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Why Are Your Online Attendance Numbers Suddenly Dropping? 5 Reasons

You’re already seeing the trend: After an initial surge in online viewing numbers when the Coronavirus shut down church buildings, online viewing numbers are dropping.

The spike was significant. Heading into Easter 2020, half of all churches reported online attendance that was greater than their in normal attendance would be.

Now, that’s no longer the case.

As we head into month 3 of lockdown and the slow reopening of some churches, only 29% of church leaders report their attendance is higher than it would normally be. 71% report it’s now flat or lower. (Barna President, David Kinnaman, and I bring you fresh data and insights every week on the changes in The ChurchPulse Weekly Podcast. You can listen for free here.)

You can argue that everyone’s measurements might be to blame (here’s more on how to accurately measure online church attendance), but when the numbers change that dramatically, there’s a bigger trend happening than just ‘adjusted’ reporting.

So…what’s going on?

Here are 5 reasons online attendance is dropping, and what you can do to respond.

Now, only 29% of church leaders report their online attendance is higher than it would normally be. 71% report it's flat or lower. Click To Tweet

1. The Novelty is Wearing Off for Your Congregation

Whether your church had an online service prior to the COVID shutdown of in-person services, there was a novelty to online church all of us experienced.

Church online went from being one option to being the only option. So a surge isn’t that surprising.

But as the lockdown and lack of in-person gatherings wears on, and the deeply modified in-person services are emerging, the novelty of church online is wearing off.

I’m not saying that’s good. I’m just saying that it’s probably true.

Living in a consumer culture, most people behave like consumers.

The Christian faith, of course, is hardly about novelty or consumption. In many ways, as Eugene Peterson said, the faith is a long obedience in the same direction.

And in that is a lesson for both church leaders and parishioners alike: This isn’t really about what’s new, what’s cool, what’s interesting or what’s fun. It’s about connecting people to God and each other.

The church has always been about that, whether in-person or online.

Just because the novelty of online church is wearing off for people doesn’t mean there isn’t great long-term potential for online church in a world in which everyone you want to reach is online.

Just because the novelty of online church is wearing off for people doesn't mean there isn't great long-term potential for online church in a world in which everyone you want to reach is online. Click To Tweet

2. The Novelty is Wearing Off for You as a Leader

This strikes a little closer to home.

And please hear me, I know leaders are tired. I get it.

But as a leader, I’m also attracted to shiny new things and get bored when they don’t instantly produce what I want them to.

Think back to the first month of church online when everyone was in lockdown. There was a lot of innovation, experimentation, new things tried.

But post-Easter, on my personal feed, I saw a lot of leaders just dial back…way back on what they were sharing online.

Everyone was in, until they weren’t.

When you lose interest in something, don’t be surprised that your congregation does. The focus of the leader usually determines the focus of the organization.

When you lose interest in something, don't be surprised that your congregation does. The focus of the leader usually determines the focus of the organization. Click To Tweet

Your fatigue is showing more than you think it is. So is your frustration.

And with in-person attendance returning far more fractionally and slowly than anyone expected, leaders who lose interest in church online stand to lose connection with their congregation and the people they’re trying to reach.

Just because you’re bored with church online doesn’t mean it stopped being the best single tool you have at your disposal right now.

With in-person attendance returning far more fractionally and slowly than anyone expected, leaders who lose interest in church online stand to lose connection with their congregation and the people they're trying to reach. Click To Tweet

3. You’re Over-Focused on Re-Opening

As one leader shared with me recently, re-opening the church is far more complicated than closing it ever was.

I agree.

Socially distanced worship, questions about how to do kids ministry, sanitizing facilities, new maximum capacities, repositioning staff and volunteers are all complex and exhausting. And by definition take a lot of your time.

But…think about what all of this means.

Because of their age (over 60-ish or young with kids), many in your congregation can’t come back for the foreseeable future.

In addition, as data like this shows, some aren’t willing to come back.

