When you’re in the middle of a disruption, it’s hard to know exactly what’s changing, let alone how deeply or permanently things are changing.

As 2020 soon draws to a close, there are three numbers that, at least for me, show how quickly, radically and perhaps permanently the church is changing.

As you look through these numbers, you may feel the temptation to explain them, dismiss them or even come up with reasons why the trends don’t apply to you.

I get it. And I empathize.

I’ve heard so many leaders spend 2020 saying things like:

People have always gathered in person, and they’ll gather again as soon as possible.

I’m the exception to the rule. I can get people to come back. 

This is the CHURCH…in-person gatherings are here forever. 

These numbers below paint a different story. One that wise church leaders may want to act on now while there’s still time to pivot.

In this post, I shared 5 reasons the church has left the building and where future church attendance is heading.

Even when the truth isn’t what you want to see, the truth is still your friend.

There are so many numbers floating around right now, but these three in many ways clarify the trends we’re seeing right now. And, as shocking as they are, they can help you prepare for a very different, but also very promising, future. At least that’s my hope.

1. 36%: The Average In-Person Attendance For Reopened Churches

In Tony Morgan’s Q3 UnStuck Church Report, he shares that among churches his team surveyed, in-person attendance is 36% of what it was pre-COVID.

No leader entered 2020 saying “I hope we’re at 36% of where we are right now by the end of the year.” But that’s exactly what’s happening.

What makes this more interesting is who was in the survey.  Of the 261 churches Morgan’s team surveyed, 34 churches were under 100 in attendance and 34 were megachurches. The average pre-COVID attendance of the surveyed churches was 961. This means that the report skews to much larger churches than average (961 is more than four times the size of most churches in America), and perhaps churches that were experiencing more momentum than average (being previously at almost 1000 in attendance).

For sure, you can find cases of churches who have seen 50% in-person attendance rates, and I’ve heard of a few that top 70%. But again, no one started the year thinking “losing 30% would be such a win”.

I’ll also give you the fact that at some point, those numbers will rise again after COVID disappears.

But before you pull out the streamers and party hats, read a little further. Other trends from our friends at Barna show more deeply seeded trends that will play out in the future.

The Q3 Unstuck Church Report also revealed that only 21% church leaders agreed that they have a “well-defined digital ministry strategy to engage with people who are outside the church and outside the faith.” In other words, almost 80% don’t.

There’s a lot of work to do here.

There is evidence a lot of church leaders are stuck right now in the emerging trap of doing nothing well as they straddle both in-person and online ministry. I outline 3 reasons why that’s such a dangerous trap in this post.

So what’s the take away?

Most church leaders have the highest levels of staff and budget going to an area where they are seeing the lowest returns. That’s not a sustainable long-term strategy.

2. 41%: The Percentage of Gen Z who primarily prefer physical gatherings post-COVID

So how many people are coming back to in-person gatherings when COVID is over?

Apparently fewer than you think. And fewer than you’d hope.

According to a Barna/Stadia survey, only 41% of Gen Z say that when COVID is over, they want to return to primarily in-person worship. 42% of Millennials say they prefer primarily in-person worship. Which means, of course, that the majority don’t.

It’s easy to think “Well, this is just an unprecedented year. Things will get back to normal soon.”

Maybe, except it’s hard to go back to normal when normal is disappearing.

The very low attendance numbers that many church leaders often dismiss as medical (i.e. caused by COVID) may actually be a much deeper cultural and generational shift than we realize.

A further drill down shows that parents are looking at hybrid options (combination of in person and digital) more seriously than non-parents. And that women are more open to digital church than men.

Crisis is an accelerator, and so many of the trends we’ve been seeing over the last few decades are now happening faster than ever, in real time.

The digital genie is out of the bottle.

Your church is still around. The church is still around. It’s just  leaving the building.

Here’s the challenge with not changing: vaccines can’t solve cultural and generational shifts. Innovation will, but vaccines won’t.

3. 30%. The Percentage Point Gap Between Boomers and Gen Z

Have another look at the chart above in point #2. You know who really desires physical gatherings?

Boomers.

71% of Boomers say they want primarily in-person church attendance after COVID is over. For Gen Z, only 41% prefer primarily physical gatherings in the future. That’s a 30 point gap.

A 30 point gap is a large gap…and here’s how it might be impacting your leadership.

First, the average senior pastor is a Boomer. According to a Barna survey, the average age of the senior pastors in America in 2017 was 54. That’s an almost four year old statistic, which would now push that average age into the late fifties.

Look at the composition of many church boards, senior leadership teams and key donors (or even volunteers), and you might get some group-think going based around your own personal preferences: doesn’t everybody want to come back to attend in person?  According to this research, that’s exactly how older adults would think.

Except it’s not reflective of anyone under age 55.

If you think Gen Z is an anomaly, again, look at the chart. Only a minority of Millennial, Gen Z and even Gen X want to primarily gather in person in the future.

The changes happening right now in church attendance preferences are not just cultural, they’re generational.

So what can you do?

