April 15, 2020

How Churches Responded & Where We Go Next — Episode 141 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

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A Look at Data from Our Survey of 500+ Churches

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I always like to gather some data when faced with new challenges. (And I really like analyzing data. Yeah, I’m the guy who loved statistics class.) That trickles down to the way I run things at The Unstuck Group. We always stop to fully assess a situation before making plans.

We surveyed 500+ church leaders between April 2-6 to get a better feel for how churches have really been responding to the coronavirus crisis.

Based on the data, it looks like the vast majority of churches have settled into a new way of doing church. I’m really glad to see that. That means it’s time to shift our content in the coming weeks:

I believe churches need to start thinking about how this experience is going to change the way we do church for the long haul.

I’m already hearing too much talk about “when things get back to normal.”

I fear some of the warning signs of decline and stuck-ness we were seeing before the crisis started will only be accelerated because of the longer-term implications of how this is changing people and our communities.

Churches need to start preparing for a new normal.

The effects of the last five weeks (at minimum) are wearing on everyone. One pastor this week said he’s been leaning into Galatians 6:9:

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

Galatians 6:9

Living in “response-mode” is exhausting. Anybody else ready to start thinking forward? Let’s not give up.

In this episode, Amy and I discuss:

  • My top takeaways after digging into 500+ surveys completed by church leaders (which included churches of 100 or less; three churches of 20K or more; and everything in between)—and how they inform where we go next
  • What we can learn about how churches do the weekend experience, and the long-term ramifications of online church services
  • The financial adjustments churches are making, including how the crisis is impacting staffing
  • My biggest concern for churches in the coming months, when our cities and states start opening back up
Living in u0022response-modeu0022 is exhausting. Anybody else ready to start thinking forward? Let's not give up. #unstuckchurch [episode 141] Click to Tweet We need to start thinking of our online services as the new “front door.” And, we need to shift beyond thinking of online “attendance” as the win. #unstuckchurch [episode 141] Share on X

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Let Us Know on Social Media

We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. We’d really love to hear from you during this time:

  1. How can we be praying for you as a lead and your church?
  2. What stories can you share of ways churches are responding well during this crisis and focusing on opportunities instead of loss?

You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.

Links & Resources from the Episode

  • The Church’s Response to the Coronavirus: Same Mission, New Strategies
    For years, culture has been moving much faster than the Church. This crisis is forcing our strategies to catch up. In this free webinar, Tony Morgan is hosting a conversation about why NOW is the time to shift away from asking, “When will things get back to normal? Instead, we need to be asking, “What does this mean for us long-term?”

Listen to other episodes in this series—

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Sean (00:02): Welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. For the last several weeks, churches around the country have been in response mode to the crisis we’re facing. In an effort to learn more about those responses, we’ve surveyed more than 500 churches, ranging from under 100 in attendance to over 20,000. And on today’s podcast, Tony and Amy begin to dig into the data. To maximize today’s podcast experience, make sure you download the coronavirus response report so you can look through the data as you listen. You can get the report at go.theunstuckgroup.com/survey-results. Also, make sure you grab the show notes before you listen. You can get them every week in one email along with the resources to go with this week’s conversation as well as access to our archive of podcast content. Go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.

Amy (01:02): Well, Tony, more than 500 churches have shared with us about how they’re responding to the coronavirus. And before we dig into what we learned, tell us a little bit more about the churches who participated.

Tony (01:11): Yeah. So first of all, I just want to thank all those churches. We had surveys open between April 2nd and April 6th, and over 500 churches responded. And it was pretty encouraging because it was churches of all shapes and sizes. We had a number of churches with less than a hundred people in attendance. It feels weird to be talking about attendance in this.

Amy (01:39): I know. I thought the same thing.

Tony (01:39): And then, actually, there were several churches over 10,000 too in attendance that responded. So I really think the information we captured is a good reflection of what churches of all different sizes are experiencing since this crisis started. So I’m looking forward to diving into some of what we learned in today’s conversation, Amy.

Amy (02:00): Yeah. Well before we get into the details, what are some of the big overall takeaways from the survey responses?

Tony (02:06): Yeah. So as I was diving into the data, and by the way, Amy, I’m sure you can appreciate, it’s actually one of my favorite things to do is to dive into data.

