A July 2020 study from Barna suggested one in three practicing Christians has stopped attending church during COVID-19. Specifically:
- 1 in 3 practicing Christians is still and only attending their pre-COVID church.
- 32 percent of practicing Christians have stopped attending church altogether during the pandemic.
- Half of practicing Christian millennials are not viewing services online.
Those are staggering and sobering statistics! The research took place over a two-week period at the height of U.S. social distancing measures during the pandemic (late April–early May 2020), so the findings have likely shifted. But it does point to a trend that many churches are experiencing as in-person gatherings resume—only about one-third of the congregation has returned. So what has happened to the remaining two-thirds of our otherwise active and engaged church members? Perhaps more importantly, what will it take to get them to come back?
Some have suggested that the two-thirds who have not yet returned should be treated as “prospects” rather than merely as absent members—at least in our approach to outreach and efforts to enfold them (back) into the life of our congregations. Experts suggest it will take that level of effort—the same amount of effort, the same frequency of contact—to win them back. There are many good and legitimate reasons people feel uncomfortable returning to “business as usual” at church. I am not suggesting they have all become complacent or lazy church members. But I do believe the reality of a slow return to “normal” will require extra effort. And I believe it has several implications for Vacation Bible School this summer.
First, a hesitance to return may impact your volunteer pool for VBS. You may not be able to count on some of your “go-to” volunteers to automatically sign up without needing to be actively recruited. It may take a personal phone call (or two), a personal ask over coffee, a reminder of the big picture and the importance of VBS to your church’s evangelism and discipleship strategies in order to get some volunteers to say YES to VBS. You’ll need to inspire them with the “heart” behind VBS and impress upon them the urgency of the task at hand. You’ll need to share your passion for the gospel and why we cannot afford to push it off until a time when it may feel more convenient. You’ll need to convince them that the job you want them to do during VBS is kingdom work and that it cannot be done by anyone else but them.
VBS is a great opportunity to attract people back to church. It’s a short-term commitment with measurable results that also provides opportunities for literally anyone and everyone to serve. Don’t feel comfortable being on campus yet? No problem; you can be in charge of online registration! Don’t want to be around kids yet? No problem; you can help prepackage snacks the week before! Don’t miss out on this opportunity to reacclimate your congregation to serving. Use VBS as a way of strategically enfolding adults and teens back in as they volunteer for VBS.
Secondly, if two-thirds of your church are not attending regularly and/or are not yet coming back, you may need to change the focus of your VBS this summer. As the largest evangelistic outreach event of the year for most churches, VBS is typically a community-minded event. This year, however, we may need to shift focus slightly to target our own church members first, and the community second. That is not to say we abandon the evangelistic mission of VBS. Rather, we use VBS as a strategic opportunity to reengage with kids and families who have not yet returned (and who may have missed out on VBS last year) and challenge them to bring an unchurched friend or family with them. Plan to follow up with each family after VBS (treating members the same as unchurched prospects) and use VBS as a springboard for enfolding that family into the broader church family.
Finally, we need to take a look at our strategy and adjust our plans as necessary. Many churches have already committed to an approach for VBS this summer—whether on campus, in a park or neighborhood, online, or a hybrid combination. That’s great! It’s important to commit early and make a plan. But as you do so, keep in mind the statistic about millennial’s engagement in online church activities. If 50% of millennials (these are the parents in your ministry) are not tuning in for church, can we realistically expect that they will tune in with their families for an online VBS? While a virtual VBS is certainly convenient (though no less work) and perhaps necessary for families who still need to remain safely at home, we need to keep in mind that these are temporary solutions that do not provide the same kind of engagement as in-person gatherings. If you’re planning an exclusively virtual VBS this summer, ask yourself: “What can we add or do to provide intentional opportunities for relationship-building and engagement through our VBS?” Look for ways to provide families more than just something else to watch. Create engagement and community—not consumers. Consumers will watch if they feel like it, don’t if something better comes along. Consumers don’t feel the same level of commitment or the longing to be part of what’s going on. Remember that the best way to share the gospel is in the context of relationship. Regardless of which direction you go for VBS 2021, look for ways that will allow relationships to develop naturally and draw people first to Christ, then back to His Church.