Unpacking the Q2 2022 edition of the Unstuck Church Report
Every quarter, my team compiles all the data collected using our Vital Signs Assessment tool into a comprehensive Unstuck Church Report that monitors trends in churches in the United States and around the world. (Churches that engage the Unstuck consulting process and subscribers to the Unstuck Learning Hub get free access to the assessment tool).
Over the last 12 months, over 100 churches completed the assessment to help us get an updated picture of where there is health and where churches are getting stuck in the areas of attendance, reach, finances, staffing, and more. For reference:
- The average in-person attendance of churches that participated was 498 people.
- These churches saw over 565 views every week through their online services or messages.
- Churches who participated ranged in size from under 100 to over 4,500 people.
UNPACKING BENCHMARKS & BEST PRACTICES
As I analyzed the data for this quarter’s report, some churches stood out to me specifically for their healthy growth results in key areas over the last 12 months, so I reached out to them to get their insights and best practices. In this episode, Amy and I will dive into some of those pastor’s insights, notable data trends from the report, and:
- The decline of in-person AND online attendance
- Why a growing children’s ministry matters
- The importance of narrowing your mission field
- Strategies for increasing volunteer engagement
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We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. How do you gauge the health of your church? When we’re assessing the overall health of our ministries, it’s helpful to have a benchmark and some external data to compare our metrics to. That’s why quarterly we release The Unstuck Church Report with the most up to date trends from the data we’re collecting from churches. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy will share the research from Q2 of 2022. Make sure before you listen though, to subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get tools to go along with each week’s conversation, all of the resources we mention and access to our podcast resource archive. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, Tony, I love these episodes that we do every few months on the fresh data from our Unstuck Church Report. So you’re looking forward to today’s conversation?
Yeah, I am. I mean, this is our opportunity to share some fresh trends that we’re seeing in churches, but also we get to highlight in this conversation today, some best practices that we’ve identified in the data, and I’m looking forward to it, because we can brag on a few churches too today, which I think we need to do that. I think we’re in a season where we need to hear more good stories of what’s happening in ministries. So, by the way, Amy, we now have nearly 9,000 church leaders that are subscribed to our free content through The Unstuck Church Report. It comes out quarterly, and you know, way back when, I just thought, if someone has a question about current trends and churches, I want us to be the first place that ministry leaders turn to for those fresh insights. And it feels like we’re winning with that objective. So that’s very encouraging.
And it’s so helpful to have comparative information.
I think it is. And needless to say, it’s been a team effort too. I mean there’s a lot of people involved in pulling that off. And in fact, speaking of a team, in this quarter’s report, we’re also including some contributions from our friends at MortarStone and at Leadr. And so, you’ll wanna download again the full report so that you can see some of the wisdom that they share too in this quarter’s report. And if you haven’t subscribed, you can do that at theunstuckgroup.com/trends.
Well, Tony, before we dive into specific trends and share the stories of those best practices, which by the way, I can’t wait for, because I’ve been on-site the last eight weeks with churches. And it is fun to start seeing some of the positive directions that these churches are heading. But before we dive into those best practices, can you give us a quick overview, again, of how we compiled this data?
Yeah. So first of all, it just begins with this principle that monitoring the right data helps us make better ministry decisions. And so what we’ve done is tried to create some apples to apples comparisons with ministries, primarily in North America. But there are several churches that are participating from other spots around the world, too. All the churches that are engaging in the Unstuck Group, they take our Vital Signs Assessment. And so the data for this quarter’s report includes all the churches that have participated between May of 2021 in April of 2022. So 12 months, this included 119 churches altogether. Some of them very small churches, less than a hundred people, others, very large churches. For example, I think that we had a church that has 4,500 people currently in in-person attendance that participated in the survey. So some large churches participating as well. And because we’ve limited the data to those churches that completed the assessment over these last 12 months, this quarter’s report again, it is comparing year to year trends after the pandemic started. And I think that’s important. In other words, these current trends that we’re going to highlight, they don’t include any data from pre-pandemic days.
Well, The Unstuck Church Report includes benchmarks and trends in four different categories. One is ministry reach. The second is ministry connection, third is ministry staffing and leadership, and fourth is ministry finances. So let’s start our conversation today with ministry reach. Tony, what are some of the key data trends that stood out to you in this area of ministry reach?
