The church in northwest Houston suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. By the time its flooded facility was finally rebuilt a few years ago, the congregation was only back to full capacity. only for six weeks before services were shut down by the pandemic.
As the church suffered one setback after another, senior pastor Steve Bezner watched the flock come and go.
“About a third of our congregation worshiping in person are new faces,” he said.
His church currently draws 1,600 attendees each week, including several hundred online viewings, not far off its pre-pandemic weekly average of 1,700. Bezner marvels at the number of members who have left during the pandemic and the number of new people who have come forward to take their place.
“It will make you believe in the preservation of the Holy Spirit,” the Houston pastor said.
Membership turnover is as common in the life cycle of a church as baptisms, weddings and funerals. But the pandemic has accelerated the comings and goings of people and necessitated new strategies to welcome and assimilate new members into the church community. These tasks have been complicated by evolving COVID-19 precautions and the challenge of identifying who still belongs to the church, as many continue to worship online.
“Not coming together prompted these questions,” said Steve Smith, executive pastor of Highpoint Church in Naperville, Illinois. “The gospel hasn’t changed, and we’re still Bible-centric, but How? ‘Or’ What we engage people changes.
COVID-19 has propelled people through life changes of all kinds over the past two years, including career changes, new relationships, and relocation. Some changes have been out of necessity and others as a result of new priorities; Pew found that three-quarters of them have seen a positive impact from the pandemic.
It also played with the choices of the church. For those who were already struggling with their church, the pandemic served as a catalyst to start exploring other congregations. An Atlanta devotee said the pandemic pushed her to change after navigating difficult social dynamics in her group of young adults.
“I decided to start from scratch somewhere else,” said Elisa Hoover, 27. “It was easier to visit other churches during the pandemic, and my absence was less noticeable in the tight-knit community of my church.”
For many people, the prolonged isolation of the pandemic has heightened their desire for connection and spiritual community.
Many new attendees to Houston Northwest Church came from a large apartment complex across the street that houses mostly single adults. “They felt the psychological pressure of loneliness and wanted to check it out,” Bezner said. “They wanted to find out who God is.”
This desire for connection and spiritual grounding has transcended demographics, affecting everyone from single people living alone to parents with young children to parishioners who live too far from their church to be deeply engaged.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Dylan Parker and his wife realized they lived too far from their church in Arkansas to be as invested as they’d like.
“Until the pandemic slowed us down, we didn’t realize the price it was costing us to live in multiple cities,” he said. They began looking for a church closer to home, but soon learned that he was accepted into a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary and would be moving to California. Parker and his wife now live within walking distance of their church and many of its members.
“We already feel like we have a closer, stronger community here than in Arkansas,” Parker said.
The father-of-two also appreciates his new church’s approach to dealing with difficult issues that have arisen during the pandemic, including social justice. Although he says he wouldn’t have changed churches for that reason alone, he acknowledges that his Californian church suits him better.
“My previous church didn’t allow space to have conversations I wanted to have about social justice,” he said. “I reached a point in my life where I needed space to answer these questions.”
Navigating a difficult landscape
It is impossible to analyze the subject of church change during the pandemic without acknowledging the context of national polarization on issues ranging from masking and vaccination to racial tensions and politics. Often pastors have felt ill-equipped to address these issues in a way that satisfies members representing a wide range of viewpoints.
Bezner describes the turmoil of the past two years as “a compounding national trauma that has caused decision fatigue among pastors.”
Controversial decisions, made under intense scrutiny, could be what prompts some participants to reassess the church’s adequacy.
“It used to be quieter, but now the groups go together and it’s noisier than before,” Smith said in Highpoint, Illinois.
Churches often lose the “back row,” with those that were heavily involved becoming even more involved during the pandemic, those that were moderately involved hold on, and many of the less engaged participants disappear.
“We find that people who came 8 or 12 times a year stopped attending,” Smith said. “Their spiritual muscle has atrophied.”
In the seven Highpoint sites, the non-denominational church has seen few of these people re-engage despite a strong communications campaign by church leaders and volunteers.
Offering virtual services is helpful during the pandemic, but makes it more difficult to count members. The mix of people changing churches and worshiping online has created mystery around the actual number of members who have left the church permanently.
Almost all churches had reopened last summer, with only three-quarters of regular attendees back in the pews, Lifeway Research found.
Build a deeper community
“Anonymity is a big part of the landscape of American churches,” said Len Tang, director of the Church Planting Initiative at Fuller Theological Seminary. “But in small churches, you can’t be anonymous.”
In some ways, small churches and church plants have been better positioned to retain members during the pandemic. Tang’s congregation, Missio Church in Pasadena, Calif., hasn’t seen much church change during the pandemic.
“People are generally true to the vision of a church plant and less likely to change churches,” he said. Lifeway also found that small churches rebounded faster than large ones.
“Most small churches still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, but many more are reaching that point than large churches,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “It’s possible that small churches are helped by the perceived safety of a naturally smaller gathering, differences in technological options for gathering online, or the strength of relational ties.”
Churches large and small have focused on making disciples in small groups when in-person services have been disrupted.
“Churches that understood discipleship at the core of their essence could pursue this mission,” Tang said.
At Highpoint, leaders could no longer use Sunday attendance as a measure of church discipleship, so they adjusted their approach to leadership training. Instead of just sharing discipleship methods, they focused on teaching leaders why discipleship is essential and how to meaningfully engage people.
“We try to help them understand, ‘How do you take away from people their deepest struggles and aspirations? “Said Smith.
In Houston, Bezner’s church began hosting vision dinners to accommodate more people than their traditional new member classes.
Matt and Dara Osborn of Spring, Texas recently attended one of these vision dinners to learn about the church’s past and hoped for future.
“Some churches are focused on rebuilding and some are rushing,” Matt Osborn said. “Houston Northwest Church is sprinting forward. In this new era, reopening is like starting over.
Osborn believes this transition period during the pandemic could prepare the church for a new phase of growth to come. He said, “Maybe God is putting people where they need to be for his kingdom to grow in post-pandemic times.