Here at Nativity, Easter was very encouraging in terms of attendance and engagement. The next two weeks were decidedly not. Nor, for that matter, has 2022 as a whole provided much confidence in terms of any semblance of a return to pre-COVID normal. This is true for churches everywhere: the current attendance figures suggest most parishes are experiencing 30-70% of pre-COVID weekend attendance (with a lot more a lot closer to 30% than 70%). We’re hovering around 50% most weeks. Likewise, only about 50% of our volunteer ministers have returned to service.
Like everybody else, I suppose I thought there would be a magic moment when this experience was “over” and everybody would come back in the building. Obviously, that is not going to happen. I can’t explain why people who were devoted “regulars” are seldom seen, or how it is that indispensable volunteers would become no-shows. But maybe it is time to acknowledge this is the new normal and determine how we are to proceed.
Here are a few ideas we’re currently discussing at Nativity, in no particular order:
The COVID period has changed a lot of things for a lot of people, from the disruption and fear of the experience itself to the ensuing polarization, division, cynicism, and contention. A lot has changed, but perhaps few places have experienced greater change than church-world. Church-world has changed because church people have changed.
As Pastor Carey Neiuwhof has written, the gap between how quickly you change and how quickly things change is called irrelevance. The bigger the gap, the more irrelevant you become.
It’s not that you have to pander to people’s preferences or tolerate bad behavior. You don’t have to change who you are, and our mission never changes but you do need to understand the change your community is experiencing and develop successful strategies to work through and beyond it.
The most important change is the new reality that people increasingly live their lives in a bifurcated way, in-person and online. Shopping, entertainment, communication, the list goes on and on. And it now includes church. To ignore that fact is to condemn your church to irrelevance.
Get New Metrics
For years, pastors, myself very much included, focused each week on the collection and the “Mass count.” And obviously enough, because both were reliable bell weathers of how well we were doing. Traditionally, Catholics “voted” with their pocketbooks and their feet. Weekly attendance and offertory giving told the story of our health and growth. That is no longer the case.
Post-COVID, more people than ever are giving electronically (one very positive outcome of this period, to be sure) and they are likely not giving on a weekly basis. So, whatever the amount of the weekly collection, without additional context, you won’t have the full picture of what is really going on. Likewise, weekly in-person attendance is no longer a given, even for the committed.
Instead, to understand how well we’re really doing, we need to identify and begin tracking data on the various ways parishioners and newcomers are engaged in the life of the parish: serving in ministry, enrolling in kids and student programs, joining a small group, going on mission or service trips, attending online, requesting prayer… as well as in-person attendance and giving.
As Carey Nieuwhof has also written, when your vision of the future looks a lot like your past, you don’t have much of a future. Now is precisely the time to retire that program that hasn’t been working (we call it “COVID-ing your way out of it”) or changing the Mass schedule as you’ve been wanting to for years now.
But it is also the time to make the new moves and step out with fresh initiatives you’ve only dreamed of. Be original, be bold, be entrepreneurial. An entrepreneurial spirit is more important than ever.
For another and more complete take on this topic see Carey Nieuwhof, “Is Your Church Becoming Irrelevant?” careynieuwhof.com