Ministry Insights from the Q1 2023 Unstuck Church Report
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Every quarter, The Unstuck Group compiles all the data we’ve collected to monitor trends in churches in the United States and around the world. For this quarter’s report, we only included churches that provided data during the four weeks between January 4 and February 1, 2023.
We received survey responses from 349 churches that ranged in size from under 100 to over 7,000 in physical attendance for worship gatherings. The average in-person attendance of churches that participated was 695 people. This provides a very current snapshot of ministries of all shapes and sizes.
2023 DATA & THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN GROWING & DECLINING CHURCHES
The good news is: Most churches are growing right now—and the data may offer some insights into why that’s the case (and why the other 20% aren’t). In this episode, Amy and I will unpack some of the key findings from the Q1 2023 report, including:
- Key distinctions between growing and declining churches
- New data on in-person and online attendance
- Benchmarks for next steps and ministry connections
- Updated giving and staffing trends
This report includes special financial and staffing insights from Christian Financial Resources, such as:
“When planning and budgeting for employee compensation, be sure to consider all the benefits your church is offering as a part of compensation packages, so you can know the full, true cost of staffing.”
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This Episode is Sponsored by Christian Financial Resources:
Is your church planning to build or expand your facility in the next 2-3 years? Take the first step now and start a conversation with Christian Financial Resources. As your church grows, CFR is equipped to support your vision and your ministry with financial services tailored to meet the needs of independent churches—including capital campaigns, stewardship services, and loans for construction, building purchase, or real estate acquisition.
When your church partners with Christian Financial Resources, you’ll receive sustainable financial services that will save you money every month, helping you put more dollars into ministry. Click here to learn more.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Every quarter, The Unstuck Group releases fresh data on churches, as well as some key learnings in The Unstuck Church Report. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy share their thoughts on what we’re learning from the data about attendance, discipleship, staffing and finances. If you’re new to The Unstuck Church Podcast, we want to invite you to head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re going to get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including the Leader Conversation Guide, bonus resources and access to our podcast resource archive. That’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now, before this week’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.
Is your church planning to build or expand your facility in the next two to three years? Take the first step now, and start a conversation with Christian Financial Resources. As your church grows, Christian Financial Resources is equipped to support your vision and your ministry with financial services tailored to meet the needs of independent churches, including capital campaigns, stewardship services, and loans for construction, building purchase, or real estate acquisition. When your church partners with Christian Financial Resources, you’ll receive sustainable financial services that will save you money every month, helping you put more dollars into ministry. Visit cfrministry.org to get started.
Well, Tony, it’s hot off the presses. Today, we’re going to talk about the freshly released edition of The Unstuck Church Report. And, Tony, when we focus on the data in these quarterly reports, I see that glimmer in your eyes. You’re really looking forward to today’s conversation.
Do you see it today?
I do. I do.
All right. Yeah, you know, I, I get excited about this, Amy, and there’s a reason to be excited. I mean, it’s obvious that the content in this report is helping people because we now have over 10,000 subscribers to the, to the quarterly report. And if you’re not subscribed yet, you can do that at theunstuckgroup.com/trends. But we have taken the time; actually, we did this this past summer. We kind of refreshed the survey process, and because we wanted to, we wanted the survey to be more accessible to more churches.
And it’s working because for this quarter, we had 349 churches that participated in the survey, and it was really just in a short amount of time. We captured this data over four weeks in January, and so because the data’s so fresh, it really does give us a clear, fresh snapshot of current trends in the church. And with that, in this quarter’s report, we’re kind of featuring a look, and we’ve done in this, this in the past, but it’s, it’s been a long time since we’ve kind of dissected the information in this way. We’re kind of taking a specific look at the differences between growing churches and churches that are plateaued or in decline. And we’ll probably hit some of that in today’s conversation, as well. But if you are subscribed to The Unstuck Church Report, you’ll receive a reminder every quarter to refresh your data. And, of course, the more churches that continue to participate, the more detailed that we can get in the analysis going forward. And if you want more data about churches similar to yours, you need to participate and you need to encourage your friends at similar churches to do that, as well. But as a result of the information we collected in January, I think it’s going to not only be helpful for you to take a look at the report itself, but because of that, today’s conversation should be a lot of fun, as well, Amy.
Yeah. Tony, you mentioned differences between growing and declining churches. Why don’t we begin there in today’s conversation? Having read the report, it seems like the good news is, is that most churches are growing. Do you agree?
