As much of the United States still grapples with coronavirus and all the complex questions around re-gathering for worship, de-gathering again, and continuing a mostly digital worship experience, new data suggests that our first efforts at digital church have not been effective. A recent survey conducted by Barna found that 32% of practicing adult Christians in the U.S. have stopped attending church since March. A full 50% of Christian millennials have stopped viewing their church’s worship gatherings altogether.
Some may point to people who were previously not attending churches who have begun streaming a service as evidence that the numbers are not as bad as indicated. Barna acknowledged this group, but found the number to be so small that reporting it was statistically insignificant. We have made some gains, but we have seen far more Christians “opt out” of our current digital offerings.
Church, we have a problem.
In many places, rushing back to physical gatherings isn’t wise. And even if churches were to immediately re-gather, would those who have opted out return?
The New Idea is an Old One
Prior to the pandemic, researchers began to express concern about the “loneliness epidemic” facing a rising number of Americans. A January 2019 report found that 1 in 5 Americans confessed to feeling lonely or socially isolated. A little over one year later, those people found themselves in physical isolation.
While many of us have relied on technology to make ministry happen during this season, many people are missing a simple personal touch. To be clear, there is no magic bullet to solve the problem of disengagement. Reasons are certainly varied and range from discontentment over a church’s response to COVID or social issues to simple laziness.
But churches who have seen either an uptick in engagement or have at least maintained engagement through physical distancing measures have been intentional about non-digital connections.
Offering a Zoom Bible study or to FaceTime with people individually is a minimum expectation. What plan do you have in place to facilitate a one-on-one connection with the members of your church? Do you have a way to ensure that the people who already belong to your congregation have a regular, personal touchpoint from your staff or leadership?
Here are 5 ways you can create personal touchpoints, even living under physical distancing measures, to maintain contact with your congregation:
- Divide up your church roll between staff and leadership and call everyone at least once a month. A quick, “How are you?” and “How can we be praying for you?” can mean a lot to people who are struggling. Record how the individual responds in order to share it with the rest of the staff/leadership team. This can be accomplished by setting up a simple Google Spreadsheet or utilizing a free tool like Airtable.
- Send a small gift with a personal note. Who doesn’t need more hand sanitizer or an extra mask these days? If you have time, you might even consider personally dropping it off at your members’ home and having a short, physically distanced conversation.
- Ask members for their input. None of us have ever been through a global pandemic that has impacted our lives for half a year before. Ask your members what challenges they’re facing, what they need from your church during this season, and, if you’re bold, if they have been disappointed with the church during the pandemic for some reason. Make these individual conversations and not anonymous surveys. You may get some surprising insights from those willing to share and, more often than not, people feel good that you’ve asked them such a question.
- Share members’ stories with the church. Personal connections are missing from online worship gatherings. Someone in your church has a story about how God has sustained them or done something amazing during this season. Celebrate with them by encouraging them to share it with the church. Have them record a video and incorporate it into your digital or physical gathering.
- Have an online host. It’s still a digital connection, but a digital host (or digital welcome team) is invaluable during this season, especially if you’re utilizing Facebook Live. Designate an individual or a small team to be your digital welcome team during your service. Ask them to reply to comments, ask discussion questions, and gather prayer requests during the gathering via the chat feature. Work towards transitioning those digital connections to personal, offline connections when possible.
As many of us, myself included, flocked to technological solutions in the spring, we may have not understood the impact that prolonged distancing would have on our people. One of the great advantages of the local church is the sense of connectedness it gives to people who live in physical proximity to one another, both to God and to one another. Let us seek to prioritize this sense of connectedness through the remainder of this season and worry less about the polish of our digital presentation.