With an increasing number of adults and teens receiving the COVID-19 vaccines (70% or more in some areas of the country), state and local governments are easing or completely removing their pandemic-related restrictions on large gatherings. This means more churches are free to open to more people.

The big question is, when you reopen your doors after COVID-19, how many people will come back? What will church look like in the aftermath of the COVID crisis – and how can your church best prepare for it?

How Many People Will Come Back – and When?

It’s a simple fact that the COVID-19 crisis dramatically affected church attendance around the country. Many churches were forced to close their doors or limit attendance. Even those that stayed open found that much of their congregation preferred to stay safe at home. How will that change in the post-COVID world?

The National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project (NCCAP) is addressing these questions head-on, by surveying churches about their attendance patterns during and after the pandemic. There’s no question that attendance suffered – but the good news is, it’s now on the rebound.

According to the NCCAP, in January of 2021, during the height of the pandemic, in-person church attendance was just 40% of that the preceding January. However, by April 2021, just three months later, in-person attendance had risen to 57% of that the preceding January. This is a hopeful trend.

There’s even more hope when you look at the combination of in-person and online attendance. During the COVID crisis many churches established their presence online, with online worship services on Facebook or YouTube every Sunday morning – and many formerly in-person worshippers shifted to watching church services online, instead.

The NCCAP reports that, as of January 2021, combined in-person and online church attendance was 80% of pre-pandemic levels. That’s higher than some people had anticipated. Three months later, in April 2021, the combined attendance was up to 91% of what it was before COVID. It’s not a complete return to normal, but it’s getting close.

The big change, of course, is the shift from in-person to online attendance. The following table details how this split has evolved over the past 18 months.

January 202085%15%
January 202142%58%
April 202153%47%

As you can see, before the pandemic only about 15% of worshippers attended online services. During the height of the pandemic, in January 2021, that number increased to 58%, making online the dominant form of worship in the U.S. By April 2021 that had started to gradually shift back, with a little more than half of all people now attending in person.

Note, however, that a large number of people (47%) still choose online over in-person worship. This number is likely to drop some as life returns to normal, but online worship is now an important part of every church’s mix – and it looks to be here to stay.

What You Can Do to Welcome Back Your Congregation

Now that more and more people are willing and able to return to in-person worship, what can you do to welcome them back? Things are getting back to normal – but they’re not completely there, yet.

With that in mind, here are five tips to help you welcome back the in-person flock.

1. Follow the Rules

Many localities are dropping all pandemic-era restrictions, but not all have. If your state or city still has limitations on gathering size, activities, or mask wearing, follow them. That’s a must.

2. Invite and Inform

As you’re reopening your church to in-person services, let your congregation know. Use email, postal mail, and social media to get the word out to everyone who needs to know. Remind them of service times (or educate them on new times, if they’ve changed), inform them of any social distancing requirements, and just generally invite them back. Anticipate any questions your members may have and answer them in advance.

3. Keep It Small and Distanced

Not everyone will be comfortable coming back in person. Expect some reticence and possible awkwardness from people who’ve been locked in for over a year and make them feel as comfortable as possible. If you have masking requirements, make them known. If you don’t, make sure that those who prefer to still wear masks are welcomed, not ostracized. Attendance is likely to be lower than what you had pre-COVID, so spread out the chairs a little to give people space to self-socially distance. You may even want to consider decreasing the number of services you offer – or, during the warmer months, hold your services outdoors.

In other words, be aware of and sympathetic to your flock’s concerns and accommodate them. You also need to manage your own expectations in terms of attendance – at best, you’re likely to see half the number of people in the pews as you saw before COVID hit.

4. Keep the Online Option

As the numbers show, close to half of all attendees still prefer online worship over the in-person kind. Some people are still cautious about returning in-person and prefer to worship safely at home. Others have learned to appreciate the convenience of on-demand worship from the comfort of their living rooms. (This is especially true for families with young and rambunctious children.) Whatever the reasons, online worship is here to stay and you need to treat it with the same importance as you treat in-person worship. This may require adding some staff, as you’ll essentially be running two services, even if you’re just livestreaming your in-person services. The key point is that online worship services are important and an essential way to keep and grow your flock going forward.

5. Embrace Online Giving

If half of your flock is still worshipping online, there’s no way to pass them the physical offering plate. This half of your flock needs the option of giving online or via text. Online and text giving are also important for in-person worshippers, as many folks have learned to live without using cash during the pandemic. Some churches, in an abundance of caution, have even ceased physical offerings to reduce the risk of COVID infection. You want to implement a robust and easy-to-use digital giving platform, such as GIVE BACK GATEWAY. Make it easy for your people to give – however they want to give.

What More Can You Do?

It’s important to recognize and accept that in the post-COVID world different people want to worship different ways – and then offer your flock all those different ways to worship. Don’t be judgmental for or against either in-person or online worship, they’re both equally important. Welcome your in-person worshippers back with open arms – or at least a nod and an elbow bump – but also rejoice in those who prefer to worship online. The world has changed during the COVID crisis, so make sure your church is changing accordingly.