First, get some young leaders around your table. Don’t just get them sharing opinions…get them making decisions.

Second, rethink the allocation of resources you’re spending on in-person gatherings versus online ministry. You’ll make your own choices, but most churches are spending less than 10% of their time and budget on the very thing that will probably give them the greatest potential for the future—a strong online presence.

In many ways, this confirms what you already know. Regular church attendance has been dropping for decades. The crisis appears to have accelerated that.

In person isn’t going away. But it likely won’t play the role it used to even as recently as a year ago.

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.

For the full Barna and Stadia report on how the generations are processing this moment and the future, you can go to Barna.com/DigitalChurch and download the “Six Questions About the Future of the Hybrid Church Experience” research journal (Using the code CAREY10 will give you a discount on the journal or Barna Access. Thanks to Barna for providing this for our leaders.)

What Do You See?

I know this is really tough stuff…I get it. And nobody signed up for it.

But here we are together trying to figure it out, so let’s focus on the possibilities and potential of the future.  I’d love to hear from you!

What are you watching right now that’s helping you get ready for the future?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

3 Shocking Statistics That Show How Quickly, Radically (and Permanently?) Church Is Changing in 2020

63 Comments

  1. Carlos Haynes on October 30, 2020 at 6:03 pm

    our church is about 50 in both locations. we have been full since we opened and we have actually grown and still get visitors. We are heavy into digital ministry and do our best to do both! Our radio and digital outreach have grown a lot. We noticed many more visitors to our website and viewers on our YouTube channel. We will continue to be as normal as possible.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 11, 2020 at 6:41 am

      Love this Carlos. Way to go! I trust many of those 50 gatherings are ‘micro’ gatherings which I think is a future church trend.

  2. Philip on October 28, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    Hebrews 10:25 says, “…not FORSAKING THE ASSEMBLING OF OURSELVES TOGETHER, as is the manner of some, but EXHORTING one another, and SO MUCH THE MORE as you see the DAY approaching.”

    I looked up the word “exhorting” in the dictionary and this is what I found…
    exhort – to incite by argument or advice : urge strongly : to give warnings or advice : make urgent appeals

    Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have got to EXHORT our members to attend church in person. This is a command of the Bible. How can the BODY OF CHRIST be the body when it is not together? How can we function properly? We can’t when we’re sitting at home staring at our phones or at the TV.

    Do I believe we shouldn’t have a media presence? Absolutely not! I believe we need to be online and on TV…and it should be quality! But we have to work harder at getting our people to come to the sanctuary, to sing, serve, give, pray, and hear the Word of God in person.

    Churches, don’t give up striving to get your people back in church! There’s healing at the house of God!

    • Michael R Bianchi on October 29, 2020 at 9:12 am

      Amen! Online may allow a pastor or leader to connect somewhat with the congregation, but it really is weak in allowing the congregation to Fellowship with each other.

    • Juan Carreon on October 30, 2020 at 12:15 pm

      Does it demand or command, “in-person. I’m down with that; but if we can get their attention online and bump up my little closer to join us in person, I think that would be a great strategy. We can also reach people from other cities, states, and countries that have never heard the gospel, at least the way certain people with teaching or preaching. It’s time to do both, in person and remote!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 11, 2020 at 6:40 am

      I hear you and love your passion. But what if we enabled distributed gatherings where people live and work, rather than always ask them to come to the building? That’s a little more first century. Just trying to break out of the box that has led us into decades of decline.

    • Michael Gleason on November 17, 2020 at 5:15 pm

      I would like to humbly comment on your post. Please take this into consideration as we interpret that scripture. I have struggled with the meaning of this singular verse’s true meaning. Hebrews 10:25 was written at a time when there were no “church” buildings. The second thing I would like to point out is that the book of Hebrews was written to the persecuted Church. This would mean they probably couldn’t meet in the large gatherings that we commonly associate with that verse. I would like to propose that where 2-3 are gathering in the name of Christ there he is there also. So wouldn’t gathering with 2-3 actually be considered an assembly. I think we really have to rethink the lens in which we look at Hebrews 10:25 For practicality sake I actually think that smaller communities spur one another on to Love and Good works better than a larger gathering.

  3. Leanne Morgan on October 28, 2020 at 4:44 am

    Thank you so much, Carey. We are from the UK, and having met you a while ago we knew that you thinking, approach and leadership in these subjects is one to be trusted. My husband and I as Senior Pastors have felt for years, before Covid, that there needed to be a “reimagined” approach to the Church engaging with the world. The old model of “come to church” is not even biblical in my opinion. Instead we’ve been given an opportunity to “go” as is our Commission.

    Thank you for your insight. Although I understand these stats are for the US, I feel we are in the minority here in the UK, pushing online content only. We are under very tight restrictions here but we don’t feel that is what is driving us to be solely online for the foreseeable. It’s the excitement of producing content online in the “cloud” but then pushing it to “ground” where we can eventually meet in person anywhere…and that’s the key. The buildings have housed the Church for too long. If we are not careful we will create a consumer Church focusing too much on what Christians want rather than innovating ways to reach the world that would never enter the doors of a church building.

