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Finding Your Lost Sheep

What happened to your missing church members?

That’s a question church leaders around the country have been asking for a couple years now. And the answer could have implications for your travel program.

Whether your church is large, small or somewhere in between, you’ve likely seen some puzzling trends in attendance. Much of this, of course, has to do with the disruption of the pandemic. In spring 2020, most churches stopped holding in-person services, at least for a while. And although different churches chose different times to begin gathering again, when they did resume meeting, almost all of them noticed the same thing: A substantial number of people who used to attend regularly before the pandemic were now nowhere to be found.

Like many of the puzzling questions of the post-pandemic era, there isn’t one clear answer. Instead, there are many contributing factors. Some people chose to relocate during the pandemic. Some used that time to check out online services at other churches and decided to start attending them instead. Some people disagreed with their church leaders’ pandemic restrictions — or lack thereof — and left in protest. And sadly, some passed away, succumbing to COVID or any of myriad other diseases.

But from what I have read, the biggest factor involved in declining church attendance is the number of people who got comfortable spending Sunday mornings at home during the pandemic. What started as a temporary measure turned into a permanent habit. They haven’t renounced their faith and they don’t have anything against the churches they used to attend. But once they became accustomed to staying home on Sunday mornings, they decided attending church in person just wasn’t worth the effort anymore.

For you as a leader of a church travel program, this means two things:

First, it means your numbers are likely also down. If your church has lost members, you might find some of your former travelers are no longer around. And while some of your post-COVID trips may have sold well because of pent-up demand, that strong rebound could start to tail off as travel prices continue to rise. If you don’t replace the travelers who are no longer part of your congregation, you’ll likely see your group sizes dwindle in the coming years. That’s a good reason to start looking for ways to involve newer — and perhaps younger — people in your travel program.

Second, it means you may have an opportunity to bridge the attendance gap. Because some of the people who no longer feel connected to your church might still feel connected to you. And if they have traveled with you before, they may feel connected to your group as well.

If some of your former travelers haven’t come around in a while, I would encourage you to reach out to them. Better yet, invite them to join your next trip. Even if they don’t see the value in showing up for Sunday services, they might still be excited about traveling with you.

And chances are, if they do come on your next trip, they’ll start to rediscover the value of the community they’ve been missing.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.