Amy (02:17): You have a little spring in your step today, I can tell you spent some time in spreadsheets.

Tony (02:20): Yeah, I was one of the few people that actually enjoyed taking statistics courses and accounting courses and things like that in college. Yeah. So generally though, what the data shows is that larger churches were better prepared for this crisis going into what we’ve experienced the last month, more so than the smaller churches that responded to the survey. And that’s probably not a surprise. What was encouraging for me though, was to look at how churches of all sizes have responded since the crisis started. And actually there’s some pretty promising things that we’re seeing when we look into the data to see how churches have reacted to what has happened with this pandemic.

Amy (03:04): So you’re going to bring a little bit of hope today.

Tony (03:05): That’s my hope. My hope is to bring hope, Amy.

Amy (03:10): Well, let’s look at the weekend services engagement first. This is probably one of the biggest areas of disruption, obviously, for churches over the last month. What did you see in that data?

Tony (03:19): Yeah, so, the first thing that jumped out was just that there’s still actually 4% of churches that are holding in-person services in their churches still at this point, which is, given everything we’ve been through, well, a little bit surprising. So, almost every other church, though, has shifted to online services at this point. It looks like from the surveys, there are actually some churches that have stopped doing services completely in the season, which is probably not a shock because, especially for the smallest churches with older congregations, this is obviously impacting those congregations more so than many of the other churches.

Amy (04:02): By the way, what do you think of those 4% of the churches that are still gathering? Is it helping their mission?

Tony (04:10): Well, probably not, Amy. You look at where everybody’s focus is right now in our culture, and it does appear to come across pretty insensitive to where everybody else is right now. So, hopefully there’s a good reason why those churches are still engaging in person services, and hopefully they’re still doing that within the guidelines from their communities and their states.

Amy (04:36): All right. Well, what else did you see in the weekend service engagement information?

Tony (04:39): Yeah, so only half the churches that were surveyed had online services before this crisis. And so, again, you can see from that information that a lot of churches just were not prepared for what we have experienced. Certainly the larger churches were more likely to have been offering online services. In fact, nearly 80% of mega-churches, those churches that are 2000 and more in attendance, had online services before the crisis. But this is where there was a lot of disparity between the larger churches and the smaller churches because only 27% of smaller churches had an online option. But as I said, almost all the churches now have moved to online services, and only 5% of churches have not shifted online. And the biggest jump, obviously, was with the smaller churches and now over 90% of small churches. And here I made the cutoff. It was arbitrary, but I made it churches 200 or less in attendance. And it’s just encouraging to know now that, 90% of those churches have shifted to some online format.

Amy (05:59): I think that’s really encouraging to see even the smallest churches making that move.

Tony (06:02): Absolutely. And you know, it looks different for different churches. Some, actually, have some sort of online platform, like Church Online that we’ve talked about to stream their services. Others are taking advantage of Facebook or Zoom or other video clients like that. But, it’s good to see that churches have made that shift now.

Amy (06:26): Any other learnings?

Tony (06:27): Yeah. So, some other things related to the weekend services. And this is again, very encouraging is that churches reported they’re actually seeing more people engaging in their online services than were attending services in their church buildings during the season. Which that was my hope. And based on what I’ve seen in previous crises that our culture and our communities have experienced, it’s been good because the people of God tend to pull together in these times. And also there are people within our communities, those that might be outside our churches and outside the faith even, tend to in these times of crisis come together. And so it’s encouraging to see that churches are actually seeing more engagement in their online services. In fact, 2/3 churches indicated online engagement with the number of people they’re connecting with through their weekend services is higher than what they were seeing with in-person attendance. And just to put some raw numbers on this, for the churches that provided their numbers and comparisons, the churches that either reported increases or decreases, the average of all of that data was the churches have more than doubled their engagement. And so, I think that again, it’s very promising and it actually probably speaks to something that we as churches need to lean into as we look to the future as well, once this crisis is behind us.

Amy (08:13): Well, that actually leads to my next question. I think this is a question that everyone is asking right now, but just what are the longterm ramifications of online church services? What are your thoughts?

