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The Church Has Left the Building: 5 Truths About Future Church Attendance and Commitment

So, you already know you’re leading through the biggest disruption in ministry in your lifetime.

Exactly how deep is the disruption?

Well, what if the church has left the building? What if it’s actually that deep?

Here’s what you already know. If your church has reopened, you’re both surprised and frustrated by the surprisingly low return-to-church attendance trends in your facility.

Your giving is okay to good, but your attendance is, well, discouraging.

What if the people you’re missing haven’t left your church…what if they’ve just left your building?

And what if (I realize you’re already weary, hang in there…), they’re not coming back regularly, or at all?

Please hear what I’m saying: Most Christians who are not returning to church are not leaving Christianity. They’re not even leaving your church.

They’re just not coming back to the building, and perhaps they won’t even after there’s a vaccine and the pandemic is a distant memory.

I’m not saying this is good (I don’t like it either). I am saying it’s, in all likelihood, real. Leaders who cooperate with reality tend to do far better than those who compete with it.

Here’s what’s critical. The mission isn’t dead. But the methods might be.

In this post, I want to share why that’s happening and point to five truths about future church attendance and commitment.

The good news is your church is online, and that’s where all your people are and everyone you want to reach is. I think that’s also where much of the future of the church lies.

To help with that, I’m hosting a free 90-minute Online Church Engagement Summit on October 8th with Levi Lusko, Nona Jones and Bobby Gruenewald. It’s all about turning online viewers into online engagers.

We’ll share strategies from YouVersion, Facebook, ChurchOnline and Fresh Life Church about how to grow an online audience, engage with your online audience, get people to respond and even show you how to meet some of the people who are watching online.

It’s free for you and your team. You can register here.

In the meantime, what do you do with the emerging reality?

How can you respond when your church is still around, the church is still around, but it’s leaving the building?

Here are five truths about in-person church attendance and some hope and strategy for the future.

1. This Isn’t Really New: People Were Already Attending Less Pre-COVID

So first, a little perspective.

While return-to-church attendance has been shockingly low for almost all churches that are reopening, it’s not just the virus that’s in play. Long after there’s a vaccine, you might still not see your pre-COVID attendance levels return.

Why?

Well, church attendance has been declining for years. Okay, make that decades.

Have a look at the Barna chart below. Note: these attendance trends were all pre-COVID. The chart doesn’t go past March.

I know, it stinks.

But here’s what’s true: Christians were already getting tired of church the way it’s been.

As you can see from this additional Barna research below, there has been a growing weariness with the way we do church long before COVID.  People voted with their feet.

Surprisingly, even 57% of church-going adults said they were tired or somewhat tired of the usual type of church experience. Note: This is from the people who were still attending church.

Crisis is an accelerator, and now that the pandemic has stretched on for months with no resolution in sight, the habits people have formed will likely become even more permanent in the post-pandemic era.

Regular attenders may become less regular. Irregular attenders may become even less frequent attenders.

In this cultural moment, that’s not necessarily a sign of decreasing devotion. It’s just a sign of a shifting culture.

As a result, it will necessitate a big paradigm shift for church leaders: Just because someone isn’t attending your service in person doesn’t mean they’re not part of your church.

Leaders who understand that will have a much brighter future.

Now on to what you can do about it.

2. Engagement Will Become the New Church Attendance Because Attendance Was Never the Goal

Just because someone isn’t attending your service in person doesn’t mean they’re not engaging.

Stop and let that sink in for a moment.

People who aren’t in the room are online. Many (not all, but many) are watching messages, listening to your podcast, scrolling social and connecting with other Christians.

So…just because someone isn’t attending your service in person doesn’t mean they’re not engaging.

For many years, the only or main way to engage with a sermon or even community beyond a small group was to travel to a church building.

Then the internet happened.

Engagement has always been the most important dynamic anyway.

Early Christians didn’t attend church. They were the church—in their homes, in the community and in the world.

If you look back at the genesis of the Jesus movement, the idea of attendance as a hallmark would have been completely foreign.

You only attended because you were engaged. Period.

Jesus didn’t say, ‘Attend me.’ He said, ‘Follow me.’

Engaging people online will soon become the most important thing church leaders do. Even for those who attend, online ministry allows you to speak into their lives seven days a week, not one.

3. Churches That Equip Christians Will Eclipse Churches That Gather Them

So, what do you do with your building?