This means your in-person attendance is going to be reduced for a long period to come. In all likelihood, you won’t be able to see in-person attendance levels that match your previous in-person numbers for a while. Perhaps for a long time.

Which also means online remains as important as it did when your facilities first closed.

Over-focusing on re-opening your facilities will mean you lose the very people you’re trying to both keep and reach.

Over-focusing on re-opening your facilities will mean you lose the very people you're trying to both keep and reach. Click To Tweet

4. You’ve Stopped Experimenting

So here’s the thing about online church and online ministry:

You haven’t even really started yet.

The ‘innovation’ that happened in the first few months of lockdown wasn’t really innovation. It was adaptation.

The 'innovation' that happened in the first few months of lockdown wasn't really innovation. It was adaptation. Click To Tweet

After Easter, a lot of church leaders settled into a pattern that would get them through the next few months and stopped experimenting.

Which means the innovation hasn’t even started yet.

If you’re really going to grow your mission, serve your people and reach new people, it’s going to take a lot of innovation and experimentation.

Which means you’ll need to stay curious and agile.

I have a brand new framework and training that can you help with that here.

Having been doing online church now for over four years, podcasting for 5 years and writing on this blog for over 7, we’re still hitting all-time highs in all three areas.

The key is to not quit.

As always in leadership, you’ll be most tempted to quit moments before your critical breakthrough.

You're most tempted to quit moments before your critical breakthrough. Click To Tweet

5. You Haven’t Fully Figured Out How to Help People Yet

Streaming content is one thing. Helping people is quite another.

Of all the things I’ve learned about online ministry and online leadership development, the key to sustained, meaningful online growth is simple: Help people.

From a church leader standpoint, that simply means helping people grow in their faith or find faith.

In the leadership development lane, that means helping leaders solve real problems they’re facing.

Do that long enough and consistently enough, and people will trust you, come to rely on you and share your content.

That’s how things grow in the digital space. You can hire someone to find you followers, or use some cheap gimmicks you saw some guy peddling on YouTube. But long-term, that has at least two problems:

  • It really doesn’t have any integrity
  • It’s fake growth

Real online momentum comes back to helping people.

The key to sustained, meaningful online growth is simple: Help people. Click To Tweet

As Zig Ziglar said, “Help enough people get what they want, and you’ll eventually get what you want.”

Growth and impact online are by-products of doing the hard work of helping people every day.

So, help people.

When you share or produce content online, ask yourself:

  • Will this help people find faith?
  • Will this help people grow in their faith?

If the answer is no, you’ve found your problem.

The other frustrating/wonderful thing about the internet is that it doesn’t lie. It gives you realtime feedback on what is connecting and what isn’t.

If three people like your video, that tells you something. If no one shares your sermon, that tells you something. If your Instagram isn’t growing, well there are clues in that.

Eventually, the numbers will reflect the degree to which you’re helping people.

If you don’t like your numbers, focus on your message and method.

It’s really not that different from in-person ministry, except online ministry scales in a way that in-person ministry doesn’t.

Online ministry scales in a way that in-person ministry doesn't. Click To Tweet

Are You Positioned to Thrive in the New Normal? 

 

The current disruption is showing you how crucial it is to stay flexible as things continue to change.

With ‘normal’ still being elusive, the future belongs to the pivoters.

So…how well positioned are you for future pivots?

My brand new online training, the 30-Day Pivot, will show you how to develop your agility as a leader and as an organization to position yourself for growth.

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.

You can learn more and gain instant access to the 30 Day Pivot here.

What Are You Seeing?

What are you sensing or seeing in online attendance momentum?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

Why Are Your Online Attendance Numbers Suddenly Dropping? 5 Reasons

34 Comments

  1. alice on May 30, 2020 at 11:48 am

    I’m trying to get my mind around the definition of church as we make the shift. What will (or *does* as this drags on) distinguish church from a podcast or youtube channel with an audience? I listen to multiple podcasts and teachers that all encourage my faith.
    The issue behind the question is that on a lay person level, we are wrestling with where to give our tithes. There is much more to this question, but we obviously want to give where it will make the greatest impact.
    I would love your insight.
    (And thank you for sharing so much great content!)

