We're now into our third year with COVID and while somethings are getting back to "normal" many other things are not. Services are being offered in person, but attendance is down. Hybrid offerings are still happening but we're still not seeing people show up. Why is this? And what can we do?
There are a lot of ideas out there about what we can do to get folks to come back to church, be it online or in-person. Part of the problem is that people are just out of the habit of attending things (wait, I have to put on shoes?!) and some are reluctant to attend in-person events because of the risk of infection to themselves or others in their immediate circle. This is not a unique problem to churches, a recent news article commented that while live concerts were back in most places, attendance was not returning in the way that was expected, suggesting that there are a number of reasons why people are opting not to attend things in-person or at all.
We have some resources that can help your congregation reach out to those who haven't come back yet
Make "A Warm Welcome" Part of your "New Normal"
The pandemic changed many facets of congregational life, including attendance. In the past two and half years, congregations have learned new dance steps to accommodate COVID-19. Amidst all the masking/not masking and closing/not closing, congregations wondered what happened to their members. Some congregations moved to multi-platform worship and welcomed new faces or faces they had not seen in a while via online technology. Yet most lay leaders, staff, and clergy I speak with are uncertain, after all these changes, about their membership.
About a year into the pandemic congregational consultants in a variety of denominations noted that whatever happened, congregational life would never return to what it had been, that the pandemic would permanently alter facilities, staffing, technology, worship, communities, as well as attendance and membership. Thus far, this seems to be the case. Congregations that never thought it possible to place virtual technology in their historic sanctuaries found a way. And congregations that heavily relied on in-person events found ways to connect in online spaces.
Rev. Dittmar goes on to suggest six simple ways that congregations can try to increase attendance and invite people to come back to church, including the all important personal invitation. This article was based on one written by Rev. Ken Sloane, 5 Hospitality and Stewardship Lessons from a Homecoming.
Widening the Welcome
If your congregation wants to step up your welcoming game then we recommend that your welcoming team take the Widening the Welcome course on the UU Institute. The cost is $30. The course description is: our mandate as Unitarian Universalists is to build Beloved Community in our congregations, and learning to draw our circles of welcome wider and wider is a growth opportunity for our churches. In this course you’ll have an opportunity to learn how to learn and practice to be ever more inclusive of all who enter your doors. The program is designed for one member of your team to purchase the course and then follow the syllabus to present the training to the rest of the team. Videos, case studies and handouts are provided. Don't have a team? No problem, the course can be taken by one person alone.
Try Something New
As we start our new church year, we encourage our congregations to think about how they can reach out to those who used to attend virtually or in-person and invite them to re-join you in your mutual spiritual journey. What would encourage you to come back if you had been away for a while? What would make you feel more welcome? Many of these ideas would also be inviting to those who have never experience Unitarian Univeralism who you would like to invite in. And share your ideas with us! We would love to hear what you are trying and how its working.