Measuring What Counts

church growth

Tracking Church Growth in a Post-Pandemic World

The past year and a half has been truly unprecedented in the history of Christendom. Never before has there been an Easter when almost every church on the planet had to cancel in-person worship. Never before has there been a faster adoption of online worship. The question now is how will we gauge growth going forward. Was COVID-19 the “Great Disruptor” that will change everything we do in measuring the size and health of our churches? What will be the new metrics of growth?

For the last several months, I’ve been learning how pastors and churches are determining growth, and how they plan to calculate it in a post-pandemic world. However, most of the churches that the Vanderbloemen Search Group works with are relatively healthy churches, so our sample size is not a complete picture of the church in the United States. Barna Group has predicted that as many as 1 in 5 churches will close in the coming year. That is likely an acceleration of what was already happening in churches rather than a direct result of the pandemic. So with that caveat in place, let’s look at what churches that are relatively stable or growing are doing to measure growth in the years to come.

Online Worship Is Here to Stay.

Online worship was easily the biggest story for the church in 2020. Nearly everyone I have talked to agrees that weekly online worship offerings will continue in the future and must become increasingly more engaging. Churches that refuse to continue and accelerate what they offer online will quickly find themselves irrelevant in the years to come.

This change had been coming for some time, and many of the churches already accustomed to having some online presence simply flipped a switch and went fully digital. However, the pandemic forced other churches to adapt to this change much more quickly than they ordinarily would have. In this regard, and in many others, COVID-19 was more the Great Accelerator than the Great Disruptor.

One recent study claims that before the pandemic, around 10% of all Protestant churches in the U.S. were streaming live worship each week. Now that we are hopefully past the pandemic, something like 10% of all Protestant churches are not streaming their worship online. That’s a change that ought to take years but only took 12 months.

My favorite example is my mother’s home church in a small town in North Carolina. The church dates back to the 18th century, and their worship has been predictably the same for a long, long time. Enter 2020. They had never had online worship before, but during the pandemic their brand-new pastor introduced weekly online services.

Imagine, however, if there had been no pandemic and the brand-new pastor showed up at my mom’s church with a newfangled idea of doing weekly online streaming worship. I’d wager that the board of elders might have told him, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But to their credit, they pivoted (as did thousands of congregations). The shift to digital has been a marvelous testimony to the agility of the church, and all indicators are that this change is here to stay. 

The New Front Porch

Nearly every pastor I have spoken with has said they will be paying more attention to their online numbers. The vast majority of pastors we surveyed acknowledge that members will be logging on to digital services when they are out of town or have other commitments. However, the overwhelming number of those I interviewed agreed that the biggest reason to increase attention to online worship is to reach new people.

Online attendance is the new “front porch” to the local church. Much like when consumers check out a store’s website before visiting a physical store, the pandemic has created a new reality where people are far more likely to attend a service online before ever entering the building. Smart church leaders are realizing that and are finding new ways to track the trend lines of their online effectiveness. And unlike the days before the pandemic, this applies to churches of all sizes, not just the bigger congregations who are already multisite.

The Digital Dilemma

Many pastors I spoke with agreed that while the acceleration of online worship is good, figuring out how to count its attendance is terribly complex. When asked how many would be counting virtual attendance, nearly everyone said yes. But when I asked if virtual attendance would be included in overall attendance, the overwhelming majority said no.

Some respondents said it’s hard to know how long a person needs to be present to “count.” Do you count more than one attendee per IP address/device that is dialed in? Do you count a three-second view? Or is the threshold 20 minutes? Or do you only count those who are present during the whole service? Others worried that online “reach” gives the appearance of a much larger church than a true representation of people who make the effort to be present.

The overall trend I discovered is that the beginning of the 2020 lockdowns gave most pastors hope as their online numbers skyrocketed. But the following months tempered that optimism as the online numbers they were measuring began to decline. Engagement is becoming the key litmus test for counting online effectiveness, but until there is an accepted universal understanding of what the online engagement metrics are, in-person attendance will likely remain the primary measuring stick for growth. 

