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Church Attendance Is Dying. What’s Next?

As you know, long before COVID, it was already difficult to get people to attend weekend church services.

Travel sports, weekends away, the death of cultural Christianity and a growing indifference and increased mobility meant that for most churches, attendance was flat or declining, and for growing churches, growing attendance was, well, work.

Post-COVID, as churches around the world reopen, it’s now like church attendance is further falling off a cliff.

After reopening, most churches are reporting 10-40% of their prior church attendance figures (which was already low for most leaders).

As far as online attendance goes, despite an initial surge, post-Easter 2020, only 18% of pastors now report that their online attendance is higher than a typical in-person week.

This means for 82% of pastors, even online church attendance is flat or declining, which is surprisingly like pre-COVID numbers where only a minority of churches were growing. (If you’re wondering where the numbers come from, the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast updates you on all the latest Barna Group research and data.)

Which raises at least two critical questions.

First, what on earth is happening?

And second, what’s next?

That’s what this post is about.

Let me start with some empathy by saying, I get it. I’ve led in the church for 25 years, and I promise you it’s only become more complex. Ironically, at the time when the world needs the Gospel the most, it appears to be the least interested.

At the time when the world needs the Gospel the most, it appears to be the least interested. Click To Tweet

This is also really hard—the current crisis is more difficult than anything you’ve led through. (If it helps, I’m still offering my free crisis leadership course that over 11,000 leaders enrolled in.)

I also realize that almost everywhere you look, it’s bad news.

But know this: the path to the good news is blazed by leaders who keep moving through all the bad news.

If you engage the tough news deeply enough, you’ll be able to move into the future stronger and with a much better approach that can help you advance the mission.

Please hear me. I don’t think people should stop gathering for worship. I’m just asking what you should do when they are.

With that in mind, as hard as they may be to digest, here are seven things I believe will help you and your team prepare for a stronger future.

The path to the good news is blazed by leaders who keep moving through all the bad news. Click To Tweet

1. Diagnosing the Situation Accurately (It’s Not Medical, It’s Cultural)

It would be very easy to diagnose the current low reopening attendance numbers as a medical issue.

And indeed, polls suggest some people won’t return to church as long as social distancing and masks are required, or until there’s a vaccine. After all, even Disney appears to be struggling with low attendance on reopening.

But what if the problem is deeper than that?

Consider the weekly church attendance findings below from Barna, released pre-COVID.

In every age category, weekly church attendance has dropped over the last 20 years.

Perhaps the first step out of the attendance crisis you’re experiencing is to diagnose it accurately: The current church attendance crisis isn’t medical, it’s cultural.

Sure, it’s easy to convince yourself it’s medical, and people may tell you it’s medical, but there’s in all likelihood something deeper going on.

After all, crisis is an accelerator.

Months into the pandemic, people have new habits: Participating from home, or, sometimes, not participating at all in church.

As a result, trends that might have taken years to materialize, arrive almost overnight during times of crisis (like, for example, the widespread adoption of working from home or the much deeper adoption of online shopping).

You can make a strong argument that the current low return-to-church attendance numbers reflect where the church might have ended up a decade from now. We just got there a lot faster.

As much as you may wish that weren’t true, ignoring it, arguing against it, pretending it’s not happening and arguing it shouldn’t be the case will not reverse it.

Denial is not a strategy (or at least not a very good one). Denying what you hate won’t get you and your church to a place you’ll love.

Accepting that this is probably what’s happening is the best place to start. Then build your future around it.

2. Embracing Digital Church as Your New Default

The decline of in-person attendance means a new strategy is called for, at least if you want to reach people.

As hard as this will be for many church leaders, wise leaders will (finally) embrace the digital church as the new default.

In-person gatherings aren’t going away, but the reality is online connections will help you reach more people than ever. After all, almost everyone you want to reach or have reached is online. It’s time to act like that’s true.

What does it mean to be a digital default church?

It means embracing the reality that more people will access your church digitally than in-person and that those who access your church personally will also likely have more digital connections with your church than in-person connections.

