Creative LeadershipStrategy & Marketing

Once the Virus is Over – Will People Come Back to Church?

That’s a question I’ve been asked over and over again recently, and it’s important. We’ve all heard that business will never be the same as more and more people are sent home to work remotely (which I think will be a good thing). And that’s why thinking ahead and asking questions about how this challenge will impact churches for the long term is the big question for today.

First of all, when this is over, my hope is that a greater online experience will continue for all the churches live streaming during this crisis. As my friend Dave Adamson says, “Pastors should stop talking about when churches re-open. Churches have never closed. We’re just ministering to people in different ways.”

I totally agree. However, Dave and I also understand the concern about gathering people back again for corporate worship. From that perspective, I believe the churches that rebound the best will be churches that provide a greater on-site experience. If a church is just about coming to hear a sermon or listen to a few songs, then yes – they can get that online, so the need to come back isn’t very strong. But if it’s an amazing experience beyond the sermon or worship songs, then I think they’ll come back.

It’s why I urge churches to work toward becoming the classic “third place” behind the home and office. That’s the famous Starbucks strategy – to be the 3rd place beyond home and office where people want to gather or meet. And that place can be created in a variety of ways.

For instance:
• Having a fantastic children’s program that can’t be duplicated anywhere else.
• Holding regular social gatherings where people can build a sense of community.
• Creating activities like music programs, after school activities, or similar outreaches.
• Create affinity groups where people with like minded interests, hobbies, and other pursuits can come together.
• Creating business initiatives to help disciple the business leaders in your church. It’s odd that most churches have programs for everyone except business people – and they could help your church enormously.

Sure, plenty of churches pursue these types of activities, but I’m suggesting we push the envelope:

Years ago, Pastor Greg Laurie at Harvest Church in Riverside saw the Starbucks strategy at work, and built a fantastic bookstore and coffeeshop on the church campus that was open during weekdays. It didn’t take long for people to come to the cafe for lunch, have meetings, or just take a break sitting in the California sun – and many of these people had never visited the church before.

Now, more and more churches are seeing the importance of the concept. When Pastor Dudley Rutherford re-designed his main sanctuary at Shepherd Church in Los Angeles, he added a full cafe and bookstore, plus an amazing outdoor patio. I visit it regularly, and every time I drop by, it’s always full.

Jack Graham at Prestonwood Church in Dallas has created an incredible workout center, a “Main Street”cafe, a wide variety of classes, and along with their amazing Prestonwood Christian Academy, the entire family has a place there.

Lakewood Church in Houston partitioned part of the sanctuary space into a movie theater and has “Movie Nights.” But this isn’t just re-runs of old films, the creator of Lakewood’s Movie Nights, Jackelyn Iloff, has actually made a deal with Hollywood studios, so Lakewood Church is now a test theater for major upcoming movies. Members of the congregation can screen a film months before it’s released to the public, and then help the filmmakers by filling out a questionnaire about their experience.

And one more thing worth mentioning: personal phone calls. Pastor Ricky Temple in Savannah tells me that during this crisis, his personal goal is to call as many church members as possible just to make contact, check up on them, and pray. Keep in mind he has 3,000 church members! He started with a 200-person sample and is growing from there.

During a challenging time like this, how much would a personal phone call from a pastor mean to people?

So while pastors naturally think in terms of preaching and ministering from the pulpit, it’s time to start thinking how to engage people at such a level, that they can’t imagine life without the church.

Figure out what would work for your congregation at your location, and not only will people come back, but they’ll bring their friends.


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  1. ‘It’s why I urge churches to work toward becoming the classic “third place” behind the home and office… And that place can be created in a variety of ways.’

    When I was in Iraq in 2004 the church was not called a church but a ‘community house’. People met there every day – eating together and sharing their lives together.

    My hope is that the church morphs from being an organisation that runs programmes to being a community of people who share their lives together. What Covid has demonstrated is that we don’t need programmes – they can be provided online – we need incarnational relationships.

    1. That’s true Richard. However, keep in mind that “programs” are often the catalyst that starts “community.” So while simply doing programs won’t make a great difference, they can be a great starting point for getting people together – either online or in person.

  2. For the past three years, my wife and I have streamed services from The Potter’s House in Dallas. Every Sunday morning we sit on our couch with a pen and pad, and watch Bishop T.D. Jakes preach the Word of God. Often, what he has to say directly to us feels like “he’s been reading our mail”…and we can’t write down his insights and takeaways quick enough.

    This time spent on the couch – streaming the service together – is priceless and life-changing. We never miss Sundays, because we know we will have an encounter with God.

    Programs, music, hobbies, activities and coffee shops are good, but they’re no substitute for the presence of God. It’s God’s presence that will keep people coming back – in person and online – after this crisis is over.

    Could it be that churches are more interested in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) than on Spiritual Experience Optimization? The first SEO may bring people to the sanctuary. But the second SEO will bring people to the cross, where they’ll experience the presence of God!

    What’s the old line? If you catch on fire, the world will come to watch you burn!

    1. Excellent thoughts Paul. And when it comes to “community,” for most people under 30, that means online, just as much as in person.

  3. Creating opportunities for the church to serve together is another way to encourage connections and growth. Especially when entire families and small groups can serve together. (While maintaining safe practices, of course)

    People need help in many ways… what can local churches do to serve their communities? (AND create community/connections)

  4. Great thoughts, Phil
    I already made decisions based on his content you shared
    Thank you so much
    Churches need to be ‘third place’ – so engagement is key

  5. My son is just 30 and he and his friends are now finding how much they need the face-to-face and that exclusively online doesn’t cut it.

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