    Thank you for your insight and teaching – we value you here in the UK!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 11, 2020 at 6:38 am

      Leanne! Thanks! I was supposed to be in the UK twice to speak in 2020, but you know…pandemic. I’m thankful you’re trying new things. I must say from my previous visits I’ve been very encouraged by the renewal and deep sense of mission I see in church leaders there. So encouraging. Keep at it!

  4. Tim Kuhl on October 27, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    Thanks for all the work you’re doing through this. We adopted a phrase early on, this isn’t a pause button it’s a fast forward. We have tried to learn, decide, and implement decisions based on it. We are a unique church because 5 months of our year here in Palm Springs we intake a few hundred snowbirds. And then every year we lose them again to our hot summers. But this year we kept them all summer long because of the push to digital. We are learning a TON about the difference between creating digital “content” and creating digital “connections.” Churches tried to embrace and learn better music approaches, and movement into small groups over Sunday school. We can certainly learn this too! For now, our digital approach has been about retention. We want to learn about its potential for reach next!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 11, 2020 at 6:36 am

      Tim that’s such an important distinction. You’re so right. Content should fuel connections, it’s not the end in itself.

  5. Dave on October 27, 2020 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for continuing to give us a “Big-Picture” perspective. May God use these new trends to reach even more people for His Kingdom.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 12:03 pm

      Thanks Dave!

  6. Christopher Burns, LCSW, CSAT on October 27, 2020 at 5:28 am

    As a solid GEN X guy, I can say I too want church in a building on Sundays (and Friday Nights 😉). But I also know the reality that more and more young people are driven online for connection, not just for church — for many things. All that being said, I don’t think it’s healthy. God wired us for true connection. In the short time that Zoom Therapy has been booming, both Patients and Therapists are already talking about digital fatigue and burnout. Most people I speak to hate Zoom 12-Step meetings. Digital can never replace the human connection. Period.

    I think digital church sounds great in theory and I believe we will always need an element of it, for sure. But my fear is that when you remove the human element — the real human element — the church will shrink. Even videos are shrinking in size and length, which is why TikTok is so popular.

    COVID aside, young people still attend concerts in droves — they go to clubs — they go to school. This idea that young people want everything digitally seems like a false narrative. If the church moves more and more into a digital expression of services, while at the same time the “NONE’S” keep growing, I think the church may find itself outdated and dead in an effort to be “relevant”.

    Of course, I don’t believe that will happen because of, you know, God. But Christianity will always be counter cultural; digital is becoming (if it’s not already) the mainstream. I also believe the more and more digitally disconnected we become, people will begin seeking for and longing for something authentic. On that day, I hope the church can be the church.

    I guess, this whole thing saddens me, and yet motivates me for making a physical expression of church on Sundays that much better.

    -cb

    https://twitter.com/RewriteRecovery

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 8:14 am

      Chris…thanks for this!

      All true. Young people do love to gather. But the gatherings don’t have to happen in your building. You can facilitate those gatherings elsewhere too. This is what most leaders are missing right now.

      Also just a gentle reminder we’re all having this conversation online.

  7. Scott Button. Hope Valley Church Adelaide SA on October 26, 2020 at 9:22 pm

    The stats used I assume are USA. In South Australia where churches have been open for 3to 4 months e are seeing larger rates. Our church is more like 80plus percent. So wondering what different National contexts might mean around this stat. By the way we are investing heavily in online though.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 7:06 am

      Scott that’s great. Yes, the stats are US.

      Just a reminder to anyone on the high side to focus not on ‘recovery’ but advance. If you want to reach more people, how would you do it? Then go do it.

      But congrats.

    • Taira Nittka on October 27, 2020 at 1:58 pm

      It is encouraging to know your return rate is so high over there. To God be the glory! Amen.

  8. Brian Nelson on October 26, 2020 at 2:36 pm

    I believe we’re spinning a stat to make a point. And I don’t understand why.

    I absolutely get needing to develop online ministry. We’ve got groups meeting online and we’re pushing out online services every weekend. Our overall attendance (2,000) is slightly up over pre-COVID and 60% of that is online. So I’m not a naysayer.

    But MY goodness…why are we so against in-person worship? Why are we so special to think after 2000 years, we will be the ones to stop gathering physically? I just don’t get why we’re pushing so hard to make this a reality.

    If you look at the survey, it shows that only 13% of Millennials and Get Z want online only. But we are acting like 80% are saying that. Like it’s the future. But the survey doesn’t say that.

    Here’s what I see…82% Millennials and 78% Gen Z’s want in-person worship at some level. I’m not sure why that’s not mentioned in the article. Not one place is that talked about.

    And I’m not seeing this article play out at our church either. I’m seeing the survey play out. We’ve got young families who LOVE online groups. We’ve got families with busy schedules who enjoy grabbing an online service if needed. But we’ve got tons of 20’s and 30’s coming on Sunday. They’ve been pumped to get back.

    Our experience in Chicago just doesn’t line up with the article. Because the article spins the stat the wrong way.

