Avoid the Trap of Doing Nothing Well

If your mission is to fill buildings, then keep going with your current strategy. But if your mission is to reach people, it might be time to rethink things. |by Carey Nieuwhof

As you know, these are some of the most complex times in church leadership in decades. As churches reopen their in-person gatherings, there’s one particular trap to watch out for.

The early indications are that in-person church attendance is lower than anyone expected. Most leaders I connect with who have reopened public worship say they are seeing between 10-40 percent of their former in-person attendance.

Whether that’s a temporary trend or something more permanent remains to be seen (I suspect lower in-person attendance is a more permanent trend), the reality is that almost everyone’s expectations of a great return to church have been dashed.

While so many leaders imagined that the first Sunday back would be like Chris Farley’s famous entrance on Letterman, that hope has given way to the tough reality of social distancing, the current inability to offer kids ministry, older or at-risk adults understandably staying away and a lot of people seeming to prefer digital church or non-attendance than in-person attendance.

Which leads into very real trap that’s emerging for church leaders. Most churches are now doing both in-person and online services as they reopen.

The trap: what if you end up doing neither well?

Regardless of your church size, that’s a very real trap for at least three reasons.



While the full story of what happened to church post-COVID has yet to play out, I suspect that the disruption has accelerated at least two trends we’ve seen for decades:

First, declining church attendance has been intensifying for decades.

Second, even Christians who attend church are attending less often.

So what does that mean?

Maybe the low numbers of in-person worship attendance isn’t just COVID-related. Perhaps it’s an acceleration of the non-attendance trends the church has seen for decades. I certainly hope I’m wrong. In fact, I’d be delighted to be wrong.

I also realize I’m stepping on sensitive ground for church leaders who are already tired. But wise leaders don’t let their fatigue make decisions for them.

Whenever I suggest people won’t rush back to church, I get a string of comments and messages from church leaders who deny it, are angry about it, or argue incessantly that the church has always gathered, and it will always gather. I understand. But denial isn’t a strategy. Or at least not a good one. Neither is anger.

And if this is, in fact, an intensification of trends that have been happening for decades, perhaps it’s time for a new strategy.

Just know this (as hard as it is to admit): adopting a “they’re all going to come back just like before” mindset can land you right in the middle of the trap.


If it’s actually the case that in-person attendance numbers will continue to be lower even after COVID is completely a non-issue (which could be months or years from now), then that creates a challenge. Namely, that many churches have the highest level of staff and budgets invested where they’re seeing the lowest returns.

Sure, in-person worship and gathering isn’t going away. As long as there are people, people will want to gather in person.

But in the same way almost every CEO is rethinking how much office space they really need in light of how well their teams are working from home, church leaders may want to rethink why they’re spending the vast majority of their time, budget and human resources at in-person services that very few people attend.

If this is indeed an acceleration of in-person attendance trends that have been in play for decades, you could easily end up behaving like the CD salesperson in the age of Spotify or like a mall ownder in the age of Amazon.

If your mission is to fill buildings, then keep going with your current strategy. But if your mission is to reach people, it might be time to rethink things.


The vast majority of churches pivoted to online quickly in March 2020 and saw a large attendance spike over previous levels.

After leaders figured out how to count more accurately and the novelty of online church sagged for leaders and congregants, most churches then saw a drop off from their initial online attendance numbers.

Consequently, when the option of resuming in-person worship again became available, many leaders put all their effort back into that.

A few notes on this.

First, it’s probably wise to see where you’re currently getting the highest reach. My guess is that for many re-opened churches, the higher reach remains online.

Second, even if your in-person numbers are higher than your live-stream audience, take the time to add in the number of on-demand views you get for a message or service within the first week a service goes live. My guess is it at least matches your in-person attendance, and in most cases will be higher.

What’s strange is that experiencing higher online attendance than in-person attendance has been true for many churches—long before COVID hit. It’s just that nobody was really paying attention to the trend or knew what to do with it if they noticed it.

Third, despite the fact that they’re reaching fewer people than ever in-person, many church leaders are pivoting back to putting 90-95 percent of their time and attention into in-person services.

To make it even more complicated, the necessary requirements of disinfecting, social distancing, touch-free experiences and a highly safe and secure environment mean that unprecedented levels of effort are going into in-person worship.

The big question is: if the future is digital, why the lop-sided investment? Everyone you want to reach is online, and digital ministry scales in a way that physical ministry does not.

Again, I think in-person worship is here to stay. I think it’s necessary both theologically and practically. And yes, your physical gatherings may still grow once all the dust settles. All that being true, in-person services will still likely be your smaller footprint moving forward.

So…why invest the vast majority of your time, energy and money into the platform that has the lowest return and the lowest potential?

You can invest for the past or invest for the future, but personally, I’d be investing for the future. Why? Because your digital ministry is just getting started.


As much as you have dreams, hopes and prayers that seem infinite, you and I both live within the constraints of limited time, energy and resources. To really position yourself well for the future, here are three suggestions:

First, staff your online ministry like it is real, because it is. I said before COVID, it is probably wise to start investing 30 percent of your staff resources in online ministry. Today, that’s even more pressing.

You probably won’t have a big impact online when you spend 1 percent of your staffing resources on it.

Second, treat the people you’re reaching online as though they’re real people, because they are.

Third, put some of the money you were going to put into physical ministry into better digital ministry.  (Hint, digital ministry doesn’t come even close to costing as much as physical ministry does.)

It’s not just new dollars that are needed. You can redeploy existing resources to have a better reach.

So here’s the thing about online church and online ministry:

  1. You haven’t even really started yet.
  2. The ‘innovation’ that happened in the first few months of lockdown wasn’t really innovation. It was adaptation.

After a month of online church, a lot of church leaders settled into a pattern that would get them through the next few months and stopped experimenting. Which means, the innovation hasn’t even started yet.

  1. If you’re really going to grow your mission, serve your people and reach new people, it’s going to take a lot of innovation and experimentation.
  2. Which means you’ll need to stay curious and agile.

Positioning your church for strong digital ministry positions your church for the future. And if you really want to reach people, it’s the best strategy you have.

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