Standing in the lobby of the church, I can not get over how quiet it is. Six months ago, the lobby was breaming with children running under everyone’s feet. The breakfast café was filled with men talking over coffee about sports, mothers trying to persuade their children to grab fresh fruit instead of a donut, and teens waiting their turn to grab themselves something to eat. But today, like many Sundays since we reopened our campus, the café is closed, families have stayed home, men no longer talk, they walk by each other to their seats. Teens who once congregated, sit apart from each other clustered with their parents wearing a mask, and I cannot help but think -what happened to the church I pastored before the pandemic? In my prayer time, God has revealed four steps of finding hope in anemic attendance.
Be grateful for who is there?
I was so focused on who was not attending Church each Sunday that I was missing who was entering her doors. When I realized this, I began making it a practice to celebrate each person and family as they walk in. While I used to position myself in the lobby fifteen minutes before Sunday School and again before morning Worship pre-pandemic, I had stopped the practice since we had come back because I was becoming depressed before the service at the lack of cars in the parking lot. As I prayed one Sunday, the Lord checked my spirit and reminded me to celebrate the families who were coming. Instead of dreading the lack of attendance each Sunday, I now celebrate the attendance not for the number size, but for each person and family that makes up the living church.
Be thankful for the church you do have.
As churches in my community began to reopen, my social media page revealed Church after Church boasting about their attendance gains, while my church was barely breaking 45% of pre-Covid attendance numbers. I began to doubt my call and leadership ability, but a friend said to me one day as I complained, ‘be thankful for the church you do have.’ A lightbulb went off in my mind. ‘Be thankful.’ I started arriving at church before everyone on Sunday and began to say out loud, a special thanks to God for the church that I do have. As I flipped on each light in a classroom, bathroom, fellowship hall, I thanked God for the people who have, will, are, and will again walk into those spaces. The simple act of being thankful has brightened my Sunday’s, instead of discouraging them.
Be present with the ones who need your attention.
As a pastor, I have always tried to balance my time serving the people of my congregation and those outside the walls. God recently reminded me that I needed to be more present with those in front of me. I realized that I do not control what others do and needed to stop worrying about who did not attend Sunday service this week, or why they chose not to come. I needed to be present with the ones who had made an effort to go to church. In a way, God permitted me to grieve those who have not returned, but also cherish the ones who have come back to church. Realizing that each person in front of me is valuable not only to God but also to my calling. Those who do attend – do not realize how much of a gift they indeed are. Each smile behind the mask and each person who fills an empty chair assures me that God is not done with the church nor me, and it inspires me to keep going.
Be outwardly focused six days a week.
Sunday mornings have always been the ‘Super Bowl’ for many in the church’s spiritual focus. Programs and people have been trained to make the best God impression for guests on Sunday’s. The rest of the week has been designed for the laypeople of the church. The pandemic has scrambled the church’s focus and has caused me to be a six-day a week outwardly focused leader. If Sunday mornings stay at 50% of pre-Covid levels, the church must adjust to the change and adapt to reach more of the lost. Sunday’s are great, but there is a whole community going to hell because I led my people to be inward focused on Sundays and not sending them out. Find local non-profits who need people power and come alongside of them and see to it as a mission of the local church to serve the community six days a week and use Sunday mornings as a refreshing of the soul as your people pour themselves out during the week.
The pandemic will not be over anytime soon, but you can find hope in anemic attendance by refocusing yourself to lead like never before.
Dr. Desmond Barrett, Lead Pastor at Summit Church of the Nazarene in Ashland KY.