    If I had seen this survey without explanation, I would have been blown away…at the opposite side of what was said. And I would have been so excited. Because only 13% want online only. And we can do that. And about 40% want a combo. We can do that too.

    But our goal will always remain to move the 13% toward the roughly 80% who believe in-person is still important. Because God says it is. And that’s beyond culture or time period.

    Any article or podcast that pushes us another direction is damaging in the long run.

    Moving high %’s of money and staff away from in-person services, if it causes it those services to decline, will ultimately cause harm to our staff and our people. If 80% still want in-person involved, I’m still stacking the deck there.

    I think we can do both without sacrificing the main thing.

    Love how you get us thinking. Keep it coming. Just consider another angle.

    • Mike Cline on October 26, 2020 at 6:36 pm

      nailed it. thank you

    • Amanda on October 26, 2020 at 11:12 pm

      thanks for this perspective … ! Lets not read stats with an outcome in mind

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 6:58 am

      Brian, thanks for the respectful tone and thoughtful insights. I love not seeing things the same way but being civil. Our culture needs such a dose of that right now. And thanks for your ministry!

      You raise some good points and I’ve said all along that in-person worship isn’t going away. I’ve tried to be really clear on that.

      But I’ve seen church leaders struggle with attendance for years. As you know, growing churches struggle with in-person attendance.

      2020 is a game changer. Will in-person worship come back? Yes. But my gut tells me the ‘combo’ preference of in-person and online will default heavily to online as it was already doing in the last five years. Once a month ‘regular’ attendance might become once every two months or once a quarter, but people will still feel very connected thanks to decentralized gatherings (small groups, homes, back yards, etc) and online.

      As for return to church, nobody predicted 36%, or 70%. I think that caught us all by surprise, but even if you became the outlier, if you fight cultural patterns rather than cooperate with them, you’re signing yourself up for a lot of unnecessary tension.

      So I’m raising a flag, looking at the trends and encouraging leaders to think ahead. Two years from now, or five years from now, I think we’ll be scratching our heads even harder wondering why people aren’t coming or are coming once a quarter. I think the clues are all there now.

      And, if it results in us reaching far more people, I don’t think that’s a problem. It’s a solution.

      But, those who succeeded most in the old order are most motivated to bring it back…so I think that’s why we see so many leaders push back against these numbers, trends and insights.

      By all means, go ahead with the full on return to in-person gatherings, but I think two years from now most of us will regret that we didn’t triple down on online. (Trust me, some days I empathize with Jeremiah…sounding alarm bells and it feels like no-one’s listening…not trying to trivialize Jeremiah here…ha ha).

      It’s both and, but most leaders I see are still running head long back into what they know, are comfortable with and feel they can do.

      I think a new generation will emerge on people who invest in online ministry, decentralized gathering and will equip and reach people where they are, and that will be a sizeable part of the future. I personally would be moving there now.

      As for splitting time and money between online and in-person, I think we can do great in person on less money and less staff than we used to.

      One last point…I’ve always got the people we’re trying to reach in mind, not the people we’re trying to keep. So I’m thinking ahead to what evangelism is going to look like in two years as well.

      Anyway, thanks again Brian. Appreciate the thoughtful dialogue.

      • Brian Nelson on October 27, 2020 at 8:50 am

        I appreciate the dialogue as well! And I understand that you have a different perspective. Let me push back on a couple things you mention.

        1) When you say your gut tells you that combo will lean toward online, I believe the numbers tell the opposite story.

        Let’s just look at Millennials and Gen Z.

        If we just look at who said one or the other, not both, it is 42% in-person only vs 13% online only. First of all, that 42% thing should shock us. Even I was surprised. Because I get people thinking, “I wouldn’t mind a little of both.”

        I’m surprised that isn’t the loudest and most talked about stat.

        But now look at the undecideds. Those that say a little of both wouldn’t be bad. You personally see that group leaning toward the 13% as we move forward. You mention that your gut believes more will go that way.

        But I would say 4 out of 5 of them would lean toward in-person. The reason? Because if you pushed them to pick one or the other, it would seem fair to say they’d vote similar to their peers. We see the same in politics with those in the middle. It eventually splits about the same.

        In that case, it would be about 22% lean toward online and 73% lean toward in-person. If you really pushed them.

        You might say I’m messing with numbers, but it is much easier to get to this position using the numbers, than to assume more will drift toward online. You can absolutely have that view, but it’s the bigger gamble for sure.

        While 22% is still a lot, it’s not 73%.

        2) I struggle when you use “36% have come back nationwide” as an indicator of the future. It seems to forget that we are still in COVID. It kinda reads like we’re already post-COVID.

        I don’t understand how we can extrapolate future patterns during this pandemic. The survey seems to support this, and more importantly, our experience here in Chicago supports it.

        From every conversation we’ve had in our church, and there have been hundreds, the people who haven’t returned to in-person want to come. COVID is keeping them away. That’s it.

        It’s not about lack of desire. It’s not about the future. It’s about now. COVID is keeping them away.