  2. Dean Gaddis on May 26, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    Put me on your email list

  3. Bobby Holley on May 25, 2020 at 9:30 am

    What the drop in online church attendance post-Easter during COVID has exposed is that churches aren’t really that connected to their congregants and that most churches are constructed on marketing gimmicks to keep congregants paying rather than on the tried and true Kingdom building, multiplicative foundation of the Great Commission that Jesus built His Church on. Jesus-style discipleship is always fresh and never novel. It doesn’t wear out under pressure from unforeseen circumstances.

  4. Sally Stearns on May 22, 2020 at 4:12 pm

    Because it’s time for families to open their Bibles and teach their children through principles. Plus nobody wants to take the Mark!

  5. Josh on May 20, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    I want to offer an alternative to why “attendance” numbers to online content are not surprisingly dropping:

    1) People weren’t as hungry for online “alternatives” as earlier posts predicted.
    2) Virtual “gatherings” have proven to many that online does not compete with in person connection.
    3) Even the “excellent” online offerings from the LifeChurches/NorthPoints weren’t that engaging in the first place.
    4) Online only approaches have reminded the majority in churches of what they can’t experience.
    5) Most will wait to reengage when the “real” value of in person community is an option again. (Even then, it will only be a fraction due to many of the reasons outlined in the article above.)

    Lets face it, there majority of the non-believing world simply isn’t that interested or captivated in our “well-produced” consumable (as opposed to interactive) content and concert-like approaches to worship. The problem with those in the minds of most unchurched is that they see right off the bat that they are being “sold” to- we aren’t offering them authenticity, conversation, interaction, and a way to be truly known. Frankly, even those churches that assume they are the “best” at it have been selling something that most of our non-believing culture isn’t interested in. They will tune in online or show up in person (occasionally) IF they feel a real opportunity to connect, ask questions, be heard, and be known. If that’s not the kind of Jesus community we’re offering, then they can experience much better concerts and motivational messages online that match and affirm their current worldview.

    Carey, I appreciate and respect much of your content. Yet, I think it would have been better to simply entertain in this post the possibility (and many of us would suggest likelihood) that those who predicted some massage shift to “online attendance/engagement) were incorrect. In fact, most of those predicting that were doing so perhaps because it seemed to confirm the ministry philosophy and approach that they were already focusing on for their future. Nothing we were seeing develop though proved that people would be any less hungry for in person interaction and community than before the virus response- all it proved is that in order to offer that we as the Church would have to adjust what our in-person gatherings offered and looked like. Those looking for and open to the Hope of Jesus are as desperate for that connection as they were before- those not interested certainly aren’t going to give us their time in a disconnected online format if they won’t ever in person.

    • Justin Klatt on May 21, 2020 at 9:37 am

      Josh there still is a way in all this to have face to face discipleship and church. With people watching an interactive teaching (with discussion/discipleship questions built in) and talk face to face through out the teachings and worship together.

      We started this fully 15 months ago and we have only grown in people during the virus. Our church did not have to change one bit. If you want to learn more and see how you can engage face to face with your church and even more important have your church people start really discipline each other you can see some examples and learn more by going to:

      Imagine.church/resources

      Once you look at that and other pages of our website you can totally email me and we could talk more!

      Justin@imagine.church

  6. Justin Klatt on May 20, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    Community is just as important as a teaching or a service. Face to face community discipleship is so important, and actually does more for a persons walk with Jesus then just watching a sermon. People are longing for a community, they are not longing to watch something online.

    Carey I love this post, all these things are so true. All of us pastors have to figure out how to make community and community discipleship a priority not just our teachings or services.

    The people in my and my wife’s church Have been so grateful during this time that they didn’t lose any community and their church didn’t have to change through this whole process.

