By Aaron Armstrong
It’s been months since my church last met in person. We haven’t gathered to sing, study the Bible, or take the Lord’s Supper as a congregation in that time.
Complicating our situation even more, we meet in a public school, so barring an opportunity for us to find an alternate location, we can’t even target a date on the calendar for us to resume in-person gatherings.
And even for the introverts among us (of whom I am the foremost), our Zoom meetings and YouTube videos have become tiresome. We’re all ready to see one another face to face again (and, Lord willing, we’ll be doing that soon!).
But there’s something I’m concerned about as that day comes closer to being a reality:
How can we serve the people who don’t come back?
Maybe that seems strange to you. I get it. It seems strange to read it as I type it. But this is where we find ourselves.
Churches need to wrestle with this question, especially as we begin to resume in-person worship gatherings after several months apart.
But before we explore what we should do, we need to recognize not everyone will have the same reason for not returning.
Five Groups Missing from Our Churches
There are at least five different groups of people you may not see returning to weekly worship gatherings, including people who:
- Moved to another community
- Don’t feel safe coming back yet
- Are avoiding discipline
- Made choices you struggle with
- Are disconnected entirely
Each group has their own reasons for not returning, each represents a different opportunity to live out our mission of making disciples.
1. People who moved to another community
Whether because of employment or pre-existing plans, some people will have moved away. This actually just happened with a family in my community group.
This kind of loss is sad, but it’s also a really great reason for someone to leave—and an opportunity to continue our mission in a really beautiful way. Remember, moving to a new community is challenging at the best of times.
Beyond sending these people out with our blessing, being on mission here means:
- Try to help them find a new church to call home by researching options.
- Continue to include them as part of community groups via online meetings.
- Maintain one-on-one communication via phone, text, and email.
After all, if the church is a family, we want to treat people that way.
2. People who don’t feel safe coming back yet
Some people in our churches may not feel safe rejoining a larger gathering, whether because of health issues or other concerns.
Like the previous group, being on mission and serving this group is all about continued connection.
We need to keep them connected to their community in whatever ways we reasonably can. Online meetings, one-on-one get togethers, calls, texts—you get the idea.
3. People avoiding discipline
Sadly, this group exists in every community. Sin exists within the church because the church is made up of people. When credible accusations of sin are addressed, some people choose to leave rather than repent.
Sometimes they leave altogether. Sometimes they leave and go to another local church.
Mission is complicated with this group; how do you pursue people that the Bible says to treat as non-Christians but profess to be Christians?
While much more could be said (and will be at another time), there are two basic actions we need to take:
- Pray for their repentance, trusting that the Holy Spirit will do His work of bringing conviction and a desire to turn from sin;
- Love them as Christ does, showing kindness to them in every way, especially by reminding them of the gospel itself.
4. People whose choices you struggle with
We don’t know the hearts of people who leave and don’t come back. Some have good reasons (called elsewhere, work needs, etc.), but others—if we’re being honest—we’re not sure.
These aren’t people leaving because of sin. They just left.
Some decided to “church shop” via livestreams and decided to go to another church because they liked the preaching or music better.
Some might simply prefer worshiping at home with their families instead of coming back into a building.
Mission with this group begins with prayer—not only for those not coming back, but for ourselves. It’s easy to feel hurt or even bitter when someone leaves, especially if we aren’t sure their reason for leaving is a good one.
We need to give space for the Holy Spirit to work on our own hearts, even as we maintain those personal relationships to whatever degree people from this group are willing.
5. People who disconnected
This group is the most challenging, in part because it may be significantly larger than you realize. According to recent data from Barna:
- One-third of practicing Christians haven’t participated in any sort of online service in one month or more;
- Three in 10 practicing Christians saying they’ve had some contact with their church leaders during the last month;
- Few people have engaged with online Bible studies (12%) and prayer meetings (8%) in the last month or longer;
- Those who are participating in online services are increasingly distracted by other activities including doing other household tasks while the gathering is playing
In other words, on almost every level, at least a third of the people in our churches—and I would guess that it’s actually the majority—have been isolated from any meaningful aspect of community for weeks on end.
So, what does gospel mission look like with this group? Here are some recommendations:
While it might seem either obvious or hollow to start this list with prayer, we can’t overlook it.
Pray for an eagerness to reconnect. Pray that you’re receptive to hearing some potentially difficult truths.
Personally communicate with every member of the church
Here’s what this doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean one individual communicates with every member.
It means that a group of people take responsibility for personally communicating with every member of the church, whether they are part of the disconnected group or not.
Every person you connect with will have a different response to you reaching out. Some will be excited that you’re in touch. Others will be much guarded.
Let them take the lead in how deep the conversation goes.
Ask forgiveness for having failed to engage
This is the part that, regardless of our role in the church, we all have to take responsibility for.
Whether we’re pastors, group leaders, or even just fellow church members and we haven’t taken the time to reach out to another member of the church, we need to own that with God and with disconnected members of our communities.
Make a plan for continued engagement
Whether it’s coffee, sharing a meal, or regular text exchanges, “engagement” isn’t a one-and-done action. It’s an ongoing relationship.
Make a plan together and begin rebuilding this relationship.
Serve and Be Served
Are our own churches our next mission field? Yes. But it’s not just other people that we need to think about.
Read over those groups carefully: Where do you see yourself in them? There’s a sense in which we’re all a part of one of these groups.
Maybe you’ve moved recently, and you’re missing community. Perhaps you’re not ready to rejoin corporate gatherings. Maybe you’ve left for another church or are staying home. Or maybe you’re like me and you’re inclined to isolate and disconnect.
But whatever our situation, we need to remember that we are called to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ—to “encourage one another and build each other up” in the gospel (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
That means that we’re called to serve, but also to be served! Engage the mission with that spirit, making it our aim to grow together as God’s people.
AARON ARMSTRONG (@AaronStrongarm) is brand manager of The Gospel Project, and the author of multiple books including Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty, and Epic: The Story that Changed the World. He’s also written award-winning documentaries, several Bible studies, and is one of the hosts of Table of (mal)Contents, a podcast about the love of reading. This post was originally published on GospelProject.com.