Yeah. That, that really is probably the headline in the data this time around. In fact, average weekly attendance, if you’re just looking at year-over-year growth, attendance is up 22%. And that’s, that’s great news. And by the way, we’re looking, we’re talking here about total attendance. So that’s everybody that shows up for a service on Sunday morning: adults, students, kids. And four out of five churches reported that they’re experiencing an attendance increase in the last 12 months. Now, some of that is to be expected, of course, because many churches were still recovering from the pandemic shutdowns back in early 2022. In fact, I know I don’t like to go back in time and kind of remember the specifics of this, but the beginning of 2022, end of 2021, we were dealing with the Omicron variant. Do you remember Omicron, Amy?
Oh, I do. I do.
Yeah. Wasn’t that fun?
I mean, bottom line, it’s a good thing that attendance is up that much, but my suspicion is, it’s a little bit of an exaggeration because we’re probably comparing attendance numbers this January to last January when COVID was still very much impacting a number of churches. But if four out of five churches are experiencing attendance growth, that also means that one out of five churches is plateaued or they’re in decline. And again, I want to unpack some of those differences in today’s conversations,
And this is probably, I don’t want to assume it, but we’re talking about in-person attendance?
I’m still working with churches that are sometimes adding their online and their in-person together. Our data is based off of truly in-person attendance.
That’s right. And we’ll talk a little bit more about online, too, as we go today.
Oh, great. Well, Tony, when you compare both the growing and declining churches, it sounds like there’s some clear distinctions that emerge from this report.
That’s right, Amy. Let me give you some examples. So, we found that growing churches are more likely to offer only one style of worship, and it’s a contemporary or modern worship experience. And growing churches are not offering as often traditional worship. Growing churches have a higher percentage of people engaging in online services. So, again, we’ll get back to that in a moment.
Declining churches, on the other hand, have far fewer first-time connections to the church, which indicates that they’ve probably become insider-focused over time. Declining churches have fewer people making decisions to follow Jesus or get baptized. And it’s not just a numbers thing. We’re kind of comparing the percentages of people crossing the line of faith compared to attendance and the trends that we’re seeing in attendance. So, declining churches just aren’t seeing as much life change that’s happening in, in people’s lives. Growing churches are more likely to have small groups, and they have more people connected in those smaller groups. And declining churches, on the other hand, are more likely to have Sunday school. Growing churches spend less on paid staff to have more volunteer engagement.
And so there’s definitely a correlation that we see there: less investment in staff and, I think, it’s kind of forcing the team to, “How do we empower more volunteers to carry out the ministry?” Growing churches, another example, have 30% more volunteer leaders than declining churches. So, it’s not just that there’s more volunteer engagement, they also have more volunteers in leadership responsibilities.
And last one, we cover several more in the report, but declining churches are also more likely to be connected to a denomination. And as I mentioned in this quarter’s report, this is, this is not a big church versus small church conversation. In fact, there are many churches with less than a couple hundred people in attendance that are experiencing significant growth right now in this season. And, on the other hand, there are several very large churches, we’d actually classify them as megachurches, and those larger churches are in decline. So this is not a comparison of size; it’s more of a comparison of trends over time.
Secondly, these distinctions, they really only highlight, highlight the correlations, the data offers between growing and declining churches. I’m not trying to suggest that any of these attributes cause growth or decline. As an example, I’m not trying to make the case that churches are declining because they’re connected to a denomination. Though generally speaking, Amy, I think it’s fairly obvious that denominations need a new strategy for encouraging health and growth in their local churches. But that’s not, I’m not suggesting that any of these attributes cause growth or decline, but there’s certainly a correlation. And finally, it might be tempting to look at these differences and want to immediately jump to changes in our ministry strategy to better reflect what growing churches are experiencing. And I strongly discourage you from doing that. Because when we’ve seen other churches do that in the past, when they start making changes to the way they do church, they run, they run into challenges. And so we just have to remember when we need to be focused on why we do church first and unite around that, agree about that, and then, we can start to make changes to the way we do church.
Well, since we’re on the topic of attendance growth, why don’t we talk more about how churches are reaching new people? What did you learn as you reviewed where churches stand at this point?
Yeah, so it’s pretty fascinating. As I mentioned, average weekly attendance across all the surveyed churches has increased more than 20%. But some of the fascinating, when you dig into the, the, the data a little bit further, you find that churches over a thousand, so the largest of the churches, are growing faster than the smaller churches. But all churches are experiencing attendance increases across, across the spectrum. But, this is fascinating: churches of a thousand or more people in attendance year-over-year, they are experiencing a 35% increase in attendance.
