They Won’t Return – Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog


The latest Pew Research Center survey found that about as many people who returned to in-person services six months ago are about the same number attending now. In other words, while the situation has improved relative to all things COVID — vaccinations available, mask mandates dropped, case counts plunged — there has been no appreciable change in the number of people. who came back.

About two-thirds (64%) had returned by September 2021, and now, in March 2022 (67%), it’s still right at about two-thirds.

As my friend Carey Nieuwhof wrote earlier this year, “2021 had many leaders hooked on the idea that the next season – Easter, the new school year, Christmas, etc. – would bring attendance back to levels of 2019. For most churches, this ‘magic season’ never materialized.

He is right. They didn’t come back. And they don’t come back. The church you have now is the church you have now.

There are several reasons why it is important to adopt this. First, because it will help you realize that you are not in a season of winning back your participant/volunteer base, but in a season of rebuilding. It is essential that leaders invest their energies accordingly.

Second, it will help you realize that you need to embrace the hybrid model of the church. Specifically, the hybrid of being both physical and digital.

In very general terms, there are currently two types of churches: those that reopened and almost immediately reduced everything online, and those that reopened for in-person services but retained an online constituency. (Some, like the church I lead, go beyond just maintaining an online presence to encourage online attendees by offering a full online campus, which you can read about in previous blogs I have written and titled “The Most Overlooked Place to Plant a Church” and “The Importance of Asserting Online Presence”.)

The first type of church assumed that reopening in-person services and shutting down anything COVID-related was all it would take for pre-pandemic attendance levels to return. The problem, after all, was the pandemic.

They were wrong.

There were broader issues to address that were simply accelerated by the pandemic. Church attendance had been declining for some time. Moreover, the larger cultural realities – namely a post-Christian world and a digital revolution – had changed both the nature of our mission field and the means by which we achieve it. Simply returning to a “business as usual” approach is not the solution.

Churches that have become hybrid and have remained hybrid have found that although in-person attendance has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, overall church attendance and health have not only been maintained, but have also increase. In other words, due to a hybrid model, the decrease in the number of people in person does not reflect an overall decrease in the church. Additionally, giving people the freedom to attend in person or online has increased overall engagement with the church.

The results of the Pew survey testify to this:

Center survey finds that of all adults who report typically attending services at least once a month, 36% attended in person and services watched digitally in the last month…. One in five (21%) may still be substituting virtual presence for in-person presence….

While religious congregations as a whole may have seen a sharp drop in physical attendance during the pandemic, there is good reason to believe that virtual attendance is much higher today than it was. before the start of the coronavirus epidemic in early 2020. One piece of evidence is that in a July 2020 survey, 18% of American adults said that since the start of the pandemic they had watched religious services in online or on TV for the first time. Combining the two forms of attendance, nearly nine in ten people who say they attend regularly (88%) say they have attended religious services in some way in the past month.

Moreover, the share of all american adults who report having attended religious services in person or watched them online or on TV (or both) in the past month (43%) is significantly higher than the proportion of those who report usually attending religious services at least once or twice a month (32% among all respondents to the March 2022 survey).

While this scenario may change with the continued decline of COVID resulting in increased in-person attendance, or by a new outbreak resulting in decreased in-person attendance, we know this: whatever you have in person is largely what you are going to have in person. And if you’re not serving people in a hybrid model, in person is all you’ll ever have.

James Emery White


Justin Nortey, “More Houses of Worship Resuming Normal Operations, But In-Person Attendance Is Unchanged Since Fall,” Pew Research CenterMarch 22, 2022, read online.

Kate Shellnutt, “Americans’ Return to Church Has Hit a Plateau”, Christianity todayMarch 22, 2022, read online.

Carey Nieuwhof, “12 Trends That Will Shape the Church in 2022,” Awareness magazineJanuary 14, 2022, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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