Tony (08:23): Yeah. It’s not going to go away, Amy. There’s this thing called the internet, the worldwide web, and it appears that people have really embraced it. I don’t think it’s going to go away. And what we saw even before this crisis, in our research, was that churches that were leveraging their online platforms for services and sharing video and things along those lines, we’re actually seeing an increase in attendance. And we’ve talked about this a lot recently, and I don’t think that that’s going to change once we get beyond this crisis. I think we’re going to find the churches that really leverage the online digital platforms are going to continue to see growing attendance compared to those churches that go back to the way things were and are just focusing on in-person services. Online really has become the new front door for churches, and it shouldn’t be a surprise because in every other area of our lives, we go online before we meet in-person. We go online before we make a purchase. We go online first before we enjoy a new experience. And so it’s just stands to reason that people would go online before they check out a church.

Amy (09:44): Yeah. I still remember what Kem said when we did our Easter podcast and webinar. Just that your website, you should now think about that as your facility, and that just helps you think differently about it. What do you think ,Tony, that churches should be thinking about next when it comes to online church services?

Tony (10:01): Yeah, so I think by now churches have figured out how to do services online. I think the next step is to ask the question now how do we connect with online guests? And, you and I actually, had an opportunity a few weeks ago. We were doing one of our virtual consulting engagements, which we do now. It’s the way we do The Unstuck Process now. And we were talking with a great church out in the Denver, Colorado area, and they redeployed one of their staff people just to focus on their first-time guest strategy for online services. And it was great because the guy was kinda talking about what that strategy looked like. And he said, we’re going to have a challenge when we go back to doing services in-person because we’re going to have to figure out how to use this strategy with people like live in our church building. So it’s the direct opposite challenge we normally see where churches are having to go from in-person systems and strategies to making those things work online. They’re going to have to do the reverse, but I love the fact that they’re taking the initiative and not just thinking about doing services online, but also helping people take their next steps toward Jesus as well.

Amy (11:22): Yeah. All right, well let’s shift our conversation to how churches are being impacted financially from the survey. What did we learn from our survey responses there?

Tony (11:31): Yeah, so here, unfortunately, the news is not as promising as the engagement numbers that we saw. So as an example, even going into the crisis, one of four churches indicated that they may not have had adequate cash reserves set aside in preparation for what they’re experiencing now. They either confirmed that their cash reserves were not adequate or they were unsure if they would be adequate. And, the challenge again was even more pronounced for the smaller churches. Close to 40% of small churches were not confident that they had cash set aside to sustain through this crisis. So that’s a challenge. The good news is almost all churches with more than 200 people in attendance were, even before the crisis, offering online or mobile giving options. On the other hand though, nearly 30% of small churches, again those churches less than 200 in attendance, they were not offering online or mobile giving. And Amy, I mean, especially those churches that did not have cash set aside going into this, those are the churches that I’m most concerned about. Are they going to be able to make it through this season? And then on top of that, the churches reported that giving has decreased. In the majority of the churches that completed the survey, in fact it was close to 60% of churches, indicated that giving has gone down since the start of the crisis. And, mega churches, again, those churches with more than 2000 in attendance, were actually more likely to report giving declines.

Amy (13:19): Well, were there any signs of hope out there? Any good news?

Tony (13:22): Well, a little bit. So surprisingly, or maybe not, 12% of the churches that completed the survey actually indicated their giving has gone up since the pandemic became a challenge that churches had to respond to. And more specifically, Amy, the stories that I’m hearing in one-on-one conversations with pastors, the churches that are seeing not only higher engagement but also higher giving, these are churches that are really being proactive about responding to needs in their community. And they’re really leading with generosity in this time. And as the result of that, because they’re looking for proactively ways to support people in their community and partnering with organizations that are working with people that are being impacted by the illness or the loss of jobs or whatever that looks like, those churches are actually seeing an increase in generosity in their congregation as well. And so there’s more money to support the ministry that needs to be happening during this season. The other interesting thought here though, is mega churches seem to be taking the lead when it comes to being proactive about staff furloughs or layoffs or reducing compensation. Overall one in 10 churches have already initiated some of those changes, but almost twice as many mega churches have started that process. And so I think that’s something we need to lean into a little bit in this time and maybe follow the lead of the mega churches.

Amy (15:10): Any thoughts, Tony, on why you think mega churches have been more proactive in making those staffing or compensation adjustments? I mean, should smaller churches pay attention to that?