Hint: this was already happening in most cases long before COVID.

If you’re not sure we’ve pivoted to an online culture, think about it your own personal experience. Your life flows seamlessly between digital interaction and in-person interactions.

So will the future church.

Deciding that digital is your default doesn’t mean you’ll never gather in person. On the contrary, if you really embrace it, it will mean you gather more people in person because you’re reaching more people.

If you don’t embrace digital as your new default, your church will probably continue to function like a mall in the age of Amazon.

If you do embrace digital as your new default, making a bold announcement that you’re not meeting in person for the remainder of the year (like Andy Stanley recently did) doesn’t threaten the mission at all.

In fact, it might advance it.

Of all the strategies available to you as a church leader, digital has the greatest potential. Digital church scales in a way that physical church doesn’t and can’t.

Still not convinced? This might help.

3. Not Letting Vanity Metrics (Or the Lack Thereof) Distract You

For at least a few weeks, most churches saw some kind of surge in their online presence in 2020, which is awesome.

While it can be hard to know how to accurately measure online church attendance,  the metrics of online can be intoxicating.

If you activate the online algorithm of YouTube or Instagram, growth can happen quickly because the app decides to show you to more people, which on the one hand, sounds amazing.

But algorithmic growth alone can wind you up in the same place in which a church that buys land prime land finds themselves when they think, “10,000 cars a day pass this intersection. Imagine all the people we’ll reach.”

Well, not so fast. 10,000 people a day driving past your church doesn’t turn them into Christians.

The truth about ministry online is that vanity metrics (or the lack thereof) can distract you. Online reach and attendance numbers can artificially encourage you or discourage you.

If you’re among the 18% of church leaders who are seeing growth, don’t let the growth go to your head. If you’re part of the 82% who aren’t seeing the progress you’d like, don’t let the lack of traction go to your heart.

Refocus on helping people connect with God and each other and play the long game.

As someone who started online at zero listeners and viewers both at our church and on this platform, I can promise you that, thanks to the internet, impacting more people than you ever dreamed possible is very possible. But you also need to sustain that impact, build trust, and build relationship month after month, year after year.

Which leads up to point #4.

4. Prioritizing Engagement Over Attendance

For more than a few years now, I’ve argued that engagement is the new church attendance.

If you really want your church to grow, stop trying to attract people—start trying to engage people.

Vanity metrics aside, the real goal is to turn online viewers or scrollers into engagers.

In the same way many church leaders have developed a thoughtful and meaningful approach to helping first-time attenders engage in the mission of the church, so in this next season you will have to develop a way of turning online attenders into online engagers.

The process is similar, and it will take a lot of innovation and experimentation.

But at the heart of it, that means getting to know the people you’re reaching by doing things like:

  • Getting them to follow you
  • Following them back
  • Engaging in online chat and messaging with them
  • Giving them a way to share their story with you
  • Helping answer their spiritual questions or addressing their needs
  • Capturing their email address and other information so you can have a more direct conversation
  • Getting them to take a spiritual step
  • Getting them involved

In many ways, this is already what you do for in-person attenders. The next frontier is to turn online attenders into online engagers.

If you want some help further understanding your online audience, this can help.

5. Building Online Church’s Front Door and Side Door

You can think of church online as having three doors.

The front door (for new people).

The side door (for people who have connected with you in person but are away).

And the back door (people who used to be associated with you but left).

Many church leaders who refused to embrace online church prior to COVID were afraid of the back door and of losing in-person attendance as a result of offering their ministry online.

Here’s the reality: the mass backdoor exit happened 3-8 years ago (see the chart in Point 1 above). Almost everyone who wanted to leave is gone. And if they hadn’t left pre-COVID, they’re pretty much gone now.

Which leaves you free to focus on the front door (reaching new people) and the side door (serving the people who love your church but can’t be there in person right now because of COVID or things as simple as a weekend away).

By shifting to digital church as your default, it also allows your church to speak into people’s lives daily, not just for an hour on Sunday.

The stronger your front door and side door are, the stronger your future is.