Well, let’s, start with attendance, in person attendance. And here, when we looked at year over year data, the average in person attendance dropped by 28% over the previous 12 months. And again, just to highlight, this is post pandemic. So this is a decline that is still happening year over year in the middle of the pandemic, not comparing to pre-COVID days. And by the way, that is a tick better than we saw in the previous quarter’s report. But that decline in attendance is no longer being offset by an increase in online service views. And the reason I say that is the current report is showing the average number of weekly online service views has actually gone down more than 15% year over year. And so this is the first time we’ve seen both in person attendance going down and it’s the first time we’ve seen online engagement go down as well. And it kind of makes sense that online views are going down because, for some of these churches, they’re comparing online engagement to the early days of COVID, when everyone was forced to be online. And the other thing is we assumed that people who were watching online would eventually come back to in person services. In other words, online views would go down, but in person attendance would start to go up. And unfortunately here we are more than two years since the original COVID lockdowns, and that turnaround in in-person attendance still isn’t happening. In fact, now both in-person attendance and online engagement are now declining in the average churches that we’re looking at.
Well, that kind of brings me down. Any signs of hope in the data there, Tony?
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the good news is, I mean, when you dig into the actual numbers and start to look at the specific churches, we’re starting to see several churches that are experiencing growth. Again, in fact, two of the five churches, two out of five churches that we looked at for this quarter’s report are now seeing year over year attendance growth. So that’s a good sign. One good example of this: Quest Church near Augusta, Georgia. I was actually just onsite working with the team at Quest. John Kenney is their senior pastor, and their attendance has increased 50% in the last 12 months. And by the way, they’ve more than doubled, too, the number of new people that they’re tracking in their database. So, here, they actually have a name and they have contact information for the people that they’re tracking in their database. And, you know, hard to say if that’s the only factor, I doubt it, but by having more intentionality about engaging new people, they are also seeing increases in Sunday morning in person attendance too. So related to this, I asked John, the senior pastor, if he sensed there was a correlation between the church’s intentionality about connecting with new people and the attendance growth that they’ve experienced in the last year. And John said that they know that in order to grow, Quest Church must have more guests in a year than their average attendance for that same year. So he’s been listening to our content, Amy.
I was thinking the same thing.
And he shared that coming out of COVID, the ministry team at Quest has intentionally put some strategies in place to ensure increased attendance. And those strategies included, they positioned their online presence as a front door into the church. And they’re inviting current attendees to invite their friends and their family members to in person services. I also asked John what they were learning about how to engage with new people who were previously not connected to their church. And he explained that they’re learning to connect to people’s hunger for purpose and meaning with the power of a personal invitation. And I thought that’s critical. He said that following COVID, so many people seem, they just seem hungry for more in life. They’re looking for purpose. They’re looking for meaning in life. And because of that, the Quest ministry team has seen attendees inviting their friends, family, and neighbors at rates they just didn’t even see before COVID, and they do use digital and other marketing strategies as well. But that personal invite is now their number one way that people are connecting to their church.
And I haven’t meant John, but to see success in that personal invitation, to see the rise in that, I have to believe that they have a reliably excellent weekend experience for both unchurched and church people that it brings, you know, it answers those questions around purpose and meaning, and he’s built trust with this congregation that they can invite anytime.
That’s exactly right, Amy.
Yeah. Well, I love hearing stories like that. While we’re on the topic of ministry reach, Tony, will you talk a little bit about what the data says related to reaching the next generation?
Yeah. I mean, honestly, this information, it’s not very promising. So when I share the data in a moment, you’re going to say that sounds like both good news and bad news, and I’ll explain why even the good news may not actually be good news. So, and that’s what us realists do, Amy. Here’s what the data is showing us. Children’s ministry attendance is down 27% for this year compared to last year. And of course that’s on par with the overall decline in in person attendance. And I think it proves, once again, that adults drive their kids to church. Kids, aren’t driving their parents to church.
There is a correlation there.
Yeah, but unfortunately children’s ministry attendance is down to 16% of the overall attendance on average, and that’s the lowest I’ve ever seen. And it’s been trending lower through the years, churches, I think, are reaching fewer families with young kids. And young adults are generally waiting longer to have kids. And so I think there’s just a lot of compounding different factors that’s driving that trend lower, Amy.
Yeah, I was just talking with a church about this. Like what is a healthy percentage of kids to attendance? And, you know, probably 22 to 25% is what we would say reflects a really healthy. Right before COVID, I think we were averaging about 18%. Yeah. So it was already a little bit declining, but yeah.
That’s right. And the good news, which may or may not be really good news, is student attendance has only dropped by 6% from the same time last year. And again, that’s compared to that overall 28% drop in overall attendance. So, you know, maybe there are more students that have been inclined to return to in person gatherings. I think I’ve heard you allude to that as being kind of the hormone effect in teenagers. Is that right?
Yeah. I thought maybe initially that’s why students was rebounding more quickly than children’s coming out of COVID.
