As things continue to change and the crisis we’re in drags on, you’re probably asking what’s going to happen to physical church attendance in the future. That’s a really important question.

The good news is that as long as there are people, people will gather.

The need for human connection and face to face gatherings runs deep—it’s how we were designed.

But over time, how people gather has changed from generation to generation and moment to moment.

This may be one of those moments for the church.

While in-person gatherings are here to stay, in the future church, people may gather differently.

For decades now, there has been a slow decline in in-person church attendance. Growing churches have bucked that trend and managed to find growth despite massive cultural shifts.

There are indications though that the disruption of 2020 is accelerating those trends even further (here are 3 shocking statistics about how rapidly church is changing).

Yes, physical attendance is here to stay. But, it may not follow the patterns quite the way it did even as recently as 2019.

And if the trends are changing rapidly, so should your response.

While the cement is still wet, here are four ways in-person church attendance might well morph further as we head into the future.

So, how will physical attendance change in the future? No one can see the future perfectly, and I may be wrong on some of this, but based on what I’m seeing, here are 5 ways physical church attendance will change in the next few years.

1. In-Person Doesn’t Necessarily Mean in Your Facility

So, let me say it again. The gathered church is here to stay. In the future, we may just gather differently.

For centuries, the gathering of the church has happened in a facility, and as leaders, we’ve become both accustomed to that and a bit addicted to that way of gathering.

One of the big shifts that the disruption is ushering in is that in-person doesn’t necessarily mean in your facility.

It could be far bigger than that.

While that sounds threatening, it isn’t nearly as threatening as it seems.

With some of the shift home for work, school, shopping, dining, entertainment and fitness is temporary, a proportion of it will likely be permanent in the post-COVID era. The same is perhaps true with church.

With 71% of Boomers desiring primarily a physical church experience and only 41% of Gen Z desiring a primarily physical experience of church, some kind of change seems inevitable.

Younger generations are deeply social, and forward thinking churches might look to capitalize on facilitating home gatherings, community gatherings and other micro-gatherings that pull people together for in-person experiences.

When church leaders realize that this isn’t a threat, but possibly an advance of the mission, the mission could move forward at greater scale and speed than in a model where everyone had to gather in one central facility.

There will always be people who want to gather in a central facility. And in the future church, there will also be some who want to gather elsewhere.

Before you think ‘house church,’ realize that this model could provide a lot more growth than most North American house church models ever did. Many home-based churches to date are a retreat from the organized church. This could become an advance.

In the same way workplaces are embracing permanent distributed teams, a distributed church that’s centrally connected to joint leadership and mission could be a massive step forward for most churches.

2. In Person Attendance in the Building Will Be a Percentage of Your Real Church

If you think about it, for years now, the people in the building on any given Sunday have been a minority of those who call your church home.

If you have an attendance of 150, you probably have 300 or more people who are actively engaged in your mission. They just don’t show up all at once.

What if in the future, most of the people engaging with your mission won’t be in the building and not just be ‘away?’ What if instead, most of the people engaged with your mission will watching online, watching on demand, attending micro-gatherings or engaged in other ways?

I completely empathize with the frustrations of empty seats and not having ‘everyone’ together, but if you can begin to expand your definition of ‘together,’ you can realize a much deeper sense of mission.

Or even imagine packing out your auditorium. Awesome. But what if there are still far more people engaged who aren’t in the room?

That leads to a much expanded mission.

If you expand your definition of gathering, it’s much easier to genuinely expand your mission.

3. You’ll Use the Building to Reach People Online, Not Use Online to Get People in the Building

For centuries, church facilities have existed to assemble people.

And in a pre-digital world, that made a lot of sense. In a digital world, facilities will still play a role, but perhaps they’ll play a different role.

In the future church, the way church leaders think about buildings and online might flip.

Today, most pastors use church online to get people into the building. In the future, most pastors will use the building to reach people online.

