Shepherding the 30%
If one in three Christians have stopped attending church online during the pandemic, what can pastor-shepherds do to bring them back?
It’s a good shepherd who goes in search of the one lost sheep. It’s an exhausted shepherd who goes looking for thirty of them. And yet this is what faces many pastors today.
Various reports 1 are suggesting that about one-third of ‘practising’ Christians haven’t participated in any sort of online service for over a month, let alone engaging with online prayer meetings and small groups as well as socially distanced, in-person Sunday attendance.
Off the radar
It’s good to try and identify reasons why so many are disappearing off the church radar. Some have concerns for their own physical and mental health - some may avoid a return to a physical gathering as they are in a vulnerable category, whilst others struggle with the thoughts and emotions generated by a lonely Zoom meeting. Others absent themselves from gatherings to allow others to attend, and still more find that online services fail to provide the social aspect of church life that had drawn them in the first place.
However, statistically, it would seem that the largest group failing to interact with church during the pandemic are Millennials. Surprisingly, the older demographic, including those within the ‘vulnerable’ categories, have proved to be more eager to return to a gathering, whereas Millennials are not involving themselves with church life.
There would be a number of reasons for this. Maybe, as most church gatherings have not been able to provide a ‘Sunday School’ (or whatever terminology you use) then the fear of bored and restless children making it through an hour-long gathering has struck fear into Millennial Mums and Dads. It’s far easier to remain at home, coffee in hand, watching a service online while the children play with familiar toys in another room.
So what are pastor-shepherds to do?
Shepherding the sheep
They certainly need to tend to the wounds of those who would love to be present but are unable to do that. Words of comfort and encouragement are regularly required, as well as a sensitive understanding of the mental toll on some during these times.
They need to address an over-dependence upon ‘Sunday Schools’ for the spiritual nurture of children. However it is done, parents need to be aware (especially the Dads) of the responsibility that is theirs to help children love Jesus and his church. Of course, this is not to say that there shouldn’t be an awareness and accommodation of children in a church gathering, and an understanding that little ones will wriggle and squeal, however godly the home!
It means that a sufficient number of services will be put on to cater for all who would like to come so that the good-hearted don’t feel pressure to give up their opportunity. Although the government might unhelpfully limit capacity, we should over-provide and not be fearful of empty spaces.
It means that hybrid services (involving livestreaming and recording a service in front of a gathering) will help cater both for those who want to attend and those who cannot.
It means that small group activity will be increasingly central to the life of the church. Pastoral care can’t be the preserve of the pastor, it must be the responsibility of the whole body. It’s in small groups that it’s easier to detect who are struggling and who are withdrawing from involvement. As members of the group invest in each other’s lives and struggles, the group leader can lean back upon the pastor.
It means that Bible-teaching will identify the place of difficulty and suffering in the life of every believer. These "kinds of trials...have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith, may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1:6-7).
And of course, it may be that whenever this is all over and we are back to ‘normal’ church, we’ll discover that certain folk were never saved in the first place, and our criteria for receiving them into membership was inadequate or flawed.
What do you think? What have I missed? How can we help and encourage one another?