  7. Ross Bowerman on May 20, 2020 at 6:47 pm

    “The other frustrating/wonderful thing about the Internet is that it does not lie.” So, perhaps for the first time, we are all now getting honest feedback about the helpfulness of our sermons. It may hurt, but this is gold. Christians, trying to be nice, are reluctant to tell us what they really think about our preaching to our face. But now we know. Ouch. A chance to improve. And ask for more honest feedback even when we all get back together.

  8. Timothy Jones on May 20, 2020 at 5:33 pm

    Numbers 3, 4 & 5 are quite condescending. Pastors are doing the best they can in this environment.

  9. Timothy Jones on May 20, 2020 at 5:31 pm

    How can you actually minister and measure online “growth” (for the lack of a better word) when Facebook counts everyone who stops by for 3 seconds? And if they leave and come back they are counted again.

    • Timothy Jones on May 20, 2020 at 5:36 pm

      *moniter

    • Nate on May 21, 2020 at 7:29 am

      Don’t look at 3-second views 🙂

      I would suggest this framework for measuring your online “attendance.”

      3-second views = How many people are being exposed to your content

      1-minute views = How many people chose to engage with your content
      These people may tune in and stay the whole time, they may tune in and say “this isn’t for me” and leave. This is the same as a first-time guest may have decided after 1 minute that they don’t want to come back, except they don’t want to be rude and leave their seat in the middle of a service.

      Average Concurrent Viewers = Response-Able viewers
      This metric is, in my opinion, the most important when measuring your ministry impact. If you have 25 people watching on average, you now know roughly how many people are able to respond to you event/small group invites, giving appeal, or salvation call.

  10. bill (cycleguy) on May 20, 2020 at 3:43 pm

    You make some good points Carey. As a pastor of a small church (less than 200) in a small town in central Indiana our situation is different than many who respond or listen to your podcasts. We were unprepared for going online. All we had was a private FB page. But some of our people sucked it up (my daughter being one of them and my wife being another) so something could be done. My daughter was FB savvy so she began by putting the abbreviated services online. The sound was sketchy and my mouth and video was like one of those old Japanese movies! 🙂 But each week we/she worked to make it better (which she did) until someone donated money to get new equipment. This past week we were able to post the “new and better podcast” and it worked wonderfully. The people were thrilled. But I’m a go-with-the-flow kind of pastor and our people did as well. They were thankful we did something so they could feel a part of things. We plan to open with restrictions on the 31st and I am under no delusion that we will be back to where we were before this all started (about 170-180). I’ll be thrilled if we have 100 in two services with social distancing in place. I also know people whom I don’t know have been watching. Some from town have thanked me for broadcasting. We plan to continue. I also agree with Gregory about screen time usage for people. I also want to respond to Gary. Our services are simple with no special lights, but we do have Power Point and a band for our Worship Team. I realize sometimes the externals can mar the message but I also know they don’t have to. We work hard to make the message from the Bible the central focus. Only one suggestion Carey. For your podcast (which I have enjoyed and appreciated most of them), I’d like to suggest you interview some small church pastors to see how they are doing. How they and their church weathered the storm. God has been truly amazing here and I look forward to seeing what He has in store for the future. I AM STOKED! I’m sorry this is so long Carey.

  11. Tom Shields on May 20, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    I endorse all of the above comments and two things stick out for me:

    1. Attend to the authentic in yourself – great piece in the Word on Fire Magazine ‘Evangelization and Culture’ on this very topic:
    do things out of love not fear – and you need to attend to yourself now more than ever

    2. Keep trucking – the product might not be great but your own community appreciates the efforts – so do the best you can and look for ways to improve

    Peace

    Tom Shields Crieff Scotland

  12. Gregory Pelley on May 20, 2020 at 1:07 pm

    One other factor that my folks are telling me (and I resonate with them on this): We are burned out on screen time. We’ve been forced into 8-hours a day of Zoom calls for work, then trying to connect socially through our screens, then binging Netflix and Hulu to fill the gaps. By the time Sunday morning rolls around, they just don’t want to face the screen again. I get that. AND — I am hopeful that whenever we are able to gather in the real-life community again, they will remember that it matters to them.