        I can agree that people don’t always know what they’ll do, and I know you’re trying to figure that out. So am I! It’s just a big jump for me from the numbers to land where you land.

        And for most leaders, if they think this is a bigger problem than COVID, it’s misleading and disheartening for no reason.

        I know many pastors are depressed and struggling, as you have mentioned. I wish these blogs and podcasts would help them understand that some of this just is what it is. It’s out of their control.

        Pastors should do the best the can in-person. They should do the best they can online. But they must understand the results aren’t indicative of their ministry.

        Can pre-COVID numbers help us? Yes. Can pre-COVID attendance problems help us? Yes. Those things are still usable. Can current COVID online numbers help us? Yes, but there is natural fatigue that’s hard to judge. But if online can be outreach, we can overcome those over time.

        But overall, we need to push through this time and not make judgments beyond their use.

        I just sat with a dad who hasn’t returned. And online is wearing down on him. He doesn’t feel safe coming back, but he isn’t connecting. By his own admission, he is craving in person worship and community.

        Online can’t replace that. It’s a part, but it’s not the whole.

        3) You say the old order pushes against the numbers. But the numbers seem to lean toward them as I look at them.

        And it’s not just the old. Our young guys absolutely want in-person worship. Across the board. Please know, they don’t usually think like me. Trust me! That would be good for no one :).
        
4) You mention running toward comfort. I’m sure many pastors are. I get sounding that alarm. But it doesn’t leave room for the many of us who just believe it’s better and it’s what God truly desires. And what’s best for the people.

        If Millennials and Gen Z’s can make it to school, work, restaurants, birthday parties, play dates, family gatherings, etc, we believe they should desire to come to church.

        It’s part of our shepherding. Online has it’s place for sure, but in-person isn’t old.

        5) Finally, I totally get trying to reach the lost. As my Lead Pastor says, “We Are seeker obsessed.”

        From our surveys, about half of our growth comes from unchurched people coming to our church. We would fit under your “growing” church term as we went from 1000 to 1800 in two years. So I feel like our survey field is pretty solid.

        Even today, in 2020, we still see people come more often the longer they’re here. We see new believers desiring to be in church. We see young couples desiring to be in church. We hear often that people can’t wait to be back!

        As you’ve mentioned before in a prior blog, we’ve rarely seen someone come to church less and grow in Christ more. And from all the conversations I’m having, I don’t believe online church will ultimately fill that roll for the majority.

        Please hear me…I value it. I just don’t want us tossing too many staff and too much money at it. I agree churches could do more in-person with a little less. I’ve seen too many churches with bloated staffs and salaries to not agree with you.

        And I understand your intention in all of this. You don’t want churches to ignore online ministry. I absolutely agree with that. I get you being Jeremiah :).

        I just encourage you to not overstate it for the sake of helping push those who need a push, at the sacrifice of the many great leaders are just hurting and discouraged. The ones who are doing everything right but still struggling. Because of COVID.

        It’s still COVID season. Period. And until it’s over, I’d hate to make it anything more.

        Thanks man! Appreciate all you do for the Kingdom.

        • Andrew Morse on October 27, 2020 at 9:15 am

          That is some great feedback and push back both ways. Thanks for this both of you!

        • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 12:09 pm

          Let me just applaud your scenario Brian. You’re the exception to the rule.

          I mean that. If everyone had your success, we would not be writing posts like this. You’re bucking a trend and that’s awesome.

          Most church leaders are having a very different experience, and I do think we see the future differently.

          I can see you’re a careful reader…noting that rarely have I see someone attend church less and grow more. Great memory. 🙂 Funny, as I was writing last month I think I’m changing my mind on that. I’m not sure that’s going to hold true moving forward. I think there’s a lot of growth outside a building, but under the leadership and authority of a particular church. Probably say more about that in the future. Not sure I’m ready to change my mind fully, but I’m seeing a very different future, one that excited me.

          All right, I won’t say more because I’ve written literally tens of thousands of words on this already.

          But sincerely, congrats. I love your ministry and again thank you for the honest and kind dialogue.

          Carey

    • Jim Craven on October 27, 2020 at 9:56 am

      Brian: you articulated my thoughts exactly. The vast majority in every category want in-person at some level. We need to do our best to provide meaningful in-person AND online worship experiences.
      Our experience with returning to in-person has been attendance between 80 and 90 percent of attendance prior to the first lockdown. We will not abandon those worshipers or give them a “watered down” experience to focus on our online worship. We have to figure out how to do both with our current staffing without burning everyone out.

    • Jeni on October 27, 2020 at 12:32 pm

      I had some of the same thoughts as you. Especially, “Here’s what I see…82% Millennials and 78% Gen Z’s want in-person worship at some level.”

  9. Andrew on October 26, 2020 at 1:21 pm

    The stat I see as interesting is if you take in person and combined and then online and combined numbers and compare them. That can give you the stats you need to lead your congregation and you need data from your congregation… if my split is 60% wanting in person and hybryd, and 50% want online and hybrid. I should put about similar effort to in person gatherings and online gatherings. In this study 70% of millennials still want in-person ( 30 % want both, 40 want just in person). Online only is still small( but if I was given the opportunity to engage 10% of a population somewhere I would deffinetly put some effort there).

