Re-Opening Your Church: What Will Be Left and Who Will Still Come?

by Carey Nieuwhof

As churches slowly reopen their physical doors, church leaders are all asking the same question: who will still be around?

It’s a great question.

And not an easy one to answer. A lot of church leaders are nervous, uncertain and longing to get things back to something certain.

With several months of online-only church, it can be hard to know how many new people have come on board, who’s still engaged, who’s left, and who may be drifting.

And even as buildings re-open, it’s hard to get a gauge because of social distancing, limited capacity and, in almost all cases, no kids ministry (leaving families for the most part still at home).

In this post, I’ll take a quick look at the numbers, offer some observations and some strategies that I hope will help your church not just maintain, but advance in the midst of all this uncertainty.


As a church leader texted me recently, opening is so much harder than closing.

The Barna Group is doing weekly polling that, leading up to Easter, showed 49% and even 59% reported surging online attendance compared to their former in-person attendance.

Since Easter, that’s dropped.

Now, only 25% of churches are reporting an attendance surge above previous levels, and in talking to leaders every week, more are seeing their online numbers drop.

So what about reopening? Who will be streaming back as doors open again?

A recent related poll of thousands of church leaders facilitated by Gloo showed people have little consensus around when they feel ‘safe’ to gather again in public.

Asked which other type of activity BEST signals to you that it is time to open in-person worship at the church, the most common answer was a low community level of COVID cases (21.5%)

Other responses included when

  • Social distancing and stay home guidelines are lifted: 17%
  • Local businesses are open: 14%
  • Local restaurant seating areas are open 8%
  • Testing is widely available and utilized 6%
  • Schools are open 4%
  • Vaccine available 3%

But the following results also speak volumes:

  • 15% said they would only return when all the conditions are met (low cases, business open, restrictions lifted, vaccine available).
  • 10% admitted they just weren’t sure.

Essentially, 25% either aren’t sure or aren’t coming back for a long time.

An additional 30% of respondents said they’d rather worship at home and only return when they can be mask-free at church.

I know, that’s not encouraging, but it’s both real and understandable.

If you’d like to poll your congregations on these questions (for free) and even add a few questions of your own, you can do that here.

So how do you put this all into perspective?

Here are four thoughts that I hope can help guide you as you make some very pivotal decisions.

After all, re-opening your church is so much more complex than closing it ever was.


Church leaders who are waiting for things to get back to normal will be waiting a long time.

It’s hard to go back to normal when normal disappeared.

So much has changed, not just in terms of what’s legally allowed (or morally responsible) but, as the poll results suggest,  in terms of how people think.

And to make it more personal, consider how you think.

For example, even if you could, do you really want to get into a crowded restaurant right now? Would you want general admission floor tickets to hear your favorite band so you could crush in with everyone else?

Probably not. At least I wouldn’t.

The psychology of human behavior has an entirely new dynamic that leaders will have to deal with.

Before you over-spiritualize it, it’s not a question of faith over fear. It’s a sign that this is a deeply confusing, changing time.

People need to be led and cared for, they just need to be led and cared for differently.

Instead, pivot into a new normal.

Don’t be so focused on getting back to “normal” that you step back into the past when you step back into your facility.

To do that, you’ll have to become far more agile in the future than you have been in the past.

In a culture of constant change and uncertainty, agility is ability, and flexibility is a superpower.

If you’re curious as to how well-positioned you are to thrive in the new normal, I have a new, short Agility Quiz that can help you assess whether you’re likely to survive, thrive or struggle in the new normal.

It’s just 14 question and results will be sent to you immediately. Here’s the link.

The bottom line is this: the more agile you are heading into the future, the better you’ll be able to realize (and even advance) your mission.


The last few months haven’t been all loss. In fact, for many churches, that’s hardly the case.

You’ve likely reached new people online, including many you haven’t yet met.

The challenge with ministry online is a little like the challenge with new people who attend your church. It can be hard to get to know them.

Even with physical attendance, countless churches have new people who attend, sit in the back row and don’t connect with anyone.

Online just amplifies that, which is good and bad. You’re reaching new people…you just don’t know who.

The key is to move toward engagement, encouraging online attenders to:

  • Fill out an online welcome card or text their info in
  • Like, comment or follow so you can connect more personally
  • Take a step into an orientation group, small group or some kind of movement beyond attending service
  • Join your email list

Engagement is a sign of openness and a desire to connect.

Just because you can’t see an online attender doesn’t mean they aren’t real. So don’t give up on the progress you’ve made.


As we’ve already seen, even as your buildings reopen, not everyone will rush into church. Some of that is COVID related, but it’s actually much deeper than that.

For years now, the trend has been for new people to watch online for weeks, months or even a year before they venture into a church’s physical building.

That trend will not only continue, it will accelerate.

Digital is the new default for our culture, and the current crisis only accelerated that.

Church leaders who take all the resources they have been spending and investing in online church and move them back into physical ministry locations risk losing any online traction they’ve picked up as well as the audience that’s still watching.

In the future, churches that have the largest impact will think of themselves as digital organizations with physical expressions rather than physical organizations with digital presences.

So don’t let your foot off the digital pedal.


The church has enough dividing lines and judgmentalism already. We don’t need any more, and we should actively eliminate what we have.

But it’s not that hard to imagine that both church leaders and church members would start to divide themselves into two categories

The truly faithful, risk-taking, trusting, in-person attenders who are loyal and deeply Christian

Everybody else

That’s not just sinful, it’s stupid (as well as unstrategic).

Church leaders, if you stand there with a scowl on your face every Sunday angry about empty seats, why would anyone want to sit in one?

When you devalue people—curious people, frightened people, anxious people, cautious people, new people, hurt people—you sabotage the very mission you’re trying to accomplish.

People can smell judgment a mile away. So, church leaders, stop judging.

This is a very critical moment for the church moving forward.

Church leaders who embrace infrequent attenders, online attenders and non-attenders will eventually have more attenders.

Those who don’t, won’t.


I know this sounds axiomatic, but the truth is God is still in control.

Every leader is struggling with a loss of control. I am.

The truth is you can’t control:

  • The economy
  • Whether people return to church
  • When people return to church
  • Your numbers
  • Human behaviour
  • The future

And that’s massively frightening for a lot of leaders.

You had a system that worked…and now, it’s gone.

But that’s okay. God is still in control. You aren’t. You never were.

So what do you do?

For starters, focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t.

You and I can’t manipulate events or people, but you can respond to what’s happening and try to help people in the midst of it.

Second, look for the opportunity instead of the obstacle. My favorite question to ask during the crisis is the simple question “What does this make possible?”

The church has always been at its best when it’s under pressure.

It’s one thing to preach that God is doing a new thing. It’s another thing to embrace it.

I imagine that God is reforming and reshaping the church for the future. You resist that, or you can embrace it.

Here’s a principle I’m reminding myself of these days: Being highly controlling and highly effective are mutually exclusive.

In your desire to control things and get back to ‘normal,’ are you squeezing out new things God may want to do in you and through you?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sense the question is important. I’m asking it personally.

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