Preaching to an empty church in the early days of the COVID crisis was jarring, to say the least.
I knew the cameras were rolling but was anyone really watching?
Losing my congregation was disheartening, even though we knew it wasn’t a permanent loss…at least not totally.
Certainly, by now, it is clear church attendance is not returning to pre-COVID numbers automatically. And perhaps some of our former weekly attendees aren’t coming back ever. The reasons aren’t exactly clear, but the fact of the matter is.
COVID didn’t introduce declining church attendance but it definitely accelerated it. The experience at my parish, and that of pastors I have spoken to recently, is that parishes are only seeing about two-thirds of their pre-COVID attendance. This behavioral change seems to be true across geographic boundaries, ideological and liturgical styles, and denominations.
There are some positive signs. While attendance has decreased, in many places giving has remained steady. Even more remarkably, millennials are the generational cohort returning to church faster than any other. Boomers, surprisingly, have been the slowest to return to church.
We won’t be able to turn back the clock or reverse the cultural changes which seem to have taken place. But what we can control – and what will make the difference between long-term success and failure – is our response to declining or depressed attendance. In parish renewal, mindset can be just as important as methods.
We write in Rebuilt that the holy discontent we felt about the state of the parish we were leading was a major motivator in our quest to find a better way. But it can just as easily become a destructive resentment. Rather than seek to understand, we blame parishioners for their disinterest. We can even wear declining attendance as a badge of honor, basking in the feeling of superiority over those who have not returned. At its worst, anger can lead to a kind of extremism which proposes solutions that either seek to recreate an unattainable moment in time or, on the other hand, turn away from orthodox teachings. Both are unhelpful.
Often following anger, we can experience despair about the situation our parish finds itself in. This must be especially true where the loss of attendance is accompanied by loss of income. It is easy to sympathize with any pastor or parish staffer who starts feeling this way, but it should be guarded against.
Despair is the opposite of faith, and our communities must be animated by faith, centers of faith.
Despair will infect preaching and teaching, diminish worship, and create a toxic environment that even the people who are coming don’t want to be a part of.
Ignoring the issue is the easiest response to declining attendance.
Early in COVID, we started telling ourselves, “they’ll be back.” Just give it enough time, just wait till the latest variant slows down, just wait until next season. It all comes down to how long we can keep up the wishful thinking.
Out of a desire to grasp control, we demand that people play by our rules and show up for the Sacraments. I call this ‘going dark’: shutting down online broadcasts of parish Masses so that people are coerced to return in person. The only problem with this approach is that in the Internet age, they can always find another online Mass somewhere else and meanwhile lose any remaining connection with your parish.
We didn’t choose to lead our churches in a historic period of change and upheaval, but it is the one that God has prepared for us.
Instead of anger, despair, ignorance, or nostalgia, we can adopt a mindset of growth, acceptance, and trust in God’s plan and lead our churches forward through this unique moment.
Let’s focus on creating:
No matter what your response has been to declining attendance, you’re not alone. The Rebuilt network of churches stands behind you in the trenches. If you’re looking for relevant strategies and encouragement, consider joining us for a Rebuilt Equip Session.
This blog was written by Father Michael White, the Pastor of Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. Contact Fr. White at [email protected].