?

More to consider – is in person the only acceptable norm going forward? Why? Is it because that is the way we’ve always done it? What would a healthy hybrid model look like? What about a healthy online model? Is that possible? What does all this mean about how we restructure what the church looks like and functions to meet the mission of the church? To meet people where they are? To proclaim the Gospel? To distribute the sacraments and the means of grace to people?

Lots of questions without any clear answers.

Here’s what I know – assuming that people have to come back to the church, the institution, is quite an assumption. Why should they? That’s the question we in the institution should be struggling with. It’s a humbling question. A question that moves us from a privileged place in which we assume that everyone will shift and move their priorities on behalf of the institution, because they won’t and they shouldn’t. The church isn’t the center of the culture anymore. People don’t feel any obligation to shift their priorities around the institution. The church is just one of many options available to people – with many folks simply foregoing the option all together. Those are realities. And it would be wise for the church to ask a simple question – why? And to listen very carefully. Not listening to counter, or to come up with arguments as to why the answers are false. But listening to understand. To listen with humility. To listen without interruption. To listen with intent to better know itself, its mission and purpose. To listen so that it knows better of what is life giving, and what needs to die, so that resurrection can happen. To listen so that confession and forgiveness can take place, along with repair and reconciliation where appropriate. To listen so that shalom wholeness can be the goal.


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