Measuring In-Person Attendance

The pandemic didn’t just accelerate online church trends—it accelerated declines in in-person attendance, which has changed the game for measuring health and growth. With that in mind, here are some new metrics and trends for measuring in-person attendance. 

1. Measure frequency of attendance. 

In years gone by, people who identified themselves as actively involved in their church attended somewhere between 40 and 50 weekends per year. That number has been dropping steadily over the last decade. Some say that the new average is 1 1/2 to two visits per month.

COVID-19 has only fast-tracked that trend. Now that nearly every church in America has an option for people to stream online, the frequency of in-person attendance will continue to wane. Most pastors I have spoken with say that’s not something to get angry about, and certainly not something to get excited about, but it is a development that is here to stay—and that means changing the way we measure church involvement. Thom Rainer, CEO of Church Answers, and his team are advising that in-person attendance will come back, but a new set of metrics for what is “normal” and “growing” going forward has to be developed.

While more difficult to accurately measure, I am seeing more and more churches try to determine people’s frequency of attendance. For example, how many different families attended last year? How many families attended more than 10 times in a year? How many families attended more than half of the weekends during the year?

This shift has required more churches than I expected to revert to old school methods like a weekly attendance pad. It’s also meant looking for new ways of seeing who is coming and when. I was surprised to find that very few churches are requesting permission to geotag attendees on their apps as a way to measure the frequency of attendance. Universities and schools have been doing this for a long time to track alumni’s visits to campus, to sporting events and, yes, for donor development. I believe that in the not too distant future, we will see churches asking permission to use location and geotagging families. This step would give churches an opportunity to see who is on campus without the privacy concerns of other methods like facial recognition software (which I have found a few churches experimenting with).

2. Measure the high holy days.

In my time as a senior pastor in the Presbyterian Church, we kept membership rolls, which were always a lot bigger than the weekly attendance numbers. In fact, I knew that on a normal week, we would likely only have 42% of our membership in attendance.

The one exception was the high holy days of Christmas and Easter. And we paid attention to those days to get a real read on how many people called our church home. We would expect (and usually see) holiday attendance that matched our membership roll. And we paid attention to trends year to year. Today, particularly as the frequency of attendance drops, the old school method is gaining steam in churches throughout the country.

I know that measuring holiday attendance doesn’t necessarily give an accurate read of regular attendees. I think everyone has heard the joke about the person leaving church on Easter and saying to the pastor, “Great message pastor, but it seems like every time I’m here you’re either talking about him being born or getting out of the grave.” Yes, some people only show up for the holidays. Notwithstanding the Christmas- and Easter-only attendees, measuring your biggest days can give you a fair reading of how many people are actually part of your church family. The pastors I surveyed overwhelmingly agreed that they are paying attention to this trend.

3. Measure the money, but differently.

Giving trends have always been regularly monitored in churches, but historically tithes and offerings haven’t been a critical metric for determining the size of the church. That is changing as more churches focus on the size and makeup of their donor bases.

Jim Sheppard, CEO and principal at Generis, says that most churches he knows are paying a lot of attention to how many first-time donors they have per year, and how many donors are falling out of their donor base per year. They are using that as a metric for church growth and health.

With the pandemic, which sped up people’s use of e-commerce, came a marked increase in electronic giving. Last year was one of the highest growth years that PushPay has had in the history of the company. Now that people are more accustomed to giving electronically, I believe that the growth of the number of donors, not necessarily the amount given, will become one of the hallmarks of measuring congregational growth and health.

4. Measure attendance, but celebrate volunteers. 

Chris Hodges, founder and senior pastor of Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the last pastors I know to agree that the church needed to quit meeting in person for a period of time during the pandemic. He really values being in worship together.

However, when I asked him about how he will measure church growth going forward, he was quick to answer, “I know we have to pay attention to attendance. I know we have to pay attention to giving. But the one number that really encourages me about our growth is when the number of our volunteers—we call them our Dream Team—increases. If the Dream Team numbers are going up, it’s almost a given that all of the other metrics will follow suit.”