If you want more on the front door and side door potential of your church, I wrote a little more here.

6. Embracing the Home and Community (Not the Church Building) as the New Hubs of Ministry

Moments like this give you a chance to see yourself a little more clearly than normal. And one thing that’s becoming clear is we’re addicted to our buildings as church leaders.

With a slow return to church and the shift to digital church as the default, many church leaders will realize their focus in ministry will have to shift from their facilities to people’s homes and to the wider community.

In many ways, this is a solid theological move, as well.

To have people assume responsibility for their own spiritual growth, for evangelism, discipleship and even leadership of their own families can only be a good thing.

An unspoken assumption of the old model of church was that to ‘grow,’ you had to come to a facility and participate in a program or service.

In the future, church leaders will see themselves more as equippers, helping people bring their faith more deeply into the homes, neighborhoods and workplaces.

This could mean that church leaders will help:

  • Facilitate de-centralized gatherings of 10-50 people who gather in homes, backyards, restaurants or other places to watch, support and fuel their ministry
  • Equip parents to equip their kids
  • Church members get involved in causes in their local community to make a difference
  • Give people the tools and skills people need to integrate and live out their faith at work

All of this has been the church’s theology for decades—even centuries—but functionally, it just hasn’t been the practice.

Most churches have built their ministry around the need to attend a physical building. COVID has called that out.

Christians do need to gather, but they can gather and mobilize beyond church buildings, and leaders who realize this early will have more Christians to mobilize than leaders who don’t.

7. Restaffing for the Future

Many church leaders are realizing their current staffing is geared toward facility-based ministry.

That can become a real problem when you don’t have access to your facility or when a fraction of the people who used to attend still attend.

It easily lands you in the emerging trap of doing nothing well (I wrote more about that trap here).

What this probably means for most church staffs is a need to redeploy existing staff to do more online ministry and future hiring in social media, content production and online connections.

A simple way one church is redeploying staff is around content and connection. You’ll find some people are more wired toward technology and others more toward relationship. Have the relational people do the online connections and engagement (run the chat, run social and message people who are engaging online), and have the rest help work on content (from content creation to production).

Naturally, the long-term retool of staffing will have to be more comprehensive, but this can get you started.

In the future, most growing churches will spend up to half of their staffing budget for online ministry and the other half for in-person ministry.

This, in reality, means 100% of their staffing budget will be going toward people, because everyone you want to reach is online.

Position Yourself and Your Church To Change…Quickly

 

Yes, there’s a ton of change happening right now. And it’s exhausting.

As complex as things are, having a simple framework to navigate the change will make the task ahead much easier, including everything we’ve covered in this post.

The challenge for most churches is they have a hard time making decisions, and even when they make a decision, they find it even harder to implement it.

Change that.

My brand new online training, the 30-Day Pivot, will show you how to make and implement decisions quickly and accurately as an organization.

The 30-Day Pivot is a simple 3-step process you and your team can utilize every as often as every 30 days to respond to the change around you and capitalize on it.

In the 30-Day Pivot, you’ll learn:
  • A simple 3-step process your team can use to arrive at your next pivot in 90 minutes or less.
  • An approach that fosters team-generated innovation.
  • An implementation and evaluation framework that will help your team move quickly and accurately.
I’ve led teams through multiple pivots, and in the 30 Day Pivot, I show you the strategy and framework you need to make quick, accurate and responsive moves that can position your organization for growth, even in the midst of deep uncertainty and change.

Some organizations and churches will thrive in the new normal.

Others won’t.

While the future is uncertain, yours doesn’t have to be.

What Do You See As Next?

So I realize this a lot to consider, but is there anything else you see changing that’s got your attention?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

Church Attendance Is Dying. What’s Next?

34 Comments

  1. Heather Kell on July 22, 2020 at 6:09 am

    I think that no matter what we small and fragile people, containing the Temple of God and His spirit in these jars of clay, we will always make mistakes and miss opportunities.

    Fortunately for us, God does not. He is loving, patient and kind, as well as stern and can be a disciplinarian.

