The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly changed church. Routines were upset. Most church buildings closed, and churches went online with various levels of success. Some buildings have since reopened, but with restrictions. And where churches have reopened, not all members have rushed back. What can be done to encourage our people to return to worship in our church buildings? What simple steps could local church leaders—elders, deacons, and deaconesses—take to maximize physical attendance when the opportunity to return is available?
Here are seven things your local church can do to increase physical attendance:
1. FOLLOW THE STRICTEST HEALTH GUIDELINES AT CHURCH
Many have suffered during this pandemic and want to reconnect with fellow believers, but they expect church to be a safe place. Some have told me, “I want to go back, but when I have returned people did not maintain social distancing guidelines. They wanted to hug and shake hands, but I am nervous with that! I do not want to return to church if the strictest standards to prevent the spread of the virus are not maintained.” This means no handshaking, hugs, kisses, or touching. It also means that the bathroom/toilet facilities are regularly wiped, hand sanitizer is available, and registration requirements are followed. To encourage physical attendance, all that can be done must be done to ensure members feel comfortable and safe returning.
2. DO THE THINGS THAT ATTRACT NEW PEOPLE
Attractional churches must attract. Most Adventist churches have been established on the attractional model—that is, inviting people to attend a worship service at a set time, often a great distance from the communities where the members live. What attracted them in the first place? New members were attracted by intentional invitations—often using printed brochures advertising the speakers and messages, with the times and places.
nd places. Many Adventists churches first attracted people by the types of sermons preached, the personality of the preacher, the friendliness of the members, and the style of worship service offered. It is important to reactivate the procedures that attracted members in the first place: intense visitation—including regular (even weekly) phone calls to all members, personal invitations, promotion of the subjects or themes that will be presented in the Sabbath sermons in the coming weeks, and consistent preaching by the local pastor or key elders. Attractional churches do not attract if people do not know who the preacher will be and what the message will be about.
3. PROVIDE REGULAR (AT LEAST MONTHLY) PASTORAL CARE
Many members rate fellowship as a primary reason for physical attendance in a church building. However, attendance is not synonymous with fellowship. Many of our people come to sit, and then leave with little meaningful interaction with other believers. COVID-19 has helped some pastors, elders, deacons, and deaconesses to maximize the advantages of their phones— and also to delegate. By inviting others to join them in making calls—with members each calling the individuals in up to three households—all members and friends can receive a personal call every week or second week.
The purpose of these phone calls is to listen, encourage, and pray. In churches where this has happened during lockdown, believers are positive: they have received regular fellowship and pastoral care. In some cases, these calls have been complemented with personalized cards and messages to each young adult (and sometimes all members) each month. Sadly, many have told me they have not heard from their churches during COVID-19—and they really have no reason to return!
4. PROVIDE CLEAR COMPELLING REASONS TO BE PHYSICALLY PRESENT
Many are weary of simply attending and sitting as spectators. During COVID-19 they have learned that they don’t need to do this any longer. However, many have not comprehended the meaning and purpose of church—and the importance of participation. Here are three compelling reasons to attend physically:
- Each sermon is of practical and vital significance to people’s lives. They are not simply the latest hobby-horses of the preachers—or sermons already shared in other places!
- Sabbath School classes are small teams— organized according to where people live. This will involve restructuring all Sabbath School classes (and other ministries) into small teams of no more than eight to ten, all engaging with their immediate communities.
- There is a dynamic outreach culture. All attending sense that the purpose and direction of the church is to engage with the community to share the good news of salvation through Jesus.
5. EQUIP BELIEVERS AS DISCIPLE-MAKERS
We are not suggesting door-knocking campaigns or dropping literature into letterboxes, nor urging all members to give Bible studies—something for which even most elders, deacons, and deaconesses are ill-prepared. Jesus taught simple, reproducible approaches to disciple-making—and if this equipping and support is provided by local churches, believers will be encouraged and inspired to attend. To make disciples and cultivate His kingdom movement, Jesus used five invitations: (1) come and see, (2) follow me, (3) fish with me, (4) love your enemies or sacrifice with me, and (5) receive the Holy Spirit.
In Luke 10:1–24 Jesus outlines three simple steps to take when we have connected with a neighbor, colleague at work, or family member: (1) eat their food— and listen to their story; (2) heal them—encourage, meet their needs, share your story, and pray for them; then (3) share God’s story—tell the good news of what Jesus has done for us, and that He cares for them! When believers know that your church is a resource center to equip and encourage them to lead their friends and families to Jesus, they will be excited about attending.
6. MULTIPLY DISCOVERY BIBLE READING GROUPS
Discovery Bible Reading is a really simple way of reading the Bible. As your members eat, heal, or meet needs and tell God’s story, they can suggest reading God’s story (which most have never looked at) by exploring the Gospel of Mark. It is only about twenty pages in length and provides an overview of the story of Jesus. The process is simple:
- One prays, “Dear God, please guide us. Thank You.”
- Then, one reads the first story (Mark 1:1–8), another reads it again, then one tells the story in their own words.
- Then discuss this story using five questions: What is new? What surprises us? What do we not understand? What will we obey or apply to our lives? What will we share with another this week?
- Then pray, “Dear God, thank You for Your Word. Help us to follow You. Amen.”
The more members participate in such groups, engaging with unbelieving friends and family—with these multiplying—the more relevance they will see in church. Sabbath School classes and worship services can use this process, and in this way church is equipping and encouraging believers in their journey of faith sharing.
7. OFFER MULTIPLE OPPORTUNITIES FOR PHYSICAL ATTENDANCE
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, some have learned that they do not need to attend a church building to be considered faithful members. For various reasons they have enjoyed Bible classes online, or the opportunity to read the Bible in smaller household, community, and generational groups. The fact that some members who came to the church building before lockdowns no longer attend does not necessarily mean they are drifting away.
If members gather in household or community groups—and these are affirmed as integral to the physical attendance of believers—the number of those gatherings will increase and even multiply. It means that your task as elders, deacons, and deaconesses is now more complicated—for you may now have an in-church-building congregation; perhaps five or six (or ten or twenty) “households of faith” with believers gathering to read, worship, serve, witness, and fellowship in their neighborhoods; as well as an online congregation—but the mission of the church to reach people with the gospel and God’s end-time message may have just expanded.
AND, KEEP THIS IN MIND—WHAT NOT TO DO!
If you shut down your online options or attempt to compel people to close down their household or relational groups, they will simply choose another online option and go elsewhere—and some will choose to continue with their groups. Rather than alienating them, cultivate and equip them to be faithful, multiplying households of faith—and your inperson attendance will multiply.
God’s Old Testament people were scattered as judgment, while New Testament believers were scattered by persecution—for mission. COVID-19 has sent us home. We long to return to our church buildings to worship, but don’t miss the opportunities to cultivate New Testament models of church for God’s mission.
Peter Roennfeldt, DMin, has served for fifty years as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, evangelist, seminary teacher, pastor-to-pastors, church planter, and author. He has written If You Can Eat, You Can Make Disciples (Signs, 2019) and, during COVID times, Your Church Has Changed (Signs, 2021)—in which he outlines how to rebuild church and mission post-COVID-19.