Yeah. That could be. That may be at play. And maybe churches are just doing a better job at reaching new students than they are new adults, but here’s why that good news may or may not really be good news. From our previous research, growing churches have growing children’s ministries and declining churches have growing student ministries. Yep. You heard that right. You want me to repeat that?
Right. Right. Well, and I think it’s interesting because that’s exactly what the data showed us over the years. Now, growing churches also have growing children’s ministry and growing student ministries, but when they stand alone, it really reflected the healthy and unhealthy churches.
That’s right. Yeah. And as I’ve explained, the churches that want to be healthy, we don’t want our students to go to hell. So you should still have healthy, thriving student ministry. But I think what the real distinguishing factor here, Amy is growing healthy, thriving churches, it’s the kids’ ministry, it’s those youngest kids, and therefore the young parents, the young adults, that seems to be a key differentiator between growing churches and declining churches.
Yeah. Kids’ ministry is definitely the area to keep your eye on. Do you find any churches, back to these best practices, that are bucking this trend in the data?
Yeah. One of the churches that stood out to me was Victory Hill Church in Scottsville, Kentucky. Chad Hunt is the senior pastor of Victory Hill Church, and actually Amy and I know Chad because he also happens to serve as a ministry consultant on our team, works with a lot of the small churches that we engage with across the country. And at Victory Hill Church, this is phenomenal. Attendance has increased by more than 40% in the last year. And Chad indicated they had 1300 people for Easter, which was a new attendance record for them even going back to pre-COVID days. They had never seen that many people before. They also broke a kids attendance record the two weeks leading up to Easter and then again on Easter Sunday. So lot of momentum around kids, and every Sunday, they have one child for every three adults who attend the church. I mean, that’s well above that’s 16% average I mentioned in this quarter’s report. So either Victory Hill is doing something right, or there’s something in the water of Scottsville, Kentucky. I don’t know what’s happening there, but I asked Chad what the church is doing to reach so many young families with kids. And he said there are two primary reasons that they’re experiencing growth. First, the ministry team decided to stop everything that did not speak to or appeal to the person that they’re focused on reaching in their mission field. And that person, it’s a young adult, is somebody 25 to 35 years old. They have kids. They’re not familiar with faith or with the church, but they’re spiritually curious and they’re looking for purpose in life and they’re looking for a cause for their life as well. In other words, they started pruning ministries that weren’t helping them accomplish their mission as a church. And Chad said, they’re constantly asking themselves this question: Does this make sense to the person we’re trying to reach in our mission field? And that’s become kind of the new driver for how they design their weekend experiences, their language, their marketing, their social media, and the follow up question may be just as important. The ministry team at Victory Hill Church is always asking what’s in it for the person that we’re trying to reach? Secondly, Chad said, Victory Hill Church has become super intentional about creating an invite culture. So their invite strategy is more than just asking the adults to invite their friends. They’re also resourcing their kids to bring their friends, which I love that intentionality.
I love that.
So the best part is both adults and kids are bringing their friends to church. And they’re seeing many of these people beginning to follow Jesus too, which is so much fun. And as I mentioned, Victory Hill Church just had their highest attendance ever. And not many churches can make that claim on this side of the pandemic. So I asked Chad whether or not he thinks this focus on reaching young families is a factor in the attendance growth that the church has experienced. And he agrees that focusing on reaching young families has moved the needle significantly when it comes to this jump in attendance that they’re experiencing. And this isn’t a new strategy though, for helping people follow Jesus and growing the church. I mean, Chad mentioned this quote from Charles Spurgeon, who said, I mean, Charles, he’s pretty old now. Did you know?
Pretty smart too.
Yeah, but this is Spurgeon’s quote. “The church needs young blood in its veins. Our strength for holding the faith may lie in experienced saints, but our zeal for propagating it, it must be found in the young.” I love that quote. That’s fantastic. We need to become, in other words, we need to become a multi-generational church that’s focused on reaching the next generation of young adults, our kids and our grandkids.
You know, Tony, a lot of people say these words, but what I love about that example and cause I know Chad, he’s been doing this. They’ve been pruning things that are outside who they’re trying to reach. And we tell churches all the time, you reach more people when you’re focused on who you’re trying to reach, but I wish more pastors would take action like that to really gain that focus on reaching the young families and make decisions about how they fund ministry, what ministry they do. I think more churches would see success if they did that.
That’s so true.
Well let’s shift from ministry reach to ministry connection. This part of the Unstuck Church Report tries to measure some of the next steps of spiritual formation that people are taking at churches. So, Tony, what trends jumped out at you here?