    Lets just concentrate on Him, what He wants, love people, build relationships, turn them to Jesus and the Word, not be wishy washy, be real and authentic. And listen to the Holy Spirit.

    Bless everyone here with the heart for worship, service and love for Jesus

    • Vivian on July 28, 2020 at 1:47 pm

      Yes, Heather, well put!

  2. John Cannata on July 21, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    Hey Carey!

    Super insightful!! This can really help transform our thinking and seeing what Jesus is doing! Thank you!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks John!

      • Paul Bonin on July 26, 2020 at 2:33 pm

        Interestng. I am building a on line church

  3. Mark on July 20, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    Great post. Any thoughts on how the online service format will impact the return to in person service format? Your interview with Nicky Gumbal showed that the online service is very different to the service format HTB used to offer in person. If people like a more relaxed TV style online service will they want to return to a concert style worship service in person? Tony Morgan linked this shift to digital with the “worship wars” in the 1980’s when churches stopped their traditional services.
    I’m wondering how to reach people online and also maintain some connection with what people liked in person. Perhaps we will all continue a specific made for digital online service and also an in person service, not just return to broadcasting the in person service online.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:39 pm

      Mark, that’s a great question. It’s early days for sure, but I think Tony is right. The old ‘stream the in-person’ model is likely more a relic of the past than a preview of the future. I think churches may either host two formats (online and in person) or perhaps, someone might be bold enough to experiment with ancient formats like the fourfold pattern of Reformed worship. I honestly don’t know, but I think there will be a lot of experimentation, which can only be good for the future.

      • Jeremy Cole on July 27, 2020 at 12:24 am

        Hi Mark and Carey,

        It’s a really great question that I’ve been thinking through. What we are going to try is:

        1. Our online service will not be simply streaming our Sunday service (Friday service here in Dubai). It will be shorter in length. Less songs, shorter sermon, more like the TV elements you are talking about.

        2. Our in person gathering will no longer be what a typical Sunday morning looks like. It will be more of a had to be there experience. More interaction, less sitting and watching. Some examples are a shorter sermon than breaking into groups to discuss how it affects you. More praying, more singing and more testimonies times. More going outside the building to have church outside. Going to the community both physically and digitally

        3. Digital Discipleship. We are currently working through how to disciple someone digitally. Nona Jones has been a big help.

        I don’t know if it’s going to work but I’m going to experiment until I find something that does. 🙂

        God Bless,

        Jeremy

  4. Sam Rainer on July 20, 2020 at 10:08 pm

    Excellent post. Now I’ve got all sorts of ideas around your comments on decentralized gatherings. Keep these thoughts coming. You are helping us pastors!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:42 pm

      Sam what a joy to hear from you. Thanks for the great work you do. I am really thinking this could break the limitations that our facilities (large or small) have imposed on us. Think about how the move to home-based small groups rather than facility-based Sunday School made thousands (or tens of thousands) of people in groups possible.

      I thiink a similar thiing could happen.

      Right now, I’m wondering if the future church will be a litle like the taping of the Tonight Show. A few hundred/thousand people in person, and 100x more participating online.

      I think this could blow the lid of growth for the future. At least I hope it will. But many pastors are spending all their energy trying to recreate the past.

  5. RP on July 20, 2020 at 9:58 pm

    Hi Carey, thanks for giving us tools to navigate this huge Paradigm shift! It’s been most insightful.

    Just to highlight an article our main local newspaper in Singapore did on this subject matter over the weekend. Oh and your quote on the advent of the digital church was used too!

    https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/christians-and-covid-19-rise-of-the-hybrid-physical-and-digital-church

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:42 pm

      Thanks RP!

  6. Gary on July 20, 2020 at 6:03 pm

    Great blog Carey. Thank you for your love for the church and willingness to challenge perspectives. Appreciate your voice in this space and at this time.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:42 pm

      Thanks Gary!