This strategy is very similar to the one long employed by Christ Fellowship Miami in Florida. For years, they have believed that if they wanted to grow a ministry, they needed to increase the number of committed volunteers by 25%. Rather than, “If you build it, they will come,” they take an “If you staff it with awesome volunteers, they will come” approach.

5. Measure one-on-one discipleship.

Richard Kannwischer, senior pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta, says they have a brand new metric they’re measuring, which he calls their “moon shot.” Peachtree is praying and planning for every active member to be mentoring at least one person and to be mentored by one person. Yes, they will continue to pay attention to attendance and the budget, but one-on-one mentoring has become their new standard.

They have been talking about this for quite a while, and the pandemic has made this their No. 1 goal for the foreseeable future. Kannwischer believes that if this goal is met, all others will take care of themselves. And even more, he believes it will usher in more life change than a goal of growing church attendance ever could.

Not Good to Be Alone

Virtual worship is certainly the big story of change since the pandemic, and it will likely have the most lasting impact. But while online church will be a critical supplement to church going forward, it won’t replace getting together in person.

Of the pastors I surveyed, 100% agreed that in-person attendance is qualitatively better than virtual attendance. When churches reopened, tears were shed, smiles were bigger than ever and people were ecstatic to be in the same room with their church family for the first time in over a year. Is that because church families are made up of such wonderful people? Is it because the church is such a blameless, spotless example for the world? I don’t think so.

We were not meant to be alone. 2020 has reminded me more than ever of the first “not good” proclamation in the Bible. The creation narrative starts with God doing a lot of “good” pronouncements. He creates light, and it’s good. He creates vegetation, and it’s good. He creates humans, and we are pronounced very good. Positive pronouncement after positive pronouncement, until we get to the first negative pronouncement: “And the Lord looked at Adam and said, ‘It is not good that man be left alone.’”

God, who has always been in triune fellowship, didn’t make us to be apart from one another. He was so adamant about this that the first negative pronouncement happened even before sin had entered the world. That’s a powerful principle. George MacDonald, a mentor to C.S. Lewis, is known for saying, “Hell is God’s granting of our final wish to be left alone.” God does not want us alone in worship; we just aren’t wired for it.

By way of illustration, years ago, Vanderbloemen Search Group decided to try doing searches totally virtual. We thought that if we cut out all in-person interviews and onsite interviews, we would revolutionize search. We would lower our costs, make search available to churches that couldn’t afford a full search and—as a selfish benefit—it would allow our team to sleep at home every night. It was a grand experiment and a colossal failure. Our client satisfaction dropped from the high-90th percentile to the mid-60th percentile.

My big theological takeaway, which I still stand by, is this: If virtual were all it was cracked up to be, why didn’t Jesus just Zoom it in?

One of the best explanations I’ve heard about virtual worship versus in-person worship comes from Eric Geiger, senior pastor at Mariners Church in Irvine, California. He told me early on in the pandemic, “You know why we like worship services so much? It’s because even though we’re not as diverse as heaven will be, and even though our singing is nowhere near the singing we will hear in heaven, worship services—when they’re at their best—are an echo of heaven. The problem with online worship is that it’s an echo of the echo.”

Together Again

For all of the change in the church, I believe that the new metrics for measuring growth will look remarkably like the old metrics. And that should give pastors a measure of encouragement.

I’m very bullish about the beginning of the next era of church. Because of online growth, big churches will get much bigger, but average-size local churches will also matter more than ever. New metrics will mean new methods. But concurrent to those solutions will come the desire to be with one another. Alongside new methods of reaching people will come a return to the gold standards of what it means to be a pastor, to be part of a family of faith and to have an impact on our local communities. And your ability to relate to, communicate with and pastor your people, in person and in a live relationship, will make all of the difference in a world that is tired of being quarantined, and is really, really looking forward to being together again.

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