New Speaker (11:01):
And so, that’s, I mean, that’s phenomenal. That’s very encouraging. Again, maybe not as surprising because I, this is during COVID was one of those instances where smaller churches may have actually had been at some advantage, compared to larger churches, because large gatherings, obviously, especially early on in COVID, that was a, that was a barrier to connecting people into worship services. But as we, as you know, we’ve kind of worked through that process on the other side of the pandemic now at this point, you can see large churches are recovering very rapidly. And then getting even more specifically, look at kids’ attendance, comparing year-over-year attendance in kids’ ministry; there was an increase of 25% there. Students, overall, a 31% increase. And so both of these factors are very encouraging because what it shows is both kids and students attendance is growing faster than adult attendance, which means, especially for these larger churches, they’re reaching younger families. And that’s always been an indicator of health in churches through the years. But here’s one of the surprises for me, and I don’t know why this struck me, especially as we were looking through the data this time around, but nearly 60% of churches that average a thousand people or more in attendance are now multisite. And so, large churches are recognizing, this is a key to continuing to carry out the mission in their community, in their region. And they’re really leaning into multisite strategy now to accomplish their mission. So, very encouraging to see all this information, Amy. But again, I’m not completely surprised because this, this, the beginning of 2023 really does feel like the first time that we’re kind of back to normal, if you will. But very encouraging to look at some of this data.
Yeah. I think it’s important that you shared we’re comparing this data to when we were still in another wave of the pandemic.
So, good news, but cautiously good news.
Well, given the increase in attendance at physical service gatherings, people may be interested in hearing what online engagement looks like at this point. So I think you mentioned you’ve got some data on that, as well?
Yeah, so couple things here, Amy. First, engagement with online services, and this is not a surprise when you, especially when you compare it to kind of the heart of the COVID pandemic, engagement with online services continues to decline year-over-year. And the average number of online service views, and here again, we’re just trying to create apples-to-apples comparison across all, all churches. So we ask, “What are the average number of online service views of one minute or more per week that you’re seeing?” And when we compare that data across all churches, the averages, there’s been a decline of, of more than 10% year-over-year in online views. And that stands to reason obviously because more people are coming back to physical gatherings.
But my concern in that, Amy, too, is we have seen for a long time that online is really the new front door for the church. And so, it’s not going to be a good thing if those online views continue to decrease over time because usually that’s one of the very first steps that people are taking to connect and engage with our churches. And it’s ultimately what leads to people moving from watching online to showing up for a physical gathering at our churches on Sunday mornings. So the question is, “Are more people coming back to physical gatherings and that’s why the online service views are going down? Or are fewer newer people checking out the services online, and is that why the service views are going down?”
We, either way, I think this is something we need to continue to pay attention to. But here’s what’s fascinating, and I don’t want you to miss this. Churches that are experiencing attendance growth at their physical service gatherings have more people watching services online compared to plateaued and declining churches. And so at this point in our post-pandemic world, the data seems to suggest that online engagement with services does not compete with attendance in the building. Rather, it seems to confirm that online really is the new front door of the church. And so I think we need to just continue to push the, the opportunity that we have with our online services and other strategies around digital engagement to really encourage people to begin to check out the claims of Christ, obviously, but also, check out the opportunities of connecting with our ministries.
Well, that’s interesting. Hey, we’ve included a lot more benchmarks related to ministry reach in the new report. So, let’s shift gears. Let’s turn our attention to ministry connection. What did you learn, Tony, about the next steps that people are taking beyond the weekend service?
Okay. So I, again, I did mention some of the differences between growing and declining churches earlier, but let me get to some of the specifics regarding ministry connections. Here’s what we’re seeing. 51% of adults and students are connected to some form of a smaller group. So, this is a step after the Sunday services and moving from large gatherings into smaller group gatherings. That 51% is down from 55% a year ago. Related to this, 54% of churches now are only offering small groups rather than offering an option for Sunday school or some other type of midweek group gathering. And so I, more and more churches are just really going all in on small group offerings.
And especially the churches that are growing in this season. So that’s something to take note of. Related to serving, churches are reporting that only 36% of their adults and students are serving at least once per month. That’s down from 38% a year ago. And, Amy, you know, looking at these reports through the years, 36% is the lowest I’ve ever seen it as far as volunteer engagement is concerned.