    I think that we as a church have a huge opportunity here like you said, and I do believe digital is here to stay. God is giving us a chance to follow him into something new. Are we following him by engaging in this area he is opening our eyes to? Are we open to following him wherever he leads us even if that means going out of our comfort zone? Are we willing to take a risk for the sake of spreading the gospel?
    I’m really excited to see what this pivot looks like in the coming years for our churches and The Church!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 6:59 am

      Andrew…something new indeed.

  10. Dave Z on October 26, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    I agree this is a trend, and our church is investigating how we can create a stronger online presence, especially as we look towards a 2021 budget. We’re placing an emphasis on developing younger leaders and allowing them to lead, and we’ll see where that goes.

    But I wonder if it is a healthy trend. Can faith be developed and sustained when it is primarily built online? Or is this trend just part of a slippery slope to … where?

    Do the younger generations still gather for other functions? If so, then they are specifically choosing not to engage in church gatherings. To me, that is a sign that they are not finding value in church services, and that prompts us to figure out why not. I can’t help but think of the adage that says, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

    Is this crisis just accelerating our travel down the same path to post-Christianity that Europe has followed in the past couple of decades? As you said, the church is still around – churches in England still gather – but it’s nothing like it used to be. I wonder if that’s what we should be preparing for.

    It would be interesting if you were to do a couple interviews with Glyn Barrett or some other British leaders to get their perspective.

    BTW, we are a church of 150 or so pre-covid. We’re running about 100 since we started regathering. Another factor is that we are not supposed to be meeting according to our state orders. Most people don’t seem to care.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 6:59 am

      Dave…”Do the younger generations still gather for other functions? If so, then they are specifically choosing not to engage in church gatherings. To me, that is a sign that they are not finding value in church services…” Nailed it.

  11. P. J on October 26, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    We are investing in and trying to go after a new level of online ministry. However, I think its super important to ask ourselves what is the PURPOSE of our church’s online ministry? I don’t see the idea of creating an online CHURCH as our primary purpose. Perhaps for some, but not for us. We definitely don’t have the money or man power to truly disciple the masses online. So here is where we have landed so far. Our online ministry has two primary purposes:
    1. To help our present church members remain connected to God and to their church family whenever they can not attend physical services. I.e. work, vacation, sickness, or a worldwide pandemic
    2. To serve as a bridge to those who are not part of a church family already or the unsaved. We can introduce them to Jesus and minister to them wherever they are physically and spiritually. But our Biblical call would be to then encourage them to find a local church family to learn, serve, and grow. If they are located near us, we would welcome them. If not, we can encourage them to find a local church near them. As much it may stroke my ego if someone from Idaho watches our church online, the reality is I can’t truly pastor/disciple them from across the country. But I can be used by God in the process to help them along the way.
    That’s where we are on this so far. I’m open to better ideas and suggestions. Help a brother out! 🙂 – PJ from Georgia

  12. Peter Bonanno on October 26, 2020 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks Carey. Any thought on why it seems giving remains pretty stable in churches despite Covid and gathering challenges? At least among our movement (Foursquare) that seems to be the case. My three thoughts: overall commitment to the local church, good discipleship on generosity, or the only way some people believe they can continue serving their church.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 7:02 am

      Peter I love your question. And I don’t have a clear answer. We’re seeing the same thing at our church….very stable giving given the craziness of 2020.

      I think the core is still in. I think people are committed.

      I do wonder if resources are going to flow more heavily into churches that are going to embrace online. As a church member, if I saw my church pulling back and ignoring online, I might want to move my volunteering, leadership and resources to a ministry that was more forward looking. I’m NOT a church shopper, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we saw a redistribution in the years ahead.

      Great question Peter.

  13. Joel on October 26, 2020 at 11:21 am

    Hey Carey, these numbers seem a little incongruent with what we’re experiencing. Now, we might not be even talking about Gen Z but rather Gen Alpha with what I’m about to say, but what we’ve seen in our church is in person gatherings that have begun on the weekends only have 15-20% returning. That is made up of everyone from Gen Alpha to whatever the one is that is older than Boomers. In contrast, our youth ministry midweek gatherings have seen 80% returning. Where we would normally have 180 or so youth on a midweek youth night, we now have about 150-160 in person, with about 6-8 online. I’m wondering if the return to in person church differs based on province or state, the Covid numbers and general fear, etc. Also, as I said, I realize I’m talking about Gen Alphas and by extension their parents who are mostly Gen Xers and Millenials, but I’m fascinated by the findings. Any thoughts?