  7. Thom on July 20, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    Totally get going in this direction. As a kids pastor does going online these past few months has been eye opening. The real shift from in person to online has been leading children in person to leading parents online. Dfi you see that as the future role of kids/ families pastors? Trying to wrap our heads around this. Thanks

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:44 pm

      Thom…great question. I really think the key in family ministry is to engage the parents. Huge believer in Reggie Joiner and Orange’s message of the last 15 years and really embrace that. With home-based online ministry, you need to engage the parent even more. True of kids and teens. I think you’re moving in the right direction.

  8. Richard Dawson on July 20, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks Carey. Another great post. I wonder if the fact that the USA in particular have not been able to get Covid under control isn’t a major issue. Here in New Zealand where it is under control I would suggest our return to church figures are considerably better. There is no need to social distance here and there’s no fear about Covid. Sporting fixtures are back again and large crowds are attending. I really do believe this to be a major factor in church attendance here as well.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:46 pm

      Hey Richard. That’s great to hear. If in fact in-person numbers go back to pre-COVID levels I’ll be the first one to cheer. And the first one to say we’re still missing the point. Everyone you want to reach is online…I do think it’s time we started behaving that way (if we really believe in reaching people).

      We have a larger church too that was breaking our previous attendance records pre-COVID, but on my good days I remember that we still haven’t reached the 90% in our region who don’t attend any church. That’s the future. And digital will help us get there.

      • Richard Dawson on July 21, 2020 at 8:16 pm

        Couldn’t agree more Carey. Digital is the future here. We hit double our usual weekly attendance in the first 3 weeks of lockdown when we went digital. It dropped after this but we decided to stay on line once we went back to face to face meetings. For us Covid was the big push to move into this area and I honestly think I worked harder in those weeks than I had all year but it’s paid off now because we are streaming each week and finding a consistent though reasonably small congregation turning up week by week there – something like 10% of our normal attendance.

  9. Marty Luke on July 20, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    Thanks for another great post Carey. God has really helped us with our online church. It will remain a default for us. Interestingly we are in a major building project that began before COVID started. The dual focus of commitment to online and to also lead towards a place to gather is beyond complex. But I have gained so much wisdom from your posts to navigate through this season.

    My biggest concern is being in no mans land. Where we fail to engage with people well in both the digital and physical gatherings. Your comment on front door and side door is so timely. To not focus as much on the backdoor.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      I hear you Marty. It is beyond complex. I really think the 50% staff split could help. Even if you could grow it to 25% in the next year, it might bring some clarity.

      I would chase the momentum, and it’s way easier to build momentum online than most people realize.

  10. Α Barnes on July 20, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    I want to say a big YES to point 6. I’ve read some of your other posts, and as a part of Gen Z, I’d say that the congregation of the church in homes and more localized settings is something I’m craving. People want a place to be personal! My generation wants to share – not just hear – thoughts. I so hope that leaders will embrace this for the future of God’s people!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      I think you’re speaking for your generation right there. Small scales and it stays small.

  11. Mike Bowers on July 20, 2020 at 1:16 pm

    This was very helpful information. Thanks for sharing.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:49 pm

      Thanks Mike!

  12. Gwynn on July 20, 2020 at 12:07 pm

    Two things:
    1) There are people who crave community and connection with believers, but who will not set foot in a church building because they’ve had extremely hurtful experiences in the church. The shift to online gathering has been a big welcome sign for those people, allowing them to participate in a way that feels safe. I fear that those people will be left out in the cold again, when most churches return to in-person gathering and abandon their digital platform, trying to get back to the old normal.
    2) COVID-19 has also called out the lie of performance worship. Most congregations don’t have the expertise or the technology to even come close to simulating their worship experience online. (Just try congregational singing on Zoom.) Should we even be trying to perfectly simulate the pre-pandemic in-person worship experience? Perfect performance in worship is an idol which needs to be knocked down.

    • Steve McSwain, Senior Generosity Strategist on July 20, 2020 at 3:40 pm

      Amen Gwynn on Pt. 2 especially.

