With the Delta variant reminding us that this pandemic will be around at least into 2022, many congregations are facing the fact that they will not be seeing a significant percentage of their members returning to in-person worship this fall. And the longer some members continue to only worship online, the more likely many of them will rarely, if ever, return to worship in your sanctuary.
As I have been coaching church transition teams and call committees over the last eighteen months I always ask what their current attendance is compared to 2019. In almost all cases the answer is that average in-person worship attendance has dropped 30 to 50%.
Needless to say, this is a serious congregational ministry crisis that needs to be addressed. But what can be done? I suggest two strategies. One is to provide an on-going, quality member-care ministry for every member who worshiped regularly in 2019 but has been consistently absent from in-person services since then. The second strategy is to institute ways these online worshipers can be engaged and discipled by and through your weekly online sermons. Only a combination of these two strategies, in my view, will significantly reduce the number of online worshipers who will eventually be lost to inactivity.
Your member-care effort should include phone conversations, every two to four weeks, with lay volunteers who have been recruited and “trained” for this ministry. These conversations would be to see how this person is doing, and to ask if he/she has any personal prayer requests. The volunteer would not only offer to pray personally for the member; he/she would volunteer to pass the prayer request on to the congregation’s prayer team. Ideally, each of these online worshipers should be contacted, consistently, by the same volunteer.
Now for the second strategy: Striving to engage online worshipers through your weekly sermons. One example is how one LCMC congregation in suburban St. Louis used a sermon series on the Gospel of Mark to encourage both in-person and online worshipers to read the entire Gospel. Members were asked to read a chapter each week in preparation for the following Sunday’s sermon. The chapters were broken down into daily devotional reading texts to encourage members to develop a daily Bible-reading discipline. Another idea would be to invite online comments regarding the next Sunday’s sermon theme. This feedback could be in the form of survey questions where their answers—sent in via email—could be incorporated (anonymously) into the following Sunday’s message. One more idea is to offer a mid-week online, interactive Bible study for members who are on Facebook. This would make it possible for live “classes” where participants could make comments in real time. The result would be a discussion-oriented Bible class/devotional time. And finally, why not have your congregation host one or more weekly Zoom Bible studies? This could achieve a group dynamic which would be almost the same as gathering in person. I have done a lot of work these last eighteen months on Zoom. I find these Zoom meetings to be very discussion-oriented; especially when the total number of participants is not more than six to nine people. And since the beginning of this pandemic a great many more Americans have become comfortable with and open to the idea of gathering and conversing online.
All the above suggestions would help prevent increased inactivity among those members who are not yet able—or comfortable enough—to return to your in-person worship services and classes. However, please note that the second-strategy ideas above presume that you will continue to offer online worship; at least as long as this pandemic continues. You will want to do this not only for your members, but also as an outreach to the unchurched in your community.