Doug Powe, Ann Michel, and Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff identify five trends church leaders should keep in mind as they develop creative ministries to reach new people in 2023. From worship and hybrid ministry to relationship building, staffing, and finances, paying attention to these trends will help chart the course for the new year.
As the new year begins, we observe five major trends in our research and work with congregations that will impact ministry in 2023. As we noted at the beginning of 2022, new ministry patterns are still evolving, worship attendance has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and hybrid ministry continues to be important. Relationship building continues to be a priority for ministry. These trends have implications for church finances and staffing. Keep these things in mind as you develop creative ministries to reach new people in 2023.
In-person attendance will continue to be lower than pre-pandemic times.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated an existing decline in worship attendance. Eight out of 10 respondents to our 2022 Pandemic Worship Services survey said in-person attendance of their churches decreased during the pandemic, and about six out of 10 respondents said their church’s attendance continues to be lower than before the pandemic.
In our Improving Worship Attendance in a Post-Pandemic World webinar, Lovett Weems shared “your starting point for attendance is the number you have now, not your pre-pandemic attendance.” Focus on those who are actively engaged in worship now and creatively look toward the future rather than dwelling on a return to pre-pandemic attendance levels. In addition to offering meaningful hybrid worship experiences, explore ways your congregation can cultivate missional groups in the community to reach new people.
A hybrid approach to worship is still necessary.
Many church leaders long for a return to the days of in-person only worship, but those days are behind us. To reach the most people, a hybrid approach to worship and ministry is necessary. As 2023 begins, we are facing a “tripledemic” of respiratory viruses (COVID, flu, and RSV), so those who are most vulnerable as well as those who are immunocompromised will likely opt to worship digitally until the rate of respiratory virus infections decline.
The number of churches broadcasting their hybrid worship services on YouTube and Facebook increased dramatically during the pandemic, and we expect most congregations to continue to broadcast worship using the platforms. Special consideration should be given to connecting those who worship virtually — both those who view the service live and those who view the service later — to the people and ministries of your congregation. If your worship space and experience still look as they looked in 2019, what adaptations are necessary for the worship space and experience to be relevant and meaningful for those who participate in-person and those who participate virtually? What staffing changes are needed in order to support hybrid ministry? Assess your worship experience and be creative when making changes.
Focusing on relationships is critical in the post-pandemic reality.
The height of the COVID pandemic intensified isolation, loneliness, and mental health challenges to name just a few issues. As a result, many individuals are seeking ways to be in relationship with others. Whether we worship in person or in a hybrid format, focusing on relationships is crucial. It is easy to get caught up in trying to create the perfect worship experience with just the right music and an insightful sermon. Now, we are not recommending downplaying or ignoring worship, but we are suggesting that helping individuals feel connected to a community should be the priority.
Creating opportunities for individuals to have conversations where they are heard and valued is important. Certainly, this is more challenging for those who join virtually but still not impossible. Offering opportunities for small group connections on Zoom after worship or opportunities for those who are local to meet at a coffee shop are two possibilities. The key is being intentional about building relationships that help individuals feel that they are connected to a community that cares.
Congregational giving is bouncing back but many churches still face an uncertain financial future.
Several recent studies suggest that giving to congregations has bounced back since the darkest days of the pandemic. The recent Giving in Faith Report found that 84 percent of givers maintained or increased giving to their places of worship in 2021. In a Lifeway Research survey of Protestant pastors, seven in 10 said offering levels at least met their budget in 2021. Forty-eight percent said giving at their church has been about what they budgeted, while 22 percent say it is higher than budgeted. These findings track with Giving USA’s data that show a four percent increase in overall charitable giving in 2021 and a 5.4 percent increase in giving to religion, following a small net decrease the previous year.
Yet many congregations continue to struggle financially, in part because the pandemic did not have the same economic impact on every household, region, or sector of the economy. But perhaps more significantly, not every congregation was equally vital and financially healthy going into the pandemic. For some, pandemic-related financial hardships were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
On the positive side, congregations that embraced virtual ministry and digital giving during the pandemic fared much better than those that did not. But congregations with stable or even increasing giving should not allow themselves to be lured into a false sense of security. In virtually every church, the lion’s share of giving comes from a small percentage of highly committed, generous individuals, many of whom are older. Their giving can keep a congregation afloat financially even in the face of other measures of decline. But not forever. In many congregations and denominations, the long-established trend of “fewer people giving more” is likely to accelerate given that so few churches have returned to pre-pandemic levels of worship attendance and engagement.
Churches increasingly employ part-time clergy and more lay staff.
The contours of the religious workforce continue to change, as a result of the declining size of the average congregation, changing ministry patterns, the rising average age of clergy, and other factors. One notable change is an increase in part-time and bi-vocational pastors. Looking, for example, at United Methodist Churches, the Lewis Center’s Religious Workforce Project has found that the share of UMC congregations with average worship attendance of 50 or fewer increased from 49 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2019, and that among this growing cohort of very small churches, the percentage served by a part-time pastor has grown from about half in 2000 to about two-thirds in 2019.
Another notable trend is a continued increase in lay staffing. Looking again to the example of the United Methodist Church, the proportion of personnel dollars spent on lay staffing continues to increase. Spending for lay staff went from 28 percent of personnel spending in 1989 to 47 percent in 2019, with spending for clergy declining from 72 percent of all personnel spending to 53 percent in the same timeframe. Both these trends have significant implications for how churches are carrying forward their missions.
- What to Watch in 2022 by Doug Powe and Ann Michel
- How Has COVID-19 Impacted Religious Participation? by Amy Kubichek
- Relationships Are the Key Ingredient in Successful Outreach by Doug Powe
- “Bivocational by Choice,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Ben Connelly
- Hybrid Evangelism: The New Reality for Congregations, a Lewis Center webinar recording
- Improving Worship Attendance in a Post-Pandemic World, a Lewis Center webinar recording
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