5 Core Issues Impacting Churches Trying to Move Forward from 2020

As you lean in 2021, it’s critical to address these issues…

In case you didn’t have a chance to review our latest Unstuck Church Report, the data can be a bit discouraging.

Just to catch you up to speed if you haven’t seen the report, we surveyed 261 churches in late-September 2020. The average pre-Covid attendance of churches that participated was 961 people. Of these participating ministries, 34 churches were under 100 in attendance and exactly 34 were megachurches.

Here were a few of the key findings:

1. About 4 out of 5 churches have returned to in-person services.

The data indicates 19% of churches have not reopened for in-person services. The churches that haven’t re-opened to in-person services were 20% larger than those who have already reopened their buildings. It shouldn’t be a surprise that larger churches are experiencing a bigger challenge given restrictions on large gatherings in many parts of the country.

2. In-person attendance at churches that have reopened is only a fraction of pre-Covid attendance.

Of those that have reopened, they’re indicating current attendance is only 36% of pre-Covid attendance levels. Again, I’m hearing from the pastors who I’ve connected with that smaller churches may be experiencing more success getting people to return to in-person services.

3. Online engagement has declined substantially compared to before Easter.

Churches are reporting that online viewership is now 12% below pre-Covid in-person attendance. In May, churches indicated that they were seeing 70% more people watching online than they had in pre-Covid in-person attendance. Many of us have experienced Zoom-fatigue in recent months. Churches are no different.

Given what churches have experienced over the last nine months, I thought you might be interested in the common themes I’m hearing in conversations with pastors. Because of my role at The Unstuck Group, I’m in a unique position to connect with a number of pastors and church leaders on a regular basis. In fact, I’ve had one-on-one conversations with pastors and senior-level staff leaders from about three dozen different churches in the last couple of months.

Here are the challenges they’ve identified.

1“I’m dealing with division in my church like I’ve never experienced before.”

Only now the division has little to do with core theology or ministry philosophy. Instead, churches are divided because of the politics of COVID.

When churches reopen to in-person services, one part of the congregation is mad. When churches commit to remaining online only, another part of the congregation is upset. When they require masks indoors for in-person services, people are leaving the church. When masks aren’t required, people are leaving the church.

When I hear stories like this, two things come to mind.

  • First, we have a spiritual immaturity challenge to overcome. We need to continue to encourage people to take their next steps toward Christ and experience a heart change that begins to elevate loving God and loving others over personal preferences and politics.
  • Secondly, as leaders, we have to constantly remind others of who we are and where we’re going.

We need to elevate the mission. “This is why we exist as a ministry.

And we need to recast the vision. This is where God’s calling us to go in the future.

The only chance of establishing unity is to work hard and often to maintain alignment on the ultimate mission of the church.

Paul’s words ring louder than ever in this season,

“I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.”1 Corinthians 1:10, NLT

2. “We can’t get people to re-engage their volunteer roles.”

This, of course, is a challenge primarily for those churches that have reopened for in-person services. This should be no surprise because if only about a third of people are willing to return to in-person services, likely only a third of people who volunteered are going to be willing to return to volunteer roles in this season.

Likewise, the barriers to volunteer engagement are very similar to those for attending an in-person service. Some people are hesitant to serve because they perceive the precautions aren’t strong enough. And, in the very same church with the very same set of guidelines, some people are hesitant to serve because they think the safety guidelines are too restrictive.

My encouragement to pastors has been this:

Coach their staff and lay leaders to do the hard work of reaching out to previous volunteers with a personal conversation.

This isn’t easy. Email and text messaging isn’t going to cut it.

You have to recast vision for the need to fill a role as if you’re trying to fill it for the very first time. This needs to be a one-on-one conversation. You have to do this hard work.

But, don’t spend too much energy trying to get people to come back to volunteer roles. In this case, accept their “no” or “not yet” and move on.

Instead, act as if you’re building teams from scratch. Focus on engaging new volunteers from the people who have decided to come back for in-person services. Building new volunteer teams needs to be the number one priority for everyone on your staff team.

3. “We have fewer and fewer people engaging with our online services.”

This may be a surprise to you, but did you know that pre-COVID, it wasn’t uncommon for us to see about a 15% attrition rate in churches every year.

People move. People start attending another church. People pass away. It’s why we were so focused on helping churches open their “front door” to increase the number of first-time guests.

