In one recent national poll, respondents were asked to identify their mindset towards the next step in what I have come to call the COVID ordeal. The poll found that people fall into four distinct categories:
- 45% Vaccinated and ready for a return to normal
- 25% Vaccinated but not ready for a return to normal
- 25% Unvaccinated and ready for a return to normal
- 5% Unvaccinated but not ready for a return to normal
While these numbers will doubtless vary in different regions of the country, and change as circumstances continue to change, it is definitely a snapshot of what we are experiencing here at Nativity.
Easily 30% of our congregation are simply not ready for a return to normal, and when it comes to church attendance in particular that number is doubtless higher (since it is often associated with large gatherings of people). They are not currently coming back even with the reimposition of the “obligation” ( or the “lifting of the general dispensation from the obligation” as it is more elegantly stated). It might be a very long time before we see this 30% in church again.
That 70% state a willingness to return seems positive, but it might be a false positive. While both the vaccinated and unvaccinated of this group want to see a return to normal, there seems to be a deep divide between them about what “normal” now means. And if their experience of church does not meet their expectations they could easily lapse into non-attendance.
At Nativity we are currently, and consistently, experiencing weekend attendance at about 35% of our pre-COVID attendance. While we are grateful to those returning, we frankly have been hoping for more robust attendance, it’s certainly nowhere near the percentage of people who supposedly are looking for a return to “normal.” Why not?
What I believe is that for the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, “normal” no longer includes weekly church attendance, at least in the short term. Perhaps “regulars” will be twice a month, or even once a quarter. That is an alarming possibility, but one we really must posit and begin to equip ourselves to address.
Here are three things to consider.
- Promote the Eucharist.
However exceptional our online experience is or ever becomes, it will never replace the in-person experience of attending the Eucharist and receiving Communion. Everyone knows this but a reintroduction might be called for given more than a year away from Mass. The upcoming Pastoral Letter on the Eucharist from the USCCB could be an important resource for pastors but it will be up to the pastors themselves and their active parishioners to find effective ways to communicate with absent parishioners. We continue to think that the best strategy is Invest and Invite. Encouraging and equipping parishioners to invest in their unchurched friends and then, when given the opportunity, invite them back to Mass.
- Re-open kids and student programs.
Another important feature of your parish life that can’t be replicated online is the friendship and fellowship kids and students enjoy in your programs of faith formation and youth ministry. Open these programs back up as soon as possible and keep them open and accessible. This will reengage families in the life of the parish and make that invitation to Mass far easier.
- Continue to invest in your online presence.
This might seem counter-productive to getting people back in the building, but it isn’t. If your online presence remains difficult or uninteresting to watch or, as some pastors have discussed, you suspend your online offering altogether, you could be cutting the lifeline you still have with many parishioners (as well as cutting off your very best evangelization tool when it comes to potential guests and new comers). If, on the other hand, you continue to invest in your online experience and engage your online congregation, you will remain relevant in their lives and an increasingly attractive option in their weekend schedule.
Everyone wants to get back to normal. It might just take some time.