They’re Not Coming Back
By John Kimball, The Nehemiah Nexus

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had essentially the same conversation with several pastors and leaders. It’s come in two basic forms: either they wonder when people are going to finally come back to church, or they are realizing that we are now in the new normal and former church attenders who left are not coming back. The next question is almost always the same – why?  

There is no “one size fits all” answer to that question; however, it deserves a thoughtful answer. I believe that, in most cases, the pandemic did not cause the collapse of congregations; rather, it exposed systemic problems that already long existed. Many of those who are now sporadic or absent were only hanging on by a relational thread. The pandemic and its shutdowns broke that thread. In my experience, there are five categories into which the now unaffiliated fall. By the way, there is a large group who have not left, and their reasons for staying are significant (more on that later). 

The Hurt

I need to speak in broad terms here because not everyone’s experience with church wounds is the same. But whether their pain is from abuse, a narcissistic leader, legalism, an overzealous politic, or some other reason, the pandemic gave some people relief from their suffering. The separation likely brought discomfort at first, but with time they realized they did not need to surrender to such power. I have heard these stories many times over. A few people have found joy and healing by connecting with a different, healthy local body. But I fear most are just done with church. [1]

Too Busy

There is no doubt that Hell’s greatest tool of distraction for followers of Jesus is busyness. Today’s society expects and even rewards productivity. Today’s parents over-schedule the lives of their kids to give them as much “opportunity” as possible. They’re teaching the next generation how to be busy as well. Sunday worship and discipleship with the church family are no longer sacrosanct. And some are so busy that Sundays are the only quality time they have with their families so corporate worship is no longer a priority. People now tend to seek and find more satisfaction in the compensation and accolades received from work, hobbies, and leisure than from Christian fellowship. When the pandemic isolated everyone, many missed their non-church activities more – so that is what they immediately reclaimed when the shutdown was lifted.

Past Religiosity

Religiosity can be defined both positively and negatively, but here I mean a form of religious piety and activity for their own sake. Many churches have taught people to be very religious, some to an almost superstitious level, but were not as effective in guiding people toward deep, personal faith in Christ. Their Christian experience was more about the rituals and traditions than building an immovable faith foundation. Their prayer life was more about asking God to provide things than building intimacy with him. They learned to overlook infractions in church in the name of “forgiveness” but were never taught the biblical principles of real reconciliation and restoration. I’ve been surprised over the years to learn that many in this category are functionally illiterate when it comes to the Bible. Some are like those Paul warned Timothy about, “They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly…” (2 Timothy 3:5). When the pandemic took them out of the religious context to which they adhered they felt lost – like their faith was not as strong as they thought – and many never went back to church again.

Poor Discipleship

This category is often a harder pill to swallow for pastors and church leaders. This group has been part of Christ-centered churches. They have been taught the Bible – and in many cases, they can even articulate a doctrinally sound faith framework. The problem is that their faith is all academic – they know biblical information, but they have not yet been led through personal transformation. Their church experience is about what and how much they know. They are not in an environment that intentionally helps people of all ages become more and more like Jesus. They are typically weak in disciple-making, evangelism, and outreach beyond the church walls. This group continued and even increased their “church” experience during the pandemic, switching to online tools and resources. And when churches began to reconvene, many of them remained satisfied with their current online participation, only returning occasionally for corporate worship and events.

Never Actually Saved

In every congregation, there are some people who have yet to surrender to Jesus as Lord. They like the idea of a Savior, but for whatever reason, they either are not ready or not willing to give their lives to him. While some have clearly been present in our churches because the Holy Spirit is wooing them, it’s probably safe to say that most of these people came to church because they enjoyed the experience and the relationships with others they knew. When the pandemic came, these people were simply not devoted to the church, and most never returned.

There are probably other categories we could add, but the reality is that combinations of these groups exist in most, if not all, congregations. Those who have not returned were either not vitally connected to your church in the first place, or their relationship lacked a sufficient foundation to prevent other outside influences from offering a stronger pull. 

So, What Do We Do?

Again, there is no “one size fits all” answer to that question. But there are ministries out there (like the Nehemiah Nexus) who can come alongside your church to help you learn the solution to your specific situation. For some congregations, the solution is relatively easy. For others, it may be difficult and costly. And for still others, it’s already too late. Local churches have a lifecycle. Even the great church at Ephesus had a birth (Acts 18-19), a period of growth (Acts 20), the establishment of fruitful, multi-cultural ministry (Ephesians), a time for pastoral encouragement and correction (1 Timothy), a call to remain steadfast in a challenging world (2 Timothy), and the warning of imminent death (Revelation 2). While the echoes of her fruitfulness carry on, that congregation doesn’t exist today.

There is a word of encouragement. Churches that have not experienced a mass exodus over the last three years have one notable thing in common: they are very intentional and effective in disciple-making. It’s mandatory to define just what we mean by disciple-making. We’re talking about creating, maintaining (even during the pandemic), and promoting redemptive, spiritual parenting relationships where a mature, fruit-bearing believer invests in another person to help them experience life transformation, Christian maturity, and kingdom fruitfulness. That’s a long sentence, so let me use my mentor’s definition of a disciple to make it clear. A disciple of Jesus is one who is:

1. Devoted to Jesus - in a real, personal, growing love relationship with Christ
2. Devoted to Jesus' People - in a real, personal, growing familial relationship with a local congregation that makes Jesus' disciple-making mission their priority
3. Devoted to Jesus' Mission - personally invested in the spreading of Jesus' rule and reign by making more devoted disciples (especially from outside the church family) [2]

Such are the disciples we are making. Until a person experiences devotion on all three levels, he or she is not yet a mature disciple. 

It is critical for local churches to stop trying to "get people to come back," and place their focus back on Jesus' original mission of making disciples. For any church where it is not already too late, this kind of disciple-making is the key to reestablishing the foundation for church health, growth, and fruitfulness. For some congregations, a few well-placed “tweaks” can make an enormous difference. For others, something more along the lines of “gene therapy” may be needed to firmly establish the Great Commission back at the heart of the congregation’s DNA. This is not something we hire a pastor to do – Jesus expects it from all believers (Matthew 28:18-20). This is why Paul calls us Christ’s “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Everything the church does – in life and program – must rest on that mission; otherwise, the church family will be distracted from it.

If you’d like more information on how you can realign your church’s ministry to the prime directive of disciple-making, contact us. At the very least, we can help you with a thorough assessment to understand exactly what corrective steps your church would need to take. 


[1] "Nones” and “Dones” are specific categories describing those unaffiliated with a local church. In 2014 the Pew Research Center released their findings from their most recent Religious Landscape Study and caused panic with the recognition that the Church in the United States was shrinking. This was six full years before the pandemic. Many of us were already trying to warn local churches about the trend. The good news is that local churches that are truly making disciples for Jesus generally do not align with those forecasts.
Tom Johnston and Mike Chong Perkinson, The Organic Reformation: A New Hope for the Church in the West, Manchester NH: Praxis Media, 2012, pp. 70-71.


Dr. John Kimball
is the Lead Pastor for Palmwood Church of Oviedo Florida. He serves as the Director of Church Development for The Nehemiah Nexus, the church development ministry of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, St. Paul, MN. He is also on staff with the Praxis Center for Church Development in Manchester, NH. He and his wife, Kathryn, live in Central Florida.