We found that growing churches needed the number of first-time guests in a twelve-month period to equal or exceed their average attendance on a weekly basis. As an example, a church of 500 people needed to see at least 500 first-time guests every year if they were going to experience growth.

That principle didn’t magically change once COVID hit. Attrition still happens in churches. It seems to have accelerated for many churches in recent months, particularly with younger adults. The problem is that most churches shifted to online services but those services are still designed for people who were already connected to the church. They are offering online services designed for an in-person church.

Guess what?

Online engagement or attendance has started to decline. And it will continue to decline unless the church rethinks its digital engagement strategyWho are we trying to reach? How do we connect with people online who are not currently part of our church and likely not part of our faith? And do we encourage them to take baby steps that eventually lead to the big step of watching an online service?

And…this is keyhow do we design online experiences for an online audience? Again, this is not easy. We can’t assume, however, that streaming a version of our in-person services is going to keep our congregation engaged online, much less reach brand new people. And that brings me to the next challenge…

4. “We don’t have the staff and structure to be a hybrid church with both in-person and online ministries.”

This is the way one pastor said it:

“100% of my staff team is focused on ministry for one-third of my church, while no one is focused on the other two-thirds that are engaging ministry online.”

He’s right. For most churches, this absolutely needs to change.

Here’s the key thought to help you to begin thinking about this needed shift in staffing and structure.

Rather than staffing around ministry programs (think Sunday School, home groups, missions, student ministry, men’s/women’s ministry, etc.), you need to begin staffing around your ministry strategy.

Here we recommend you think about four key areas:

  • What leader and team will help us reach new people?
  • What leader and team will help us disciple people connected to our church?
  • What leader and team will help us engage the next generation of kids and students?
  • What leader and team will help us provide ministry support (operations support) to the rest of the team?

In most churches we serve, this isn’t going to be a structure tweak. Instead, it’s going to require a structure overhaul.

In the larger churches, it will involve redeploying paid staff. In the smaller churches, it will involve redeploying key lay leaders and their volunteer teams.

If online, as an example, is part of the reach or discipleship strategy, you can’t just add that to someone’s plate. You have to allocate dedicated people resources to build and execute that important ministry strategy. And that leads me to this final challenge I’m starting to hear…

5. “In the first several months, we were in a financially stable position, but now we’re starting to see a decline in giving.”

Many churches took an immediate hit in the first couple of weeks in March when churches began to shutdown their in-person services. However, I was hearing from many pastors that giving returned to normal shortly thereafter. On top of that, many churches participated in the PPP loan/grant program through the federal government. Under their breath, I heard a number of pastors admitting this summer that their churches were actually in a very healthy financial position.

Then the next waves of COVID started to hit.

The government financial assistance started to dry up. People were furloughed or lost their jobs. Giving started to slow. It wasn’t until September or October that I started to hear more and more from pastors that they were starting to lag behind their normal giving levels.

Let me say this clearly. Around every one of these challenges, you can’t just wait for “normal” to return because “normal” may never return.

But, with this challenge in particular, you must remember this:

Hope is not a strategy.

You would never teach people to handle their personal finances hoping that money eventually shows up in their checking accounts. Likewise, you can’t just wait and hope money starts to show up in your offering plates. (Do churches still use offering plates?)

Instead, you need to build a financial plan factoring in the real impact of what we’re experiencing. You have to plan to spend less than what you project you will receive. But let me go a step further. I think you should plan to spend ten percent less than what you project you will receive. 

As we lean into 2021, make the necessary tough decisions today that create margin in your financial plan for the coming year.

Reduce spending so that you can operate from a position of generosity rather than a position of worry and anxiety about your financial future.

Your Church Survived 2020… Now What?

I’ve talked to so many pastors who are living in the tension of in-person and online strategies. It’s a tough balance, but it’s our new reality, and it’s critical that we embrace and execute both strategies well.

That’s why I’m hosting a one-day, livestream event addressing 4 of the core issues that I see churches facing today.

Through this event, you’ll be equipped with practical strategies around:

  • Building a Hybrid Church – How do we successfully become an in-person and online church?
  • Staff Health – How do we right-size and restructure our staff team for the new reality?
  • Financial Health – How do we steward our finances wisely and position our church to make ends meet, even in seasons when giving declines? 
  • Future Direction – How do we plan for the future in a time of uncertainty?

I really encourage you to join us. Every pastor needs to address these 4 key areas as you plan for 2021. This is going to be a really great conversation.