If you look at the way many churches use their online ministry, it’s designed to either get people in the room (join us Sunday at 9) or to show people what’s happening in the room (here’s our livestream).

Those won’t go away, but perhaps the building will no longer be the main event. Equipping people to follow Jesus (wherever they are) might become the main event.

Then, the building becomes a means to an end, not the end in itself.

No matter how large your church is, the world you’re called to reach is larger.

So, use the building to reach people online, rather than online to fill the building.

4. In-Person Church Attendance Will Probably Become More In-Frequent Church Attendance

For decades now, even committed Christians have been attending church less often (here are 10 pre-pandemic reasons why).

With the rise of online ministry and millions of people exploring that for the first time, that trend is likely to continue.

I understand how disappointing it can be to have a ‘committed’ follower show up once a month.

When I started ministry, if I ran into someone I hadn’t seen at church in six month at the supermarket, it was pretty much a guarantee they had left our church. More recently, when I run into someone at the grocery store that hasn’t attended church in a few months, they likely haven’t left. They love our church…they just haven’t attended. Having grown up in the church, I still don’t fully understand that mindset, but it’s a real thing.

My guess is that with digital options abounding in the future, frequency might drop further.

And as hard as that is for church leaders, it’s important to remember that culture never asks permission to change. It just changes.

So maybe think about it in a fresh paradigm. In addition to the other points in this post, ask yourself why ‘attendance’ is still a litmus test for devotion.

Is it a little like saying in sports that only people in the stadium are true fans? Or, only people who buy an iPhone from the Apple store in-person are real customers?

You and I know that’s not true.

I have argued before that decreasing attendance rarely signals increasing devotion. While that has been true in the past, I wonder if it’s always true (or still true) in the new culture that’s emerging, particularly if people gather in person outside of the facility and use online options to deepen their faith, not weaken their faith.

I’ve also argued that attending church no longer makes sense, but engaging the mission does.

We’re all figuring this out in real time.  And yes, it’s confusing.

But if you see the future, you can seize it. If you miss it, you’ll miss it.

5. Digital Church Will Be More of a Front Door and a Side Door Than a Back Door

The great resistance to digital church in the last decade for many leaders is the fear that people would walk out the back door and never come back.

And in many cases, that happened. Consumers left and never engaged meaningfully again.

What that means is the fear around digital church moving forward is largely a false one.

In fact, many leaders will realize that digital church will serve as much more a front door and side door than a back door. A front door to new people, and side door for existing people who want to engage more deeply or stay connected when they’re away.

Everyone who’s wanted to leave is gone. That ship has sailed.

Which means, those who are left will use your online presence almost exclusively as a way to engage, not to disengage. A way to stay connected, not to disconnect.

It also means many people will discover your church for the first time through your online presence and want to engage physically with you, whether that’s in your facility, in a micro-gathering, in group or all of the above.

The back door days of digital ministry are pretty much behind us.

The front door and side door days are just beginning.

If you see your physical presence and online presence as working hand in hand, your mission can move forward in more ways than you imagined.

What are You Seeing?

So, in-person gatherings are here to stay. So is the digital church.

I realize it’s a confusing time, but it’s also an exciting time.

What are you seeing and sensing as you plan for the future?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

In-Person Church Attendance is Here to Stay (But 5 Ways It’s Changing in the Future)

33 Comments

  1. Phil Miglioratti on November 25, 2020 at 11:22 am

    YES!

    This is our mission at The #ReimagineFORUM – applying Romans 12:2 (“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”) to the corporate ministry of the Church.

    Journey with us: http://Reimagine.Network

  2. TD Jakes Sermons on November 22, 2020 at 3:08 am

    Am highly inspired by your contents , am a catholic and i love it.