Yeah. So a couple things here. First of all, churches are seeing 82% of their adults and students participating in a group. And by the way, we look at groups as kind of a regular, preferably monthly, connection with a smaller group of folks than you have gathering for weekend services, as an example. And a lot of churches, these are home groups, some churches, these may be Bible studies or classes that you’re hosting on the church’s campus, but the idea is to help people move from big gatherings into smaller group engagement, where we get to know each other and encourage each other a little bit further to take next steps towards Jesus. Overall group engagement has increased 6% in the last 12 months. So that’s another encouraging sign there as well. Volunteer engagement is returning to pre-pandemic levels, and this is good news for all of us. Churches reported they’re now seeing 47% of all adults and students serving at least monthly on a volunteer team, either inside the walls of the church or out in the community. And that’s up from 35% the year before. So again, many, many, many churches were seeing volunteer engagement go down, but fortunately we’re starting to see that pick back up again. And here a great example is MCI Canada. This ministry, this church, is in Montreal, Quebec, and their volunteer engagement increased almost threefold in the last 12 months, which is just amazing. Just about every student and adult is serving someplace in the church. What a great thing to see everybody using the gifts that God gave them to actually fulfill the mission of the church.
That’s a great idea.
It’s actually like we’re doing what the body of Christ was designed to do. And a year ago the church was only meeting online, but now 850 people are attending Sunday services, which in Canada, too, I mean, for those of us in the US, we may not be aware of it church, but Canadian churches have had to deal with so many more restrictions than US churches have had to deal with. So that’s phenomenal. And then on top of that, they had 1800 people for their Easter services recently. So here’s what’s just amazing to me. Even though they’re averaging currently 850 people in services last month, they had over 600 active volunteers, again, both adults and students. And I asked Benjamin, their senior pastor, how have they developed such a strong serving culture at MCI? And he shared that they strongly believe that every believer is called to minister. Again, this shouldn’t be a shock to us, but it’s so foreign to hear that from a church, Amy. And because of that, everyone at some capacity has the opportunity to contribute for the church to fulfill its mission. So they’ve created this culture by entrusting high capacity leadership to volunteers, and then adjusting their expectations so that a person who has a family and works full time, they’re still able to accomplish the responsibility and have margin in their lives. So it’s not like people are busy. There’s no doubt about it. They’re not trying to add to the busyness in that person’s life by having them engage and volunteering in the church. And with that, MCI Canada also seeks to intentionally create space to celebrate people and accomplishments with their teams of volunteers. I mean, they realize that the more they take the time to honor and celebrate people, the more engaged and enthusiastic they are to contribute because they feel valued and they feel appreciated. I also asked Benjamin about their very lean staffing model. I mean, for a large church, they have relatively few paid staff positions. And I was curious to know whether that commitment to lean staffing helps to encourage stronger volunteer engagement, and Pastor Benjamin, he agreed 100% with that assessment. He said that they’re very intentional and patient when it comes to hiring. They’re very careful to hire the right person at the right place and at the right time. And because the team at The Unstuck Group has worked with MCI Canada, we did this about a year ago, right in the middle of COVID, Benjamin indicated that the Unstuck process has really helped them to gain more clarity around their staffing priorities because they have more clarity around their ministry priorities. And he explained because of that, they’re slow to hire, and they don’t want hiring to discourage volunteer engagement. Benjamin said they’ve seen many times when hiring someone the church kind of perceives it as a replacement of the volunteers that are needed. So with that in mind, they try to clearly communicate when someone’s hired that it’s a leadership position. I mean, most of the time it’s a leader of leaders, and they’re there to serve the team. They’re not there to actually engage the ministry.
That’s so fun to hear an update on how they’re doing. They worked really hard throughout the whole process. So great news. Any final thoughts, Tony, before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah. Again, I hope you find, first of all, the stories that we talked about today to be inspiring, to be encouraging. We’ve included several more stories from different churches in this quarter’s report. And so you might just want to read the report to find out if your church is mentioned in there, just as an example. In case you want to access all the benchmarks, all the trends and see more of these stories of best practice churches, you can subscribe for free at theunstuckgroup.com/trends. And again, I just want to thank MortarStone and Leadr for helping to contribute to this quarter’s report.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. You know, churches often reach out to us at The Unstuck Group when their church is declining in health and hasn’t returned to maybe pre-pandemic engagement patterns or they sense they have the wrong people in the wrong roles on their team. If that’s true for your church, we’re here to help. Start a conversation with us by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com/start. If this podcast has been helpful to you in some way, we’d love your help in getting the content out farther. And you can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling somebody else about the podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.