Insights from the Q3 2022 Unstuck Church Report
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 six weeks between June 23 and August 4, 2022.
We received survey responses from 315 churches that ranged in size from under 100 to several thousand in physical attendance for worship gatherings. This provides a very current snapshot of ministries of all shapes and sizes.
DATA INSIGHTS ON ATTENDANCE, ONLINE ENGAGEMENT, AND MORE
In this episode, Amy and I will unpack some of the encouraging (and not so encouraging) data trends uncovered in this quarter’s Unstuck Church Report—and explain how pastors can respond to these trends. Join in as we discuss:
- Why in-person attendance is still an important benchmark
- The relationship between online engagement and attendance
- The rise of home groups and decline of volunteering
- The hard truth behind current giving trends
The Unstuck Church Report is fueled by self-reported user data. Take the survey to contribute your church’s data to a future report.The average in-person attendance in churches increased by 30% over the previous 12 months, and there was a 9% increase in the number of new people that churches started tracking in their database. [episode 260] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Does online ministry distract from in-person? The data actually indicates that higher online engagement and higher attendance go hand-in-hand. [episode 260] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet It’s time to embrace our current reality: If you want to see attendance growth, it’s not going to be from people coming back to church. You are going to have to reach new people. [episode 260] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Before the pandemic, we would typically see 45% to 50% of all adults and students serving at least monthly on a volunteer team. Currently, churches are reporting only 37% are serving. [episode 260] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Healthy, growing churches tend to have one volunteer leader for every 10 people in attendance. Declining churches, on the other hand, have about half of that number. [episode 260] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet
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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. Before we get into this week’s podcast, though, it’s not too late to sign up for our free training for your team on engaging more volunteers and leaders that starts tomorrow, September 1st. We’ll dive deeper on this topic and hear from some churches who are winning when it comes to volunteer engagement. You can join Tony and Amy and our Unstuck team for this free training by registering using the link in your show notes. And if you don’t yet have the show notes, just visit theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Well, Tony, I know these are your favorite episodes each quarter, and today is when we have the big reveal on the most recent Unstuck Church Report. And I know we have a lot to talk about today, but let’s first discuss some of the key changes for this quarter’s report.
Well, Amy, you know we’re always trying to make things better at The Unstuck Group. It’s one of our values as a team. We’re always trying to improve, and we want to, because now there are, I think, close to 10,000 people that are subscribed to the Unstuck Church Report every quarter. And if you aren’t already, if you’re listening to the podcast, but you’re not subscribed, you can do that at theunstuckgroup.com/trends. But we did, we made some changes, uh, going into this quarter to refresh how we’re surveying people. So we, we updated the process because we wanted to make it more accessible to more churches. And it paid off because we had about three times as many churches participate in the last quarter. It was over 300 churches that provided their information on all the questions that we’re going to be processing in our conversation today. And of course, a lot more information in the full report. And the benefit of that kind of push that we had was the data we’re talking about today actually just comes from a six week period between late June and early August. So this is a very fresh snapshot of where churches are at this point. And then another first for us, because we have more data now, we were able to analyze some trends that we’re seeing by size of church too. So, if you’re subscribed to The Unstuck Church Report, you’ll receive a reminder now going forward every quarter to give you a chance to submit fresh data. And of course the more churches that participate, the more detailed we can get in the analysis going forward. So if you want more data about churches similar to yours, you need to participate and then you need to encourage your friends at similar churches to do so as well. But I’m looking forward to unpacking some of what we learned thanks to the over 300 churches that participated this last quarter.
Tony, in the beginning of this quarter’s report, you also included a word about attendance at churches. Will you just explain to our listeners why you included that in this new report?
Yeah. So when you review this report, you’re gonna notice that we are using physical attendance at worship services kind of as a baseline for tracking other church health metrics. And that probably raises the obvious question. Why? Why is The Unstuck Group doing this? Why aren’t you factoring in online engagement in some of these metrics rather than just using physical attendance, and especially after coming through the season we’ve been through in these last few years, where we’ve been also encouraging churches to really engage online with people, especially as we try to broaden the front door reach that we have with the people that we’re trying to engage in ministry and faith. So, first of all, we do encourage churches to continue to track both online and physical attendance at worship gatherings. I mean, this is a hybrid world that we live in, and both metrics are needed to monitor overall health of the church. But the challenge we have, of course, is that we’re trying to collect data from churches of all shapes and sizes, and many of them are not tracking online engagement, or at least they’re not tracking that well. And those that are tracking these metrics are using widely different formulas. Some, Amy, are even still trying to convert online viewers into an attendance number, which, again, we find is less than accurate or helpful for ministry decision making. But because of that, we have chosen to keep the baseline for a lot of these metrics as simple as possible so that we can provide real apples to apples comparisons between churches. And I think that’s really what pastors and church leaders are wanting from us.
I think that’s right. So it sounds like those 10,000 people who are subscribed to The Unstuck Church Report are interested in seeing how their church is doing compared to other churches and using attendance as that baseline seems to be the cleanest way we have to report the benchmarks accurately, right?
