by Chris Ritter

In thirty years of pastoral ministry, I have never seen anything quite like it. Church attendance patterns are shifting in seismic ways. There has always been traffic to, from, and between congregations. “But this is structural,” as one of my lay leaders commented. We will look back on 2021 as a significant reset. As with any shift in allegiance, there are winners and losers.

These observations are just that… anecdotal perceptions based on the congregation I serve and the stories shared by colleagues. Statistical analysis of what is happening post-pandemic will be years to come. For now, take these gut-level insights for what they are worth.

#1. Church shoppers have multiplied.

The pause of in-person worship attendance due to COVID created a reset point for allegiances among church-goers. Online worship provided Christians an opportunity to experience other churches. Those in weak or declining congregations discovered what they have been missing. Contented sheep do not stray. But churches that have been heading the wrong direction in the eyes of their members are experiencing losses, even among historically faithful members. Pastors are seeing “pillars” from other congregations showing up in worship. Generally speaking, strong congregations are getting stronger and weak congregations are getting weaker. There is a brief window in 2021 where church transfers will be a major factor in church vitality moving forward.

#2. Attendance frequency has (further) dropped.

Here in the summer of 2021, people are making up for all the travel and activities they missed during COVID. Those who still consider themselves church-goers are busy with lots of other events. This translates into an accelerated drop in the frequency of worship attendance. It is possible that this is a short-term window and things will normalize once kids get into school, etc. But even before COVID, once-a-month was becoming the new “regular” for worship attendance. It is difficult to grow a church when everyone attends less often.

#3. People are de-churching at a higher rate.

Across the board, those church-goers in “loose orbit” prior to COVID may not be back. Their calendars have filled up with other things. They were not in much of a church habit before the pandemic and some are completing their journey away from the church. This does not mean that they stopped believing, necessarily. Time will tell whether these folks will reconnect, re-affiliate, or remain unchurched.

#4. Local church giving is generally up.

It’s the weirdest thing. Almost across the board, local churches are reporting increased giving. As one friend put it, “Those who are in, are in.” The faithful know that the pandemic created unprecedented challenges for their congregation. They are being diligent to remember the church. Over the years there has been increased competition for charitable dollars. For now, churches are seeing a bit of a swing back their way. Churches that use this short-term bump in generosity to ignore the larger shifts will do so at their own peril.

#5. Some churches are experience giving that is REALLY up.

Church giving is not uniform. The 80/20 Rule applies. The 20% who give 80% of the money are usually the core of any congregation. But, as stated above, the rise in church shoppers includes core members who have been dissatisfied for some time. When a leader from another church moves to a new congregation, their money comes with them. Unlike new believers, these transferring leaders have established habits of generosity. This creates a big and immediate financial bump. Of course, there is a corresponding loss in the congregation they are leaving.

#6. Churches that kept ministry going during COVID are faring much better than those that went dark.

Some congregations leaned into the challenges created by the pandemic by offering creative online and in-person ministries. Some of these ignored health guidelines… and others followed them “within reason.” But many congregations tended to go dark or maintain a minimal presence. Those that kept open are bouncing back much faster than those closed more completely. Some worshippers whose churches were closed visited those that were open. Along with online worship, this created another church shopping opportunity.

I have an untested hypothesis that denominational loyalty further decreased as a result of COVID. Denominational offices did a better job of telling congregations what NOT to do during the pandemic than helping them decide what to do. Shutting down completely became a badge of honor. My own United Methodist denomination is in the midst of separation and some church-goers are using the pandemic hiatus to rethink their allegiances in light of the pending split.

#7. Online attendance persists as its purpose morphs.

“Pajama Church” has been seductive for many, including introverts, the over-scheduled, the home-bound, and those with underlying health conditions. Online worship is also the new front porch to any church. People will visit online before they visit in person. I think of online worship as a new outer ring of church involvement that most people will pass through. That means that congregations are stretched to encourage people back even as they continue to produce high-quality online options. Online worship is here to stay, but we want to continue to move people from online to in-person attendance. Online worship was the tip of the spear in the jump in church shopping that has now entered its in-person phase.

What to do?

A few action steps we are taking in light of these trends:

  • We have stepped up our assimilation process to account for the all-time high in worship guests we are experiencing. We need our best efforts on this task.
  • We honor leaders from other churches as people ready to serve. We are putting them to work and including them in leadership discussions.
  • We have decreased communication about COVID mitigations. People should get vaccinated. Those who have not are generally dug in. We are done playing defense. Ample public health information is available in the public arena for those who want it. It is time for the church to get back to the business of the church… safely and sensibly.
  • We do the dance of acknowledging and celebrating online attendance while also encouraging online guests to visit in person. We can help connect people to church online, but we have decided we cannot effectively disciple them online. I tell people: “Get your body in church and your heart will follow.”