  3. Wayne Gordon on November 21, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    Carey I agree with most if not all of what you have said. It’s what we’re seeing in our church in Johannesburg, South Africa. We have 280 people registered on our church app, but week to week we have about 120-140 attending in person services. Due to Covid we are only allowed 80-90 per service, and while our 8am service has been close to capacity, the 10am service has been around 50%. I must confess, I’m finding the lack of commitment to in person services on a Sunday morning hard to process. We have had a greater commitment to small groups, the problem is that those attending small groups are often the same people who come to in-person services, with a few exceptions. I think what troubles me the most is the inconsistency of those who are apparently afraid of attending in person on a Sunday but not afraid to go to the mall, on holiday, or to a museum. A grave concern for those who meet exclusively online is a lack of ministry involvement. I need to be praying more about these things.

  4. Carol Brown on November 20, 2020 at 9:40 pm

    I’ve been teaching graduate courses online for over 20 years. What I’ve learned is that students love online because many live too far from a nearby college or university. They could not earn a degree any other way than online, but they love to have personal contact from the instructor. Emails, phone, and teleconferencing are valuable ways to keep students engaged and persistent in their studies. I think the mission of the church may be the same. Certainly during the pandemic many would be disconnected and in need of hearing God’s word along with spoken prayers. I think online worship is valuable and potential is enormous, but just as with online education, keep that personal touch as much as possible. Make sure small groups are supported by ministerial input. Keep the music flowing to strengthen our hearts.

  5. Lorraine Louwerse on November 20, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    For the most part your article does not consider what the Bible has to say about these matters. What does God tell us about how He wants to be worshipped? What does He have to say about us not neglecting to meet together, about us participating in fellowship with one another? About the body of Christ, and the 4th commandment? How will your church leadership rebuke and exhort members that neglect the worship services if they cannot physically see whether they are participating? Christians have been from the beginning part of the body, not individualistic, but communal. Culture does not dictate how we worship, the Lord does. We ought to look closely at scripture on these matters.

    • Eric on November 20, 2020 at 3:46 pm

      The Bible does not explicitly say that you have to meet in a building together. That is why the early church grew because they were meeting in houses not in mega churches. This article did not say that people will totally meet online. It mentions some would call a hybrid model. Where some would come, but you can not neglect the ones that will never step in a church.

    • Rev. Karen Gibson on November 21, 2020 at 7:27 am

      The word rebuke caught my eye. I’ve been rebuked at church… my daughter sat in the wrong pew. “It’s my pew”. I’ve seen people acting out in church…. badly… and I’ve seen pastors simply go in as if nothing is happening. Ive seen a pregnant teenager banned from keeping nursery because she “got pregnant”. Of course she wasn’t welcome in her Sunday school class… bad influence you know”. Pastor didn’t say anything to either party. Why would I want to go to worship? Or better yet… why would this pastor leave the church?

  6. Mike Amos on November 20, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    I am all for the online church and our church is moving in that direction to make our online services more than just videoing the service for those that can’t make it that day for whatever reason. The big question that comes with online churches is the same question that churches have wrestled with for years. How do we engage our members in a way that makes a difference in their lives? How do we get past the 80/20 rule? How do we engage more than 20% of the church to make a bigger impact in their lives than just showing up on the occasional Sunday morning. I believe that the luxury of being unseen online will probably change the 80/20 rule to a much smaller level engagement. So how do we engage our audience in a way that draws them closer to Christ?

  7. Cheryl on November 20, 2020 at 9:29 am

    I am concerned about financial support for the ‘brick and mortar’ church. Will giving continue faithfully as the norm of staying away becomes ingrained? On-line services are good but I am afraid they don’t have the same ‘call to action’ of in-house worship. Will Christians eventually fall away altogether as less in-person interaction occurs?
    Note: My church added an education wing 2 years ago, so in addition to our monthly budget, we have a debt to repay. Until the virus hit there was booming daily activity in this new addition. Now I hope we can continue to reduce our loan debt.