    • P. J on October 26, 2020 at 12:13 pm

      We have seen this with our high school students also. They hated zoom and began to fall away rapidly. But they have returned to in person meetings and that group is almost at pre-covid numbers. They can also drive themselves to church. That age group are all still going to school and going to their jobs on a regular basis. Their lives have not changed as much as adults. Our middleschool numbers are about half of the pre-covid numbers. And ironically, it’s mainly the homeschoolers (real homeschoolers – not covid temporary homeschoolers) that are attending middleschool youth group. This is a mystery. As for our Sunday service attendance, we were about 175 pre covid and we are now about 105 for the last three sundays. It was a little less before we opened up kids church and nursery on Sundays. Our Wednesday night Mens group (every other week) is running 20 which is about the same or better than precovid. Womens group is probably the same or a little less than precovid. 30ish women total. Our church is in a rurual area of Georgia that has not been hit near as hard as many. We do have some that have fallen away because of the months we did of online only service. A few are staying away from in-person and blame it on covid but I’m not sure that is the whole story.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 27, 2020 at 7:05 am

      Joel and PJ,

      Thanks for this. I love that you’re experiencing success with regathering Alphas (the gen behind Gen Z if anyone’s wondering).

      A few things, and this goes to people talking about Millennials regathering too. All based on personal observation and thought. Zero data.

      But…these are very social years. School’s been disrupted. Gyms are closed. Parties got banned. And teens and adults are inherently social creatures. If you’re gathering, they’re in. Could be one explanation, and maybe when the world reopens they’ll adopt different patterns. OR maybe this is a super-pumped generation that’s going to reach all their friends. I’d sign up for that any day.

  14. Connie on October 26, 2020 at 11:12 am

    No, everyone we want to reach is NOT online. In our church, we are constantly amazed at how many people we have to call with announcements and make video copies. Even many of our young people do not do Facebook or email, even if they are online. Many of our Boomers don’t even own computers or smartphones. We want to reach them, too.

  15. Jeremy Harper on October 26, 2020 at 11:00 am

    Thanks for keeping us up on the trends Carey.
    Now we can make a good, prayerful, informed decision how to move forward.
    God Bless

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 26, 2020 at 11:02 am

      Thanks Jeremy!

  16. Dan Donaldson on October 26, 2020 at 10:49 am

    So here’s my definite take away from your chart, Carey. There’s no way around that we have to be able to do both in-person and digital well. Arguing about percentages and age groups doesn’t get us past the undeniable reality that we have to do both, not just for a few more months. Our mission to go and disciple will be accomplished in the Spirit’s power as we continually discern how to reach out and engage people far from God. Clearly, that requires some combination of both!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 26, 2020 at 11:02 am

      Dan. Totally true. To ignore digital is to ignore tomorrow.

  17. Bobbi on October 26, 2020 at 10:39 am

    I am a young adult leader at my church and frankly the young adult ministries have suffered the most during this time off. That group may be watching online but what then? Many consume popular megs church preachers and it’s all very shallow and surface level and perhaps that is the problem and why they don’t want to come back. We’ve trained them for showy services and that’s not what we’re called to In this season and it hasn’t produced good results as far as strong disciples.

    To be perfectly honest millennials and Generation Z is the group that is gathering and hanging out with each other and spreading the virus around so no I don’t buy they won’t come back to physical services. I just think we’re getting away from the “let’s all be like elevation church“ Service or whatever church is popular at the moment.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 26, 2020 at 11:02 am

      Bobbi…thanks for leading young people.

      You can see it as ‘the problem’ and dismiss it or see it as the reality. I think seeing it as the new reality helps you better figure out how to embrace it next.

      And the fact that they’re hanging out with each other but not the church (and watching other services online) might be a sign it’s time to reboot the approach to them for the future.

      Really appreciate your leadership and I hope this helps.

  18. Mitch on October 26, 2020 at 10:33 am

    Interesting article and survey. My churches would average closer to 50% pre coved attendance and I actually have a handful, probably about 10 or so that are back to 100% and three that are averaging more! We are mostly rural and our largest congregations are in the 250 to 300 range. The churches that averages 150-200 seem to be doing better.

    On the generational gap I wonder what this would have looked like 40 or 50 years ago with the difference between the builders and the boomers? I really like the idea of more creative small groups and agree that virtual ministry, although necessary and imperative for 21st century ministry, can be draining. The number of coffee shops designed to let people sit and visit tell me personal interaction is still valuable.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 26, 2020 at 10:40 am

      Mitch that’s great.

      There’s always a generation gap, and I think when we’re aware of it we do better. And to remind ourselves that everyone you want to reach is online.

      • Bethany Coon on October 26, 2020 at 12:27 pm

        Being in Gen Z myself, I think it’s less that we want to be at church and more that we want to be in community. Mostly, church has been based around large gatherings where we get inspired. Lots of my generation gets lost in these large gatherings. Why would we come when we can find inspirational talks online? But what we do desire and crave is to connect and grow in communities of believers. I think the church would benefit in shifting its mindset towards equipping smaller groups of believers to walk life together. This doesn’t mean large gatherings have to go but there needs to be spaces of smaller discipleship and fellowship to engage in.

