More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church is beginning to reopen in the United States. This process has been uneven, with many cities still under significant restrictions while others are able to operate with relatively minor accommodations. At the center of this season of reopening is the pressing need for churches to gain clarity on the state of their membership. While online services and ministries have offered a necessary lifeline of connection, the rapid change and inherent disconnectedness of the pandemic has produced a season of uncertainty.
How are churches in the United States fairing in terms of attendance, giving, and staffing? How are pastors navigating the new pressures of reopening after over a year of unprecedented challenges? The National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project (NCCAP) represents an effort to answer these questions as we track church reopening. With your help, we’ve received responses from over 600 churches representing over 400,000 weekly worshippers from 47 states and the District of Colombia.
Among churches surveyed, in-person attendance has suffered dramatically. At the peak of COVID in January of 2021, in-person attendance had fallen by 60% compared to January of the preceding year. This means that for every 10 people attending in-person the prior year, only 4 were attending in-person in January of 2021. As of April 2021, in-person attendance had recovered to 57% of the pre-pandemic numbers.
The shifts in attendance behavior during COVID have been dramatic among churches responding to our survey. Prior to the pandemic, roughly one out of every seven people attended church remotely. At the peak of the pandemic, in January of 2021, that had nearly quadrupled to six out of ten. As the vaccine has been distributed and churches have found the ability to welcome more congregants to in-person services, the pattern has begun to reverse. As of April 2021, roughly half of attendance was in-person.
While the inability to meet in person has been painful, the church has demonstrated strong growth in its ability to engage congregants remotely. As of April 2021, 96 percent of churches surveyed offered an online option for church attendees.
Of churches that extend a remote option for congregants, roughly two-thirds are tracking remote attendance. Comparing online attendance across churches is tricky as different churches measure attendance differently. To the extent possible, we have converted online attendance to the number of unique screens accessing online content.
By subdividing data by church size, we learn that online attendance has been driven by the largest churches. For churches with less than 1000 average in-person weekly parishioners, online attendance has dropped to just over a third of congregants, while over half of weekly attenders join remotely for larger churches.
Of note is that, prior to the pandemic, online presence was smallest for mid-sized churches (those with in-person weekly attendance averaging between 100-999 congregants). While these churches have continued to slightly lag their smaller and larger counterparts in terms of online presence, they have also experienced the largest growth of remote attendees. For mid-sized churches, the number of parishioners attending online has roughly quintupled.
On the issue of multipliers, it is important to note that even as online church has rapidly diffused due to COVID restrictions there remains no established standard measurement for online attendance. The majority of pastors track the number of views directly (65 percent). Among churches who attempt to estimate the number of viewers rather than count the number of devices accessing the service, many smaller churches are able to directly count viewers. Among those applying a multiplier on views, there is considerable variety with most common multipliers being: 1.3, 1.5, 1.7, 2, 2.5. Moreover, several churches noted their requirement of a minimum amount of time watched to count as views, although again this was not standardized. As online services continue to be widespread even as reopening gains momentum, denomination, network and institution leaders should consider how to establish clear standards for tracking attendance to avoid unintentional disparities in reporting.
Across all churches surveyed, online attendance has tripled. Not all churches have offered online services, and not all churches track online attendance. Of 521 churches providing attendance data in a format usable for analysis, 502 offered congregants some form of online service and 349 of those churches provided data for online attendance information. Additionally, online attendance is not tracked uniformly. Wherever possible, online-attendance data was re-calculated based on the number of screens. However, variation still exists based on the method used by church to determine what constitutes an attendee.
Further, as roughly 1/3 of churches offering online services do not track attendance. The reported online presence may underestimate the true increase. While this number has fallen slightly since the beginning of 2021, it remains high even as in-person attendance has begun to grow.
Obtaining an accurate understanding of total attendance is tricky as a single online access may not be equivalent to a single in-person attendee. Additionally, methods of tracking differ across churches. Finally, roughly one-third of churches holding online service do not track attendance. Consequently, this next table should be viewed with this understanding in mind. Based on survey responses, total church attendance across all platforms was down about 18 percent as of January 2021, half of that drop has recovered over the past several months. As of April 2021, church attendance had fallen 9 percent overall relative to pre-pandemic numbers. Notably, small churches surveyed have observed an increase in total attendance during the pandemic. Please keep in mind that this data is based on churches who were able to respond to the survey extended and does not include churches that have ceased to meet.
In 2020 there was significant uncertainty surrounding church giving, especially given that unemployment more than quadrupled from 3.5 percent in January of 2020 to 14.8 percent in April of 2020. Thankfully, overall church giving remained remarkably stable relative to what was anticipated. Overall, based on 401 responses, slightly more churches realized giving greater than or equal to what was budgeted.
Across church size, giving in 2020 was remarkably close to what was anticipated prior to the pandemic. Even though, most churches received giving greater than or equal to what was budgeted, total church giving in 2020 was 2% below what was budgeted.
There was some deviation in church giving. While the median church received exactly what was budgeted. The church at the 90th percentile experienced 20 percent more giving in 2020 than what was budgeted at the beginning of 2020. The church at the 10th percentile received 15 percent less giving than what was budgeted at the beginning of 2020.
Regarding church staffing, of the 422 churches responding to these questions, the majority (57%) did not experience a change in the number of staff from January 2020 to April 2021. Roughly 1/5th of churches increased the number of paid staff and 23% decreased the number of paid staff. Overall, church staffing has fallen 2.5% compared with pre-pandemic levels.
As the pandemic is often linked to widespread issues of disconnection and loneliness, this was reflected in the engagement level among church members. Overall, the majority of pastors observed a decrease in active church engagement over the past year (specified as serving, giving, small group participation). Nearly 3 in 5 (58 percent) of pastors believe engagement has decreased in any degree with 14 percent selecting significantly decreased. This compared to only 26 percent observing an increase in any degree. This reflects the overall challenge pastors have faced in connecting their members to church life over the past year. Absent the normal rhythms of church life, Christians seem to have struggled to find ways to participate.
In light of the perceived decline in church engagement, it is not surprising that over half of pastors (55 percent) believed that the hardest challenge of COVID was keeping their congregation connected. While online tools have been useful in maintaining services and offering platform for connecting in small groups, it is far easier for members and frequent attendees to slip between the cracks. Even as pastors and church leaders have spent considerable time over the past year working to address this problem, that it still ranks so high speaks to the depth of the challenge.
Beyond ensuring members remained connected, the next most significant challenges of leading through COVID related to the ongoing strains of a year navigating complex situations. 15 percent of pastors cited managing relational and organizational conflict as the most significant challenge while 11 percent focused on the general pressure of increased workload.