  13. Michael McLendon on May 20, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    Enough already! The hype around use of technoolgy and the worry about novelty wearing off of on line church is focusing on the wrong thing. Worrying about the number of people on line for a service and a drop in attendance are worrying about the wrong thing. Loud music, guitars, drums, trumpets, etc and blue lights on a curtain hanging from the ceiling to cover up the choir loft are distractions. Preach and teach the Word and they will come…preach and teach the Word to be relevant to the challanges of today and people will come! The use of tchnology and loud praise music are not on the critical path to salvation! They are not on the critical path to preaching the Word! The hype of technology and loud music do not make church a unique experience but make a church seem like a secular performance. Lets get back to the basics.

    • Gary on May 21, 2020 at 12:26 pm

      Respectfully, Michael, the point is that people CAN’T “come” right now. Technology is helping us stay connected with our parishes when we can’t gather together for worship. In my opinion, if we eschew everything but a staid monologue during this time we will surely alienate more potential “post-pandemic attendees.”

    • Jeremy Bickel on May 25, 2020 at 6:34 pm

      You’re right, of course. However, we are Christ’s Church! We *should* be able to *get together* to make the flashy stuff substantive and the substantive stuff palatable, even after the severe nervous system damage caused by growing up in our Western culture of 3 second slices. Making sure that we are preaching God’s Word is paramount. Making it *consumable* and *useful* is important.

      There’s no reason to see the technology as a threat to God’s Word. Pray that God’s Word flows out from you to help others as it helps you, and no *thing* will stop it, dear sibling in our same Master and Savior Jesus Christ.

  14. Gary on May 20, 2020 at 12:16 pm

    And now to reveal the 800 pound gorilla in the room. . . many of the “new” online services posted in the last 2 months are just plain awful! People jumped online hoping (actually expecting) to see video, audio, and production quality like they see on national network television. What many of them got was thrown together by well meaning folks with little in the way of gear, skill, and experience in online worship. The “set” may have been a chair with a blank wall behind it. The lighting may have been a couple of worksite lights from Home Depot and the camera positioned so low it gave a wonderful view of the speaker’s nostrils. Perhaps the audio sounded like the speaker was talking into an empty bucket or worse, like the musician/singer was playing into one! “Well meaning” wasn’t part of the critical evaluation many people gave their church’s “new” online service. They came. They watched. They weren’t impressed. They didn’t return. They wanted LifeChurch, Passion City Church, or Northpoint Community Church (churches that have been doing amazing online ministry for many years) but got something less. In some cases something FAR less. The effort was commendable and credit should be given for it, but the cold hard fact is this. Most people won’t return to something they felt was inadequate or poorly done.

    • Justin Klatt on May 20, 2020 at 1:34 pm

      Totally Gary!

    • Tommy on May 20, 2020 at 3:48 pm

      Hit the nail on the head!

  15. Mark on May 20, 2020 at 11:23 am

    Some are watching/participating in the service from somewhere else. There are lots of choices these days. Some Catholics may have decided they like the online mass from St. Patrick’s in NYC or the feed from the Vatican or the Latin mass with Gregorian chant. Some Episcopalians have joined online groups praying the Daily Office and then decided to listen to the Sunday podcast from Westminster Abbey, entire service from Washington National Cathedral, or the one compiled by the Church of England every Sunday.

    • Dave on May 21, 2020 at 9:53 am

      agreed – it’s a case of simple competition. Some churches do church better than other churches.

      • Mark on May 21, 2020 at 10:49 am

        The bar has been raised. Continuous improvement. I am in the private sector and have to do it.

  16. Bishop M E Lyons on May 20, 2020 at 11:00 am

    This is an awesome piece and well stated with a fresh eye! Blessings upon you and yours!