    • Ray Ulmer on July 21, 2020 at 6:41 am

      Gwen: Love your last line. Amen

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 21, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      I think this could help us get way more authentic, real and effective. 🙂

  13. bob on July 20, 2020 at 10:52 am

    Carey, your updates are always so well written. My answer to attendance is we don’t offer much of anything – that is in the language the culture speaks. We offer sermons, and singing and talk about Jesus and his sacrifice and what he can do leading in our lives. We haven’t yet recognized our culture has no foundation to know what we are even talking about. They have friends and fellowship, and post modern answers to the big questions. I think we have to learn how to move away from Churchspeak, and engage in meaningful discussions that are open. Our small groups would work better if we allow a more open atmosphere welcoming doubters, answering them with truthful answers, that challenge their thinking. The Bible has the answers but we can’t push it, we need dialouge.

  14. Mark on July 20, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Christianity is about human relationships with each other, and people helping people who they might not even know. It was never meant to be busy work that wears people out. It was never meant to be massive amounts of politics and power struggles. Today there are many ways of outreach that can be done. I have seen church members reaching out through email and priests through LinkedIn messenger, even giving out blessings that way. I am sure pastoral care and confessions could be heard through video chat as well. There is far more to Christianity than sitting through a long sermon in a building for an hour on Sunday. Those who understand and produce daily podcasts and short thoughts on how to be a Christian will do better. The church was too busy that they overlooked Jesus and what he taught outside and how he interacted with both the Torah scholars and sinners.

    • Heather Kell on July 22, 2020 at 6:02 am

      Yes, Church is just a service, real Service begins mostly when we leave the building. However, the corporate act of Worshiping our God with our time, our mind, loving our brothers and sisters, learning to work together even though we differ so much, is still very very important.

      WE go to Church to worship God in fellowship and to learn more of Him and once again be reminded of our need for Him. And we go out the door to serve in the community, in a millions ways that maybe will never be recognised or acknowledged – on this plane.

      Yes there is far far more to Christianity than Sunday

  15. Chris C on July 20, 2020 at 9:34 am

    Focus only on #6. 1-5 and 7 are framed by the old way of doing things and have never been less relevant.

    The local church has only ever been ‘local’ believers being the Christ-followers Jesus has called us to be. Community meetings, sing alongs, private clubhouses and ‘membership drives’ do not make the Church. We are called to be in relationship with the Master, hear His voice and obey. We are not called to be members of a local organization, pay our dues, put in our service hours and hear a weekly monologue.

    Like so many other things, the pandemic has revealed that the ‘emperor has no clothes’. Is it about community? Most of what was offered or emphasized was looking at the back of someone’s head and getting to say, Hey, how are ya? While rushing on the way in or out. Some kinda community that is! We need to be real, that is not, was not, community.

    Is it about mission? Not really. Well not about following the mission God has uniquely given to each of us. The body was designed to support it’s members on their mission (as guided by God), not about the members supporting some generic, one size fits all, mission of an organization.

    Is it about worship? Paul says presenting our bodies as a sacrifice to Him is our spiritual act of worship. For far too long, local churches made it about presenting our bodies in attendance to the weekly club meeting and, oh yeah, you can sing together for a few minutes too…

    We’ve used biblical sounding terms but presented such weak, distorted actualities of those terms that folks are no longer buying what we’re selling… Should we really be surprised? Should we continue selling such nonsense? We would just continue to lose relevance each day and rightly so.

    When one is energized, invigorated and driven by the Spirit of God working and alive in us, we ARE on Mission, we seek out and build community, we share our learnings and experiences with others. We are transformed from the inside out. We will seek other like-minded folks out to gather with them and be encouraged by them and learn from one another. I am thankful that the crutch of ‘going to church on Sunday’ is being removed forcibly since many were unwilling to let go otherwise.

    There will be a place in the future to gathering together in larger groups, being taught and trained, but first, folks need to see Jesus In us, first and foremost, not see some robust and ‘exciting’ program or speaker.

    Thanks, it’s good to be taking this opportunity to reflect on what we’ve actually been emphasizing and doing. God is at work!

  16. Franc on July 20, 2020 at 9:31 am

    Good Morning Carey, Thanks for Sharing Information!

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