  8. Rene Steiner on November 20, 2020 at 2:11 am

    I love a lot of what you say. But the following part I find deeply disturbing:

    “Is it a little like saying in sports that only people in the stadium are true fans? Or, only people who buy an iPhone from the Apple store in-person are real customers?”

    Church has this deeply relational-transforming dynamic that makes this comparison a strange kind of reasoning. If we loose our ability to differentiate church from a conusmer experience or watching sports at home then we truly have been colonized by our secular culture.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:40 am

      Thanks for raising that. I meant that in the context of Point 1….gathering doesn’t have to happen in the building. You can still gather elsewhere.

      And most Christians read books and watch/listen to sermons individually. So that’s the context for the analogy. Hope it helps.

      Yes, we NEED community. It can be more diverse than just in a building.

  9. Kath Smith on November 19, 2020 at 8:38 pm

    Carey, it’s not just about places of gathering, it’s about gathering as a community in the presence of Christ and receiving the Eucharist. And how do you propose receiving sacraments online?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:41 am

      I hear you. I think that can be decentralized as well. I realize that might be a different thing for different traditions, but I would have no problem with home communion where people are gathered. And of course people would still gather in facilities for that as well. It’s a both/and, not either/or approach.

      I realize this won’t work for Roman Catholics or other high church traditions, but in my tradition this could work quite well I think.

  10. darin on November 19, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    #1 is just describing what small groups should be. The pandemic is just an extreme reminder that church is meant to be relational…and simple.

  11. Symon on November 19, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks for another incredible post. I pastor a church in New Zealand and our weekend attendance is about half of those who call our church their spiritual home. While l understand the cultural shift, l struggle to accept it as the new standard of church commitment. Especially when l read that the early church devoted themselves to prayer, fellowship, teaching and community. I’m seeing a lot less devotion in general and a lot more complacency. Am l wrong to think this? Thanks again and blessings.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:42 am

      Symon…I hear you. And yes, that’s often the result. But it’s not inevitably the result. What if depended decentralized discipleship was the result of a church bent on equipping its members regardless of where or how they gathered?

  12. Doctor G on November 19, 2020 at 10:39 am

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the impact of our current disruption on discipleship strategy. What we’ve been doing hasn’t exactly been working given the data on declining attendance and our declining influence in Western culture, and as a late baby-boomer I hear lots of mature Christian men who have attended church for many years tell me they’ve cut back or stopped going to worship (prior to the pandemic) because they feel like they’ve heard it all before.

    How will your discipleship strategy at Connexus change in the next 18-36 months given the changes in attendance patterns and the availability of disruptive technologies? This strikes me as a huge opportunity to try new things and abandon stuff that isn’t working.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:45 am

      That’s such a good point. I think 2020 has revealed the state of discipleship and we could all make progress. I don’t want to speak for Connexus as I’m in a Founding Pastor role there, but let me just say we’re exploring fresh ways to make disciples in the future. One current example is running the Alpha Marriage Course, doubling down on groups and introducing more Starting Point groups for new people than ever in our past.

      I know Jon Tyson in NYC is doing courses as well. I actually think equipping people outside the building (via online) could result in deeper discipleship because the learning and growth are happening in a ‘real world’ setting rather than a class room or space in a facility. I think there’s much to explore here. 🙂

  13. Timothy Warden on November 19, 2020 at 10:27 am

    Do you any “for instances:____” to # 3?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:48 am

      It’s a mindset shift, but sure. One of my last tasks when I was lead pastor was to open our broadcast facility. As we designed it, even back in 2015, I realize more people would access our services and ministry through the lens of a camera than through sitting in a seat.

      So we overinvested in video gear, production gear and staging in our 26K square foot location because I sensed the future was online.

      That came in very handy when COVID hit, because the pivot to all digital was seamless.

      Our physical attendance and digital attendance were equal prior to COVID. Moving forward, the digital will outpace the physical.