Great question.

You use it to equip people, not just gather them.

For too many years, pastors have been focused on one thing: Getting the greatest number of people in the room at the same time. Sometimes that’s about ministry. Sometimes (honestly) it’s about ego. I’ll confess to both.

The church facilities of the future will be places where people assemble to be equipped to do ministry during the week. I realize that, theoretically, we’ve always believed that, but we often haven’t behaved that way.

The difference is that most of the people you’re equipping won’t be in the room. You may be speaking to them from the room, but they’ll in their homes, in their cars, at work and in the community.

Right now, most pastors are using church online to get people into the building. In the future, most pastors will use the building to reach people online.

Just because they’re not attending doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged or in community. They can and will gather outside a church building.

In the future, churches that equip Christians will eclipse churches that gather them.

4. Your Online Attendance Will Outpace Your In-Person Attendance

This is already the case for many churches, but in the future, this will be true of almost every church that thrives.

This is probably the hardest reality for church leaders. Post-COVID, many Christians will be unwilling to trade a 45-minute online experience for a 3-5 hour in-person experience.

For most of my life, church has been an in-person investment of at least half a day Sunday, sometimes more. Since March, the collective experience of church has become a 45-minute online service.  Will everyone stream back to a 3-5 hour investment involving dressing the kids, getting everyone out of the house on time and heading to a building?

I’m not saying it’s right or that it’s good. I’m just saying it’s real.

It’s a really hard switch to flip back.

You could focus on what you’ve lost, or you can focus on what you can gain.

But because everyone in your church is online and everyone you want to reach is online, there’s so much to gain.

Focus on that.

5. On-Demand Access Will Be More Important Than Live-Streaming

For the last six months for most churches, it’s become all about the stream: Join us this weekend at 9/10/11/12 for the live stream of our services.

That’s great. But it’s not the future.

In many ways, that’s just taken what we did in the old model (host live services in person on Sunday) and adapted it to digital.

Look, I love it when people tune in live, too. But it’s an antiquated model.

Churches still operate like cable TV in the 1980s.  Tune in live or you don’t count. The culture operates like Netflix and YouTube. 

Switch categories and think about the music industry for a moment. Could you imagine Drake, Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande focusing exclusively on release day, and then telling their fans, “What do you mean you didn’t listen on release day the moment it was available? You’re dead to me.”

Seriously, who cares???? Really?

The content you produced last year on trust, or the series you did on the Psalms, or the message you preached on porn and addiction is still relevant today. People woke up today with questions about God, trust, addictions and everything else you touched on.

The Office is still often the #1 show on Netflix with over a billion minutes a week watched. It went out of production in 2013.

People prefer great content over new content.

Spending some time optimizing your archive, helping people access some of your best past content and engaging people who do can really help you expand your mission.

Once pastors understand this, the potential to help people, disciple people and reach people soars. 

How Are You Getting Ready for the Future?

If, in fact, the role of buildings is changing for church leaders, how are you getting ready for the future?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

The Church Has Left the Building: 5 Truths About Future Church Attendance and Commitment

28 Comments

  1. news on October 16, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    You make some passionate arguments.

  2. Selwyn Brathwaite on October 3, 2020 at 7:18 am

    This is a game changer for me and while you have produced undeniable evidence the church cannot be simply abandoned yo online presence. There must be a way to marry both in holy matrimony especially in light of the fact that the majority of present church members are in the over 45 bracket. One of the things that must be of note is that even in what we call house churches there was definite structure and there was still a system of elders prophets apostle etc right within what we call house church. I think we can get the impression that these settings were informal but based on the structure of Paul’s writings i have my doubts. I do agree that we do need to employ the tools technology have to offer but it must not be,at the expense of.gathering. We must be careful that are not meekly surrendering to a rebellion of no spiritual supervision because this also.means there is little room for discipline or accountability even mentorship. There is a lot at stake I must admit and in some ways intimidating.

  3. Ranita Hurst on September 29, 2020 at 3:37 pm

    While some of what you say is true about people not returning to brick and mortar church, I have to respectfully disagree that online content is the new church. Being the church is not just about getting content out there so people can view at their leisure. I for one am one who has no desire to go back to how things were, but I do desire other people to walk along side of person to person as I live my faith. While my faith walk may include listening to a podcast, that virtual venue should not be the sole connection to “church”. The church is the people not the teaching we absorb. I think we need to find ways to serve others, encourage each other, share our stories and connect with people. It just won’t be sitting in pews or our couches being entertained.