And really it’s well below the 45 to 50% that we typically saw before the pandemic. So, if, if there’s one thing that really stands out to me as an opportunity for churches in this season, we have to start to address volunteer engagement. I mean, that, that’s just a critical piece of what, what needs to happen for us to make sure that we remain healthy in our mission as we try, as we try to reach people and connect people to faith. And as I mentioned in the report, this is one of the clearest ways I know to help a church get unstuck. You have to mobilize more people into serving. And I know this because the data confirms it. Healthy growing churches have 15% more people volunteering than declining churches. And, more importantly, growing churches have 30% more volunteer leaders. Or another way to say this is, it’s like this. You can’t staff your way to church health. You have to figure out a way to mobilize volunteers into serving teams and to engage lay leaders in volunteer leadership roles, as well.
Yeah. Tony, we were talking earlier today about an exercise we used to do when we would lead churches through strategic planning, we would have them kind of tell their stories and what are the big catalysts that helped them grow spiritually?
And serving and volunteering was such a, it was every time that that’s a big catalyst. And so, we have to, we have to get these numbers up.
Yeah. And, Amy, and we’ve talked about this a number of times, not only is it essential to spiritual formation for people in our church, volunteering and serving, but I mean, all the other indicators go up, too.
New Speaker (19:40):
When more people start serving, I mean, more invites, more regular attendance, giving goes up. I mean, there are a lot of other factors that really add to the health of the church that increase when we get volunteer engagement to go up.
Yeah. They become owners of the mission.
That’s absolutely right.
All right. Well, Tony, let’s wrap up today’s conversation by talking about ministry staffing and finances. And again, there’s way too much data in the full report to go through everything in today’s conversation, but maybe you could share just some of the items that stood out to you.
Yeah, so let’s start with finances. Churches reported that giving was up just over 5% year-over-year, which is good news, but also remember that’s about where inflation is right now. So, I think we’re hold, we’re holding even as far as giving is concerned. And by the way, too, this, this includes giving that was reported for all of 2022 essentially. So, what I’m hearing more commonly in recent weeks is churches are, and again, I think this is a factor of inflation and some of the other economic factors around us right now, but what I’m hearing more in the kind of the anecdotal conversations is churches are beginning to notice some plateau as far as their giving patterns are concerned. And then, the other thing related to this, though, is churches still are, generally it seems, in an, in a healthy position when it comes to where they are financially in that their cash reserves seem to be healthy and the debt load that churches generally have seems to be very manageable. So, all that’s good news. I mentioned this in the report. It’s, it’s another interesting difference between growing and declining churches. Growing churches, on average, have more debt than declining churches do. And I don’t know, we might expect that to be in reverse, but in fact, declining churches are also more likely to be debt-free. And so, again, Amy, this is not a cause and effect thing. I’m not advocating for churches to take on debt unnecessarily. However, I think it’s clear when you see this that having a vision to be debt-free isn’t enough when it comes to our bigger mission of reaching more people for Jesus. And so don’t let being debt-free or reducing debt become your primary focus. It’s just, it’s, it contributes, it will hopefully contribute to us just being able to invest more resources into our bigger mission of reaching more people for Jesus.
And since we’re on the topic of church finances, here’s a quick tip from our friends at Christian Financial Resources.
Greetings. I’m Darren Key, CEO of Christian Financial Resources, with some insights I hope will serve your ministry. Did you realize that your church could be missing out on tens of thousands of dollars in untapped giving potential? Some churches have analyzed their giving and found that if more families were generously giving or tithing, giving would increase two or threefold, sometimes more. I recommend three strategies, which will help your church unlock additional resources. The first is to create on-ramps to giving through generosity initiatives and capital campaigns for first-time givers. A significant percentage of your attendees probably give little or nothing. It’s your job as the church leader to cast the vision, and we’re here to help. Next, at CFR, we help individuals establish giving funds for donors who can give $10,000 or more per year. This creates tax advantages and allows families to give even more. We teach that friends don’t let friends give cash unless that’s all they have. Many of your members probably make the mistake of giving from their checking account when they need to be giving appreciated assets like stock so they never have to pay capital gains tax. Last, encourage legacy gifts from wills and trusts. Too many churches overlook this important stewardship step, but at the ministry of CFR, we have seen tens of millions of dollars in expectancies added to estate plans through our legacy seminars. By planting those seeds today, one day your ministry will reap a bountiful harvest of funds for kingdom impact. I’ll leave you with one last special benefit for churches. Your church can create its own giving fund with Christian Financial Resources to manage its missions giving. This will simplify your church’s accounting, and while your funds are waiting to be deployed, they will help finance church growth across the country, all while earning your church more interest. To learn more about the ministry of Christian Financial Resources, visit cfrministry.org. God bless.