  14. Karen L McGuire on November 19, 2020 at 10:11 am

    Describe your comment about the distributed church. I’ve seen a couple of models but none that were as effective as I thought they could be. Would like to know more.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:49 am

      I think this is in development. JD. Greear, Brent Ingersoll (King’s Church New Brunswick), Levi Lusko and others are experimenting with this right now. Following them will give you real time learnings.

  15. Kim Miller on November 19, 2020 at 10:08 am

    …culture never asks permission to change. It just changes.

    …if you see the future, you can seize it.

    Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:49 am

      That one hits me every time.

    • Carol Brown on November 20, 2020 at 9:20 pm

      But the church should not be under the thumb of the culture…..just a little thought to keep in mind.

  16. Ray on November 19, 2020 at 9:52 am

    Thank you for addressing this area. While I have been challenged and encouraged by your online focus… I also kept running into the “in-person” attendance dilemma. This is definitely another mind-stretching article to throw in the hopper and wrestle with. Keep up the work of being a catalyst towards thinking into the future.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:49 am

      Thanks for not giving up Ray. We’re going to make it!

  17. Mark on November 19, 2020 at 9:13 am

    In previous eras the members had to gather to find out what was going on. It was a social event as much as a worship service. People did not travel as often and someone not showing up meant they could have been sick. Also, it was a way to make sure that they had not left for another church.

  18. Brian on November 19, 2020 at 8:44 am

    Any tips or resources out there on how to “use the building to reach people online”? Other than using it as office or studio space, which, while I’m very glad for it, uses about 10% of our physical building.

    • Mark on November 19, 2020 at 9:28 am

      When people can safely gather, have a dinner and let people actually meet and talk to each other. Also, have a class on utilizing new, but disruptive technology or a town hall discussion with the clergy and lay leadership. Leadership might find that there are decent people in the congregation who have ideas that might work. Clergy might ask people what is going on in the real world and what needs prayers. You could have people from the different generations for thinking sessions on innovative ideas for spreading Christianity among those groups and countering the bad press some Christians have brought upon the whole group. You have plenty of Sunday school rooms. Send 2 lay leaders to each of 5 rooms and have teens to go to one, college in one, young professionals in one, and so on. The church is one of the few organizations where you have multiple generations in the same place and yet the movement between siloed groups is where most people are lost. Then have one for how to get some of the different groups together. Look, youth get a youth minister, never the “real” one, but when one comes out of youth group, the next group is the adult group (or college group in a few churches) and the main minister is more concerned with the elderly than the college/20’s-30’s group. Only a few churches and temples have clergy for that group as they have totally different needs and concerns.

      • Don B on November 19, 2020 at 11:27 am

        Huh? Okay, the online church presentations today are from established churches that want to continue and/or expand its mission to share and spread the gospel right now. People are group oriented which does provide benefits to sharing the gospel message in part because of its costs, but it seems to me that the strength of the church today in sharing its message is in a large part because of the money available for it to do so. If/when the church loses its political strength and tax free status, the very large churches will be greatly affected and its ability to share the gospel will be greatly impeded and diminished. I hope that does not happen in my lifetime, nor the lifetime of my great grandchildren!

    • Steve Chittenden on November 19, 2020 at 7:48 pm

      This caught my attention as well…would love to see more on this.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 20, 2020 at 6:52 am

      See my comments above but I hear you. The trend over the last decade has been to smaller building and that will continue. I think churches of the future will have more space dedicated to studio and digital and less to in person, but that will take a few years for the architecture to catch up to the new model.

      I have several friends who are Millennials who took over giant ‘rooms’ of 3000 seats from pastors in the 80s and 90s who cut those down to 1000 seats and added more services. That’s been the trend for a while. I think a ‘large’ room in the future will be 1200 seats and many will be in the low to mid hundreds. In most cases people will add services, locations and digital options rather than building giant auditoriums.

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