  17. Carl Jefferson on May 20, 2020 at 10:53 am

    We are in a new era ! I am thankful that this pandemic has gotten us out of thinking of the “church” being in a building . We are seeing more people than when we streaming online in a building . Also rather that preaching on just Sunday, we are becoming innovative with giving some word of encouragement on a daily basis which is helping people throughout the week

  18. Christopher White on May 20, 2020 at 10:53 am

    Great post. I think that in Canada as our weather improves attendance will drop as it always does in the summer months. The key question for me is the fall. What will it look like? How do we keep people engaged if we are still online only or if we are open with big restrictions as to numbers due to social distancing? Phase 1 has a lot of adrenaline associated with it. Phase 2 managing an ongoing crisis is going to be much more challenging. I’m already trying to imagine what Advent and Christmas could look like. This isnt going away anytime soon and the impacts will ripple through our churches for months to come.I also expect a second wave as well at some point.Very complex times we are living through. Tomorrow night we are doing an online service of Lament and Hope, I certainly am experiencing both.

  19. Henriet on May 20, 2020 at 10:50 am

    Another factor is that a lot of Christians were attending multiple services (different churches) online. I know of lots who attended 3 and 4 services each Sunday. These churches would have seen “growth” but it was never growth from those checking out what else was going on. I am sure that is stopping too accounting for lower growth/drip in online attendance.

    • Jeff on May 21, 2020 at 8:43 am

      Week one of our online only experience I watched at least part of a dozen or so other churches. I was looking to learn from others and I was happy to get to see friends and family doing what I do not normally have access to see. Last week I watched no other services. I know in our congregation we have several families that consistently watch family members or friends who pastor. I expect the spike had much to do with these type situations and I expect even our current lower numbers are still somewhat inflated by them.

      BTW – I do not know if this means larger viewership, but we had been pre-recording and posting to Youtube with links on our website and Fb. This week we did Fb Live and then posted it on Yt and with link on our website. Numbers on Fb Live were much higher.

    • Steve W on May 21, 2020 at 1:37 pm

      This is exactly right, and wasn’t addressed when the growth numbers were initially shared. I’m a pastor and I know several people in my church who have been viewing multiple services per week. And we’ve had some from other churches view our services as well.

      If a bunch of people view 3 local services on a Sunday it will appear that there is increased church engagement when the engagement numbers of actual people are either steady or could be declining.

      I’m not interested in having people from other churches watch our services, especially when they’re already fully committed to their local congregation. They are welcome to watch, but an increase in those numbers isn’t a win for us.

      And frankly I just haven’t seen the growth in non-Christian engagement that so many people were expecting. Maybe it’s happening at some mega churches and niche congregations, but for the majority of churches I know there hasn’t been a significant increase. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to be innovative and adaptable, but I think the proclamations that this represented a dramatic shift in the life of the church have proven to be overblown.

  20. HT on May 20, 2020 at 10:39 am

    I am concerned with you saying older folks and those with young kids “can’t” come back. It’s not that in many conservative areas of the US which are opening up fully. My daughter in TX is able to eat-in at restaurants — they’re not yet at full capacity but that will be soon. Especially the parents with younger kids, are fed the fear — when the truth is that their age group (young parents and children) UNLESS otherwise immunocompromised, are in the groups with the lowest infection rate and if they have become ill with this upper respiratory virus (a type of flu, truth be told) they have recovered. So true also for those over 60 — myself included. I’m not immunocompromised and have only two health conditions, neither of which are life threatening. So I have been going about my business anyway — wearing masks as dictated (my choice would be no masks there are many reasons not to!) and I’ve been at church weekly leading worship and/or working on the media. No masks on anyone in the building (less than 10 as dictated by the state governor).

  21. R Powell on May 20, 2020 at 10:33 am

    A possible factor is the “I can watch it later, so why get up early or feel like I have to watch it at 9, 10, 11am… when I can sleep in relax, etc.” If you are like me I watch/listen to other ministers throughout the week, so that can contribute to the “maybe later” syndrome. One would hope it’s not simply getting lazy and not doing anything – the old “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” thing.

  22. Lance on May 20, 2020 at 10:00 am

    True, but but all over people are readjusting as well. They want a normal life. We still focus in on-line but now are doing 90second devotionals for people

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