Tony (15:19): I do. I think you need to be watching. I mean, the reality is mega churches have more resources to have specialists that can help us look at forecasting around finances. And as a result of that, they may be better equipped to look out beyond where we are today to how this is going to impact the church’s ministry in the weeks and months to come. And as a result of that, I think they’re making some proactive decisions today so that their ministry can sustain financially through this. And so, I really would encourage the smaller churches to take a hard look at where you are financially, not just today, but forecasting out what it’s going to look like in the coming weeks and months. Again today, I don’t know when you’re listening to this podcast, but the updates came out as far as unemployment filings across our country, and now over the last three weeks, over 17 million people have lost their jobs and have filed for unemployment. If that’s the case, there’s no question that in the coming weeks and months that’s going to impact giving in our churches as well. There’s no question about that. And with that in mind, I think it would be very wise for churches to be looking at where they are financially. Again, not just for where you are today, but where you need to be better positioned for the coming weeks and months.

Amy (16:51): Yeah, it’s good counsel. Well, finally we asked churches about some other areas of ministry that have been impacted by the crisis. What did we learn there?

Tony (16:59): Yeah, so again, this was all encouraging for me, Amy, because churches are not only thinking about how they get their services online, but these other key aspects of their ministry strategy as well. So as an example, four out of five churches have started offering online small groups during this crisis, and even two thirds of small churches have made that shift toward online groups. So that’s encouraging. Again, I’ve had conversations with church leaders, pastors within the last weeks, and I’m actually hearing from churches that they’re seeing an increase in participation in groups during this season. And that makes sense. I mean, we’re all facing these stay-at-home orders and isolation, and solitary confinement is not a good thing. And so, I think people are actually craving this and, and that’s very encouraging. We’re also seeing many churches are providing online resources or environments for children and their parents and that includes close to 70% of small churches. So again, that’s very promising. And then what we’re seeing in medium-sized churches and larger, they’re also then providing online resources and environments for students during this crisis. However, less than half of small churches are providing online options for students. And so that may be something that small churches need to pay attention to as well, and look for ways that they can be staying connected to and continuing to engage with the students that are a part of their churches.

Amy (18:42): I wonder if we’ll get our small groups back to gathering after this. Our group’s batting a thousand right now. We’re not missing our small group time. No one’s canceling. We’re just hopping on Zoom and having a great time.

Tony (18:54): Yeah, we took this week off because of the Easter holiday and spring break here in our community. Although, spring break feels a lot like the last week felt like. I don’t know. But up until this week, our small group had full engagement as well, Amy, so yeah, that’ll be interesting to see. How does this current season impact what groups look like going forward?

Amy (19:15): And maybe our next survey could include how are senior pastors officing while they’re all at home right now. I talked to one of our team members today, and he’s in his attic because he said I’ve got way too many extroverts in my house. I can’t think. Oh, it was great. All right. Any final thoughts, Tony, before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (19:36): Well, in addition to this content survey that I’ve shared, you’ve probably noticed that over the last month, we’ve been really conscious about providing content to help churches during this season, but that content, I mean I’ll admit it, it’s been pretty reactive. We’re just trying to help you really respond immediately to what this pandemic has led to for churches across the country, really across the world. And we felt that’s what church leaders needed most in the immediate response to what was happening with this crisis. And based on the survey though, it looks like the vast majority of churches have settled into a new way of doing church. And since that’s the case, you’re going to begin to see some shift in our content beginning this week. I really think churches need to start considering how this experience that we’re going through is going to change the way we do church for the long haul. In fact, my biggest concern is that churches will return too quickly to the way that we were doing church before this crisis took place. And if that happens, my fear is that some of the warning signs of decline and stuckness that we were seeing before the crisis took place will only be accelerated because of the long-term implications of how this is changing people and how this is changing our communities. And I just think churches have to be prepared for a new normal going forward. And because of that, our content is going to be challenging you, encouraging you to consider what your next steps need to look like as well. Now, if you want to be on the front end of that conversation for your church, please reach out to us at theunstuckgroup.com. We would love to help you map out a strategy for your church after this pandemic is behind us.

Sean (21:36): Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Don’t forget to download the coronavirus response report at go.theunstuckgroup.com/survey-results. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast, we’d love your help in getting the content out. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling your friends about the podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.

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