  19. Michael on October 26, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Agreed that more younger folks are moving away from attending church service and that covid has probably accelerated that situation. However, it does not mean that we should just accept that trend and embrace it. The Bible calls for us to Worship, Fellowship, become Disciples and create Disciples. Attempting to do so online is shallow at best. We need to find ways to bring the people back into church “buildings” for Worship, Fellowship, and Discipleship and not just accept that online services will replace in-person gatherings as the new “normal”. Perhaps we need to move away from the “entertain & lecture” structure of in-person services and move more into participatory Fellowship & Discipleship services.

    • Bob on October 26, 2020 at 10:37 am

      I agree that we shouldn’t just accept the trend, but double down on our efforts to disciple. This isn’t the first time a generation has preferred not gathering for worship, nor will it be the last. I’d be very interested in how you see “participatory Fellowship & Discipleship” services.

      • Michael on October 26, 2020 at 11:01 am

        Bob … please see https://adchurch.cc/Page/12794.

        Church service would, of course, include music.

        Pastor/leader would introduce the subject of the day and discuss it briefly. Then the discussion would be turned over to the tables. Each table would have a “table leader” to guide the table discussion. Discussion would always start with introductions & brief info (Fellowship) and then a discussion of the subject of the day. After about 20 minutes the service would return to the pastor/leader for final thoughts/music/invitation/etc. We found that the older folks didn’t like this ‘new’ concept as much as the younger folks did, but it did foster more Fellowship & Discipleship within the congregation.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 26, 2020 at 10:39 am

      Michael I think that’s a great point. Content consumption was never the goal, but as you know, you can consume content in a building just as well as you can on a screen.

      I think the key is to equip people to gather, and as we move forward, gathering in homes and in the community can and will eclipse gathering in a central facility. Future church leaders will be more equippers helping people gather in a distributed way.

      • Andrew Morse on October 27, 2020 at 9:31 am

        “Content consumption was never the goal, but as you know, you can consume content in a building just as well as you can on a screen.”

        This.

        What has been the focus of my church? Engaging Jesus/Father/Holy Spirit or consuming content?

        Selah

    • Pastor John Mayfield on October 26, 2020 at 10:50 am

      I like what you are saying Michael so tell us how you propose to do this. I feel as you do and I don’t want to see inhouse attendance die or continue to fall. I am a pastor and we never shut down for the Virus, however immediately when the country locked down my church attendance fell by 80% but it began to grow after two weeks. We are now running a little more than we were before the Virus hit. We did nothing to increase inhouse attendance but we did go online as we previously were not online.
      I want to have the best of both worlds in our church both online and inhouse. I love Elvis and the announcer saying after Elvis’ Concerts “Elvis Has Left The Building” but I don’t want to Ever Hear “The Church Has Left The Building” and I hope and pray all of us can have the best of both worlds in our churches. So Give Us Your Ideas. Thanks Pastor John

    • Linda Miller on October 26, 2020 at 12:25 pm

      It’s interesting that your online worship and fellowship is shallow at best. In April I started two online prayer gatherings with women in our church (attendance of all before covid probably averaged 120/Sunday). We have been going strong ever since! We also meet for fellowship and prayer via Zoom every Sunday after our live stream with the greater church (we have in-person gatherings too, which started in August), and I have prayed with more people since the virus started than I ever did when I gathered for in-person services. Presently we are reading a Psalm and often spend time praying through that Psalm. Then we pray for one another, our church and our nation. It’s been an incredible blessing knowing there are others lifting each other up during the week. We have gone deep in our prayers and I am grateful for technology that allows us to see each other, without masks, and pray together.

      • Michael R Bianchi on October 27, 2020 at 8:10 am

        Good for you! Do you feel that your experience is typical of others? Do you feel your congregation misses the in-person relationships? How can others duplicate your success?

  20. Chris Smith on October 26, 2020 at 10:12 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis Carey. Appreciate how you are resourcing leaders.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 26, 2020 at 10:37 am

      Thanks Chris! Appreciate the encouragement.

  21. Erich Robinson on October 26, 2020 at 10:02 am

    Love these insights. Would love your thoughts on what Judah Smith and Churchome is doing (I think he went this way a year or 2 ago, right).

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 26, 2020 at 10:37 am

      I don’t know as much about it as I should, but I think Judah’s was/is ahead of the curve and understand the next generation well. 🙂

  22. Mark Pospisil on October 26, 2020 at 10:00 am

    Digital is a great idea but digital is draining over time, right? What about different models or smaller gatherings? Moving ‘horizontally” with more and diverse services instead of just focusing ‘vertically’ on one day. Thanks for your article.

  23. Ed on October 26, 2020 at 9:43 am

    Fascinating and thought provoking
    Thanks

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 26, 2020 at 9:50 am

      Thanks Ed!

      • Robbie Jones on October 26, 2020 at 12:30 pm

        Carey,
        I think that the encouraging trend might be that only 4% want neither after dealing with this Pandemic. What it says to me is that my team and I have a chance to engage with people who are connected and searching. Our schools are using a hybrid method and now our church is beginning to understand that being a hybrid church will be the norm.

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