  4. Impact Church Reynoldsburg on September 25, 2020 at 9:17 am

    Great content as always!

  5. Rob on September 24, 2020 at 3:41 pm

    I am thinking that this all could do a complete round about. The online has become the way things are done for many people right now. I think eventually people could start meeting in homes as small groups and these groups will grow and look for places to meet because their homes are not big enough anymore. We are back to meeting in churches again. I think people will eventually miss meeting together and see the need for it once again. It could look very different then it does now but I think it is part of our DNA to be together. I guess time will tell.

  6. Mark on September 24, 2020 at 6:23 am

    I never understood why to be a Christian meant doing everything under the auspices of a local congregation which had closed leadership, did not want to hear new ideas, and made the barrier to entry/participation way too high.

  7. Ximena on September 23, 2020 at 5:39 pm

    Thank you for sharing this new concept, I’m wondering if it depends on culture? We lead a Spanish speaking ministry (Latino ministry) and our culture is to be together, hugs, kisses, and seeing each other. I don’t think us as Latinos will ever change that. So we might have a few believers who want to worship online but I think overall our culture is different and we would not survive spirituality if we just watch online.

    • Steve on September 29, 2020 at 5:22 am

      Amen the Church should gather together

  8. Bryce on September 23, 2020 at 5:12 pm

    I know you are talking about churches, but many businesses are going to have to deal with this also. For example, I really don’t want to return to my work commute. After 6 months without it, it just doesn’t seem as important to be there 5 days a week. We will see how things change. It will be driven by what people want to do. Not what the pastors or bosses want. Can’t be too attached to how things are.

  9. Rev. Dr. Christina Berry on September 23, 2020 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you for the exceptionally fine article and these insights. I shared them with our Zoom Women’s Bible Study today and they wondered if I could share it in the newsletter. Do you give permissions for reprints, because I’d like for the congregation I serve to see this. Our “circulation” is less than 200, mostly via email but a few still receiving a print version.
    Thanks, and thanks for your work for God’s realm.

    • Chris Wilkerson on October 22, 2020 at 6:22 am

      Interesting perspective. I will be thinking about these thoughts but I wouldn’t call them “truths” rather observations.
      Like most things in the world we live in, even church, it can be used for evil agendas. God said “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”
      ‭‭Hebrews‬ ‭10:25‬ ‭NLT‬‬
      My opinion: self or family isolation because of fear of X or Y or culture or trends or even plain old selfishness may not produce engagement with other believers. Our technology may be “connected” but is the online viewer merely just that? A viewer only. Of course technology can be used for good or evil and I do agree it can be a great channel for people who physically cannot gather in person unless others go to them. (Elderly, prisons, sick, etc.) I use it to tune into Dharius Daniels, Tony Evans, Tim Keller, Charles Stanley, for praise music and audiobooks and, and, and. As of today, I disagree with online being the only engagement for the future of the Church. Seems to me our enemy, the devil, likes to discourage best when people are isolated. Technology can go down, be cut off, content altered, and/or screened by the non-believers that own the technology businesses.
      More to think about for me. May the Gospel of Jesus Christ continue to transform us all into his likeness. Peace.

  10. Terry B Lee on September 23, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    Hey, Cari… thanks for your work. I believe a word of caution is due related to your final point regarding Live Stream and Gathering. There have always been times and places when the church needed to push against culture, and this may be one of them. The church gathered, to articulate her worship to the Lord, is a precious and biblical thing. It may only be 2 or 3 together, but I am concerned that the trend to “not gather” is at risk of missing an important, perhaps vital, component of being “the body of Christ” responding together to the grace of Christ. It is in this gathering of worship, and especially around the Lord’s Table, that His grace to us is often manifest. It is from this grace that we live out our commission, not simply from “being equipped”, as if information and tools and ideas were ever enough to represent Christ and invite people into the experience of His transforming grace. I believe we, as ministers, need to inspire one another with the kind of conviction and then language that will help our scattered flocks recognize and prioritize the “together” component of being the hands and feet of Jesus …in worship and in serving others.