What are we seeing specifically in staffing, Tony, as a part of this report?
Yeah, so, here when we look at actual staffing numbers at churches, and the way again that we try to keep this apples-to-apples, Amy, is we look at the number of full-time people on staff, and then, we take all the part-time hours and create a full-time equivalent. And as we look at that information, what we’re seeing is that there’s one full-time equivalent staff person for every 47 people in attendance in church. So, that, again, indicates overstaffing in churches because we’re really trying to encourage churches to be closer to one full-time equivalent staff person for every 75 people in attendance.
And again, we just, when you look at some of the factors, differences between growing churches and declining churches, declining churches are spending 17% more on staffing than growing churches. So, again, this is not cause and effect. So, don’t just go cut your staffing budget hoping you will grow your church. There are a number of factors coming into play here. There’s certainly, though, a strong correlation between health, growth in churches and the leader staffing models that they’re using in order to be able to lead healthy ministry. And we’ve talked about this before, Amy. When you lean into kind of a streamlined staffing model, I think it challenges us to hire higher capacity leaders to compensate them appropriately, and then to mobilize, and we talked about it earlier, to mobilize lay leaders, to mobilize people into serving opportunities. That the combination of all of those things is, I think, the reason why we see declining churches spending more money on staffing than the growing churches do. Does that surprise you, though, Amy?
No, that’s what I was just going to say. I’ve, I’ve worked with, boy, dozens of churches the last year on their staffing and structure. And so those numbers don’t surprise me because I get a frontline view to it all the time. But you can’t underestimate, first of all what you just said: these multiplying, equipping leaders. People, a, a lot of churches still have people on their teams who are hired to do ministry instead of equip and lead it. And so that’s, that’s a big thing we talk about when I’m on site. But the second piece of it is sometimes they’re just structured in a way that causes inefficiency. They’ve got so much duplication of effort and multiple owners of critical strategies, and it just, all that energy gets dispersed. And then of course, people are, volunteering people’s time has become the commodity the last five years. So, to actually engage people, it’s work. But that’s where we have to have our ministry leaders spending their time, especially when it comes to spiritual formation and family ministries. So, not a surprise at all, but I just hope it, I hope it’s a disruption for people to see that, and that every church, man, you should do your math and see where your full-time equivalent is. How many attenders do you have for every full-time staff member? And at least, you know, take a step back and do some analysis there.
That’s right. Well, again, the full report has a lot of information, a lot of benchmarks for you to confirm where your ministry is healthy and maybe where there are some opportunities for next steps. But the key thing in this quarter’s report is this kind of focused look at the differences between growing and declining churches.
And, Amy, I think all of these just kind of remind us that there are, of course, many different ways to engage ministry strategy to accomplish the mission that God’s given our churches. But there are certainly some strategies that seem to be more effective, especially in this season, and I’ve likened this in the past to, you know, there really are many different ways to parent our kids, but not all of those parenting strategies end up producing healthy young adults on the other side of it.
And likewise, what the data is indicating is there are many different ways to engage our ministry strategy as churches, but not all of those strategies are producing the same predictable outcomes related to health and thriving churches. So, you know, it really is an opportunity looking at the data in this report, maybe to take a clear picture of where your church is. And again, you should celebrate those areas where you are experiencing health right now. Attendance growth may be one of those, but at the same time, I hope this quarter’s report helps to maybe shine a light on the opportunity in your church right now to take a next step forward. That might be around volunteer engagement, or it could be around a number of the other factors that we look at in the report. But I do, I hope this causes you just to kind of reflect on where are you today and what are those strategic next steps that you needed to take going forward.
Hmm. It’s really good. All right, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Well, Amy, we didn’t have time in today’s conversation to talk about some other key differences we’re seeing between growing and declining churches. But if you want to see the data and learn more about what other churches are experiencing, you can go to theunstuckgroup.com/trends to access the current report and to subscribe to future releases.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. In everything we do, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. If there’s any way we can serve you in your church, reach out to us today at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.
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