What is Up with Church Attendance?

Posted by Aaron Buer on September 29, 2022

I don’t know about you, but I walked away from our fall launch weekend asking, “What is going on?” I feel confused about how people are attending church.  

For perspective, our in-person attendance is down about 30% from our fall launch weekend in 2019, but our overall attendance—including online church–is actually way up. What are people doing!?!

I wonder if you’re asking similar questions or perhaps you have some clarity to provide. Either way, I’m noticing and reading about some trends that I thought I would share. Also, I have a theory that I’d love to bounce off of you. So, here are three trends and a theory. 

Online Church is on the Rise

It’s no secret that people are attending church online more often than they used to. I’m not sure how you feel about that.

You might have an issue with the word “attending,” or you might consider online church a perfectly legitimate church experience. The question is, what do you do about all the people watching church online?  

Personally, I believe the best experience of church is the physical gathering of believers. However, I understand that as my congregation watches online more often, one of the benefits is engagement.

Ten years ago, when someone was on vacation or a work trip they just missed church. Now, they can stay engaged from their cottage or hotel room. There are some benefits to online church. 

Whether you are a fan of online church or not, people have developed new habits. Habits are hard to break and guilt usually isn’t a primary motivator for breaking an old habit and starting a new one.

If you want to motivate your people away from online church and toward physically gathering, you will need a compelling vision. So, what’s your vision?  

 

Less Attendance

According to research, people are physically attending church less often. Pre-COVID, my church’s surveys showed that people attended 3.8 times a month. Now, it feels like that number might be below two times a month.  

Again, people are often watching online on the weekends when they aren’t in the building, but the change in physical attendance has an impact. For example, in the past our staffing models were based on physical attendance.

I’m not sure that same formula will work today. As you think about next year’s budget, will your staffing ratios be tied to physical attendance?  

 

More Church Hopping

Recently, I read a great article by Barna on church attendance. Their research is showing that church attenders—millennials in particular–are doing a lot of church hopping. This makes sense to me because during the pandemic, many people watched other churches online and developed new habits and patterns.  

Also, our culture is an on-demand culture that is more about convenience and options than loyalty. People have chosen different churches for different purposes in their lives—sometimes multiple churches at the same time. I prefer this church’s worship, but that church’s preaching, and also I attend a small group at this other church.  

We’ve experienced a bit of this in my church. Some people have left our church’s weekend services but still attend a small group.

Like I said, I’m fairly confused about what is going on with church attendance. I think it’s going to take us a while to figure out what is happening and what to do about it.  

 

65% is the New 80%

Now, about my theory. Here’s what I’m thinking. 

65% is the new 80%.

First off, I didn’t come up with this theory; one of our key leaders first floated this idea in a staff meeting.  

Here’s the theory: What if 65% is the new 80%? 

Before COVID, it was standard practice to consider an auditorium functionally full at 80% of seating capacity. By this I mean that if you walk into a church service and the auditorium is 80% full, it feels full and there aren’t any open seats.  

Traditionally, church growth experts would tell you that when your auditorium hits 80% capacity, you need to expand by adding a service, video venue, or new campus. Why?  Because when a room feels full, people are less likely to invite friends and are less likely to show up. 

I think the game has changed. Because of what we all experienced through COVID, 80% full feels REALLY uncomfortable and 65% full feels…well, full. In other words, what used to feel full now feels crazy and what used to feel like half a room now feels full. As I said, this is a theory. I don’t know if it is true but it feels like reality to me.  

Here’s why this is important. If your worship space is 65-70% full, it feels like there is energy and you are in good shape, but what if, in this new post-COVID reality, you are actually at your capacity ceiling? What if you need to add a service or a venue or something else?  

This is one of the reasons we are exploring a growth strategy that includes mini-campuses, smaller environments within our campuses, micro sites and other smaller options. It feels like people’s gathering behavior has changed and we are trying to figure out what this means for the future of our church.  

I’d love your input on this theory. If your worship service is at 80-90% capacity and you think I’m out to lunch, I’d love to hear from you. If your worship service is at 60-70% capacity and you’re thinking my theory makes sense, I’d love to hear from you too. Feel free to email me: aaronbuer@gmail.com with your feedback.  

Wrap Up

In the meantime, here we are, mostly confused about church attendance. However, I know one thing–we still have the same mission: to lead people into a relationship with God and His church. At least that is constant and compelling.  

Topics: Advice

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