    • John Futterer on September 24, 2020 at 2:08 pm

      Excellent point – thank you for sharing this, Terry!

    • Mike on October 11, 2020 at 4:29 pm

      Amen to previous comments. Hebrews 10:23-25 speaks in part to Assembly of the body. Face to face – accountability, encouragement, physical hugs, Communion together is not Optional. I saw one of these signs in a yard and was deeply saddened by one of the possible implications-The Church has been subdued/muzzled by culture. This of course will not be true (Since the true Church is the Body of Christ-His Physical presence for now)-but it may help clarify some matters.

  11. Peter Mueller on September 23, 2020 at 11:56 am

    Thanks Carey for the good, challenging, and encouraging thoughts. One thing that I see that you may want to address or suggest strategies for at some point is the different needs and desires of different personalities – introverts are generally fine with and even prefer online, whereas extroverts are wilting right now if their church is not yet meeting in-person in the building – for those people, online will never meet their needs completely because being with lots of people is what gives them energy. To be clear, I know you’re not suggesting going only online, I just think we need to remember that there will always be some who will not engage primarily online. It’s a challenging and disorienting time for sure – thanks for your insights and I’m looking forward to the summit!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2020 at 1:05 pm

      Peter. You’re totally right. And there will always be a place for in-building worship, but many extroverts may pivot to home or community gatherings. Church buildings aren’t the exclusive source of connection…I think that’s the shift.

  12. Nick Klassen on September 23, 2020 at 11:29 am

    Thanks for continuing to battle for the kingdom Carey! I feel a bit deflated about trying to produce a 45 minute production that is competing with every 45 minute production on the Internet. What would be compelling about a small church production over that of a mega church production? It’s super easy for families to just tune into a better product.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2020 at 1:05 pm

      You’re so right. Be you. Love them. Be local. Nobody should be able to out-local a local church. Take the pressure off yourself and be yourself. They’re with you because they want to be. 🙂

  13. Tom Lathen on September 23, 2020 at 11:26 am

    Carey, as usual a very insightful posting. May God continue to bless your ministry.

  14. Tom Brown on September 23, 2020 at 10:33 am

    Hi Cary – loads of interesting thigns to wrestle with, thanks. But what do you do with all the NT imperative about ‘one-anothers’ – the gatherings of God’s people- the community than only really germinates in physical interactions?

    • tim on September 23, 2020 at 11:40 am

      I would say we continue the one another and gatherings, even the weekly group. but also teach and preach on line. And as was mentioned content being the key. with the paradigm of youtube etc. communicating on line as well as gathering/out for coffee etc. gives a daily interaction. We hadn’t even thought of “what if” they limit attendance due to a pandemic. I say gather and help one another with an effective on line presence being prepared with anticipation of moving forward with God’s power.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2020 at 1:08 pm

      Tom that’s such a great point. The thing I have to remind myself of again and again is that 100% of those ‘one another’s’ happened in homes and in the community, not in a church building.

  15. Richard on September 23, 2020 at 10:16 am

    I hadn’t thought of it this way but it’s True – I see more on-line attenders than I do on-campus attenders.
    Classic Carey Quote: Leaders who cooperate with reality tend to do far better than those who compete with it.
    Thanks Carey – you’re always helpful!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2020 at 1:06 pm

      Trying to win that battle…some days I’m not so sure! Thanks Richard.

  16. Sara Little on September 23, 2020 at 10:14 am

    Hi Cary – this sounds so great….. do you have any ideas for the little guys, who never have had an on-line presence, have never recorded sermons, teaching moments? When half of my tiny congregation don’t have internet access, or smart phones. I don’t know where to start.

    • Tom Lathen on September 23, 2020 at 11:28 am

      Sara, kind of in the same boat. I mail the sermon to three dear ladies who have no internet and no interest in getting it. Our on line service is a 25 minute event. I post it at 6 am Sundays. We have a small, aging group meeting “live” Sundays at 11.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2020 at 1:07 pm

      Sara…thanks for your comment and Tom I hear you. Well I think that gives you the advantage of being an in-person pastor. If it’s a tiny group, that’s easy to minister to personally and through some key volunteers. Once you move beyond 100 or 200 and try to reach out, online becomes more important. I think be yourself, love them, and be the local pastor. 🙂

      • Louise on September 25, 2020 at 9:13 pm

        Acts 2:42
        Hebrews 10:25

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