F. Douglas Powe Jr. and Ann A. Michel of the Lewis Center staff name some of the changes church leaders should keep top of mind as we embark on 2022. They include still evolving patterns of worship and congregational life, worrying attendance trends, churches reevaluating their building needs, and underlying demographic changes that challenge assumptions many churches hold regarding their future.
For the past few years, Leading Ideas has rung in the New Year by noting some of the trends we observe in our research and work with congregations. Naming trends is always a bit risky and imprecise and even more so in this liminal time. Mindful of research underway to document more fully the state of congregations in the age of COVID-19, this year we simply name some changes that have caught our attention. As we embark on 2022, these are some things we believe church leaders should keep in mind.
1. New ministry patterns are still evolving.
When shutdowns began in 2020, many assumed there would be a light switch moment when congregations would resume their previous activities. Amid continued uncertainty and concern, congregations are finding their way forward, but not all in the same manner. Some are back to operating in ways that resemble business as usual, others are just starting to tiptoe back into their buildings, and savvy congregations have used the pause in programing to reassess their ministry footprint. Local attitudes and governmental guidance, the age and sensitivities of congregants, and congregational size all seem to be factors, with smaller congregations typically returning to something close to “normal” more quickly. But virtually every congregation has emerged from 20 months of adapting to changing circumstances with significantly altered patterns of worship and programing, and we expect shifting ministry patterns to continue.
2. Attendance worries
Following the initial shutdown in March 2020, many congregations saw an encouraging response to their online worship offerings raising hopes that entry into the realm of digital worship would yield long-term attendance gains. But more recently, the trend in online worship participation seems to have headed downward, often quite precipitously. Thom Rainer reported in November that nine out of ten church leaders say the decline is major, with some reporting a drop of at least 90% from the peak of the pandemic. One reason for this slide is the strong desire to worship in person, but in many settings the drop off in online worship has not been matched by a corresponding increase in in-person attendance.
Since the onset of COVID-19, congregations have focused much attention on the most committed segment of their membership who were motivated to engage online and eager to return in person as soon as the opportunity presented itself. But there is also a segment of churchgoers who took a break from church during the pandemic. Some seem to have simply fallen out of the habit of regular worship. Others may have grown comfortable practicing their faith in more private ways. And many congregations now sense that some percentage of their pre-pandemic worshipers may never return.
Where does that leave us? Unsurprisingly, it seems that attracting new adherents in the digital sphere isn’t quite as easy as it seemed in April of 2020. Going forward, it will require significant effort and intentionality, as does engaging people in traditional ways. But abandoning new digital worship options would be precisely the wrong response to current attendance trends. Forward-thinking churches will continue to make digital and hybrid worship a vital component of their overall ministry plan, while making every effort to reengage those who have fallen away in the past two years.
3. Virtual meetings and classes are here to stay.
Despite laments about “Zoom fatigue,” it seems many people prefer the convenience of participating in church meetings or small groups from home. Older folks don’t have to drive at night. Parents don’t need a baby sitter. Those who are out of town or saddled with work responsibilities can often make time to drop into a virtual meeting. Accordingly, many churches report that their online meetings and classes enjoy a higher level of attendance and participation. John Wimberly, who has studied the impact of the virtual revolution on congregational life, believes most routine church meetings and education programs will continue on Zoom, even when pandemic concerns have passed. Christian educators and children’s ministry leaders should continue to refine their skills and develop new options for remote learning.
4. Changing facility needs
For a number of years, we have observed that more and more churches are reexamining how they live in relation to their physical space. Many declining congregations find themselves burdened by the cost of maintaining aging, overly large facilities. This is even more the case in the COVID-19 era as virtual classes and meetings and work-from-home arrangements make for even more empty rooms. Moreover, the recent spike in utility costs has added one more financial burden to congregations already stretched by the pandemic’s impact on attendance and giving. Thus, we expect that even more congregations will be reassessing their building needs and looking to leverage the value of their property by renting, redeveloping, or selling space, or through creative space-sharing arrangements with mission agencies or community partners.
5. Changing demographics
The pandemic’s impact on ministry models has absorbed most of our attention since March 2020. But underlying demographic trends may well have a more significant long-term impact on the future of many congregations. The 2020 U.S. Census Report revealed an aging population, a low rate of population growth overall, decreased geographic mobility, and the first-ever decline in the white population. In his article, What Might the 2020 Census Mean for Churches?, Lovett Weems Jr. observed that these trends upend the working assumptions of most congregations: that new members will come from new residents or young couples returning to church when they have children, that new members will be younger than current members, that they will look like existing members and share their values. Weems writes that “the combination of population stagnation and lower population mobility means those ‘new people’ that churches often counted on joining them will be few.” Most churches are still surrounded by unchurched people, of course. But, according to Weems “engaging with these ‘new people’ will require major adjustments in how churches relate to their communities and neighbors, especially for historically white congregations.”
While many of these changes are concerning, we have seen many churches become far more open to change when challenged by the unprecedented changes of the past two years. Nimbleness and adaptivity will remain essential as we continue to navigate uncharted waters.
- 8 Trends Impacting Church Leadership for 2021 by Doug Powe and Ann A. Michel
- 7 Reasons You Must Not Abandon Your Online Services by Thom S. Rainer
- 8 Financial Lessons for the Post-pandemic Church by Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Ann A. Michel