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.

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.

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.