Yeah. Yeah, that’s correct. Amy. Secondly though, and this is just interesting. So, you know, me, I get the data, I really dive into the data, and I found this interesting slice of information regarding physical attendance that makes me think that it’s still a fairly accurate measure of true connection to churches, even on this side of the pandemic. And it has to do with weekly per capita giving across churches. You know, this is how we calculate per capita giving. We take the annual general giving amount, divide that by 52 weeks, then take that weekly giving total and divide it by the average physical attendance. And we pull out kids with the assumption that most kids, they don’t have jobs, and they’re probably not contributing financially yet. And here’s what’s fascinating. When we look at the data that we collected for this report, the current per capita giving amount is $62 per attendee per week. Looking at inflation, that adjusted giving, from five years ago in 2017, the giving that year was $65 per person per week. So the current number is, of course, based on in person attendance post pandemic. The 2017 number is also based on in person attendance, pre pandemic. So if, as I’m hearing many pastors argue, there are many more people who are solely connected to churches online on this side of the pandemic, I would’ve guessed that per capita giving amount, which is just based on in-person attendance, should be much higher than it was five years ago. Because again, those people are fully engaged online. They’re still a part of the church. I’m assuming they’re still invested in the church financially, but instead the per capita giving has actually gone down.
Okay. So I think you’re saying that if attendance is down because lots of people have shifted to an online option, then the denominator in your equation, which is based on only physical attendance would be lower, right? And in other words, even plateaued giving with a lower attendance baseline would mean the per capita giving number should be higher. Well that is if people really are engaged with the church, but only participating online. Did I get that right?
Man. I should hire you to work for me, Amy. You kept up with that. I’m pretty impressed. So good work. You got it, right. And this is why that’s so important. We’re now into our third year of our new normal, and even so, I know there are a lot of pastors and church leaders who want to believe either that they have a lot more people engaging online than they used to or that people are attending less frequently than they did before the pandemic, or maybe it’s a combination of both. But because of that, some pastors still want to equate online engagement with people showing up on Sunday morning. The data though that we’re collecting, especially as it relates to giving, it indicates otherwise. All that to say almost all churches are facing the same challenge related to shifting attendance patterns. So even though Sunday attendance certainly doesn’t factor into all the ways people are engaging with churches, it still seems to be an appropriate baseline, if you will, for tracking volunteers, groups, giving staffing and other metrics that we’re looking at in our Unstuck Church Report.
Well, since we’re on the topic of attendance, why don’t we start there? What did you learn as you were reviewing where churches stand at this point, Tony?
Yeah. Well, the good news is that church attendance, it’s actually growing again over the last 12 months. And that’s new. I mean, that’s really new compared to what we were seeing earlier in the year when we were looking at data. So here’s the bottom line. Average weekly attendance across all those churches that we surveyed increased from just under 500 people to close to 650 people each week. So it was about a 30% year over year increase. Digging a little deeper though, this is where we start to see some interesting differences between different-sized churches. As an example, churches over 1000 people in attendance seem to be growing faster than smaller churches are right now. Both are experiencing attendance growth. It’s just that the larger churches seem to be growing a little bit faster now at this point. Also related to attendance. There’s a year over year increase in kids’ attendance, which is pretty significant. That’s up 43%. And I have to think that, you know, maybe it’s just parents getting more comfortable with bringing their kids back to church because they’re also back in school now. Maybe it has something to do with the vaccine being approved for younger kids in our population. I don’t know what the case is, but it is good to see that young families are coming back to church are going to church for the first time. And because of that, the kids’ numbers are picking up. And then, one of the surprises for me, though, looking at the attendance numbers is that nearly 60% of churches that average a thousand people or more, they’re now multi-site. And I just didn’t realize. I mean, I knew multi-site was taking off across the country and, you know, we had a lot of questions, especially going through COVID. Is this the end of multi-site? Is this gonna slow down multi-site? And again, the data just continues to show, especially for larger churches, now it’s the more majority of large churches are in multiple locations. So I just don’t see that trend slowing down for us. And we’re gonna be circling back to talk a little bit more about multi-site trends next month. I’m looking forward to that conversation.
Well, Tony, talk to us a little bit about engagement with online services then.
Yeah. So this is fascinating. And again, the good news is people seem to be coming back or physical attendance seems to be growing, but at the same point, there continues to be a decline for churches when it comes to viewing online services. And here again, I admit, trying to get apples to apples data is very difficult. And so what we’re trying to do is ask churches to just tell us so that we can try to get comparable data. How many people are watching your services? And we’re looking at one minute or more per week through the different platforms. And again, is that a win if someone just watches a service for one minute? Absolutely not. But at the very least, what we’re trying to do is watch for trends as far as engagement with online services over time. And specifically what we saw in the data was online service views were down from about 550 views per week a year ago, to closer to 425 views this summer. So it’s more than a 20% drop. And again, my hope, I know your hope, a lot of those people shifted their patterns from watching online to coming back to in person. But I mean, frankly, it could be that people are just tired of being online. I know I am, I’m tired of Zoom meetings so maybe they are as well. But I mentioned in the report that it’s fascinating that there seems to be a correlation in the data between more online engagement and higher attendance at physical worship gatherings. And I think most pastors want to believe that one of the reasons why people are not coming back to church is because many people are watching online. And I trust that there are people who are still only engaging online and probably many more that are doing a combination of both, but the data indicates higher online engagement and higher attendance, they actually go hand in hand. And we also saw that evidence, by the way, before the pandemic. So this is just confirming a pattern that we’ve seen over and over through the years.
Well, Tony we’ve included a lot more benchmarks related to ministry reach in this new report. So let’s turn our attention to ministry connection. What did you learn about the next steps people are taking beyond attending the weekend service?
Well, the biggest surprise was the number of churches that have now embraced home groups. And again, I just felt in my gut that we were continuing to see this trend through the years, but now we’re at the point where nine out of 10 churches offer home groups as an option for connecting with other people, and six out of 10 churches, by the way, only offer home groups. So no Sunday school options, as an example, I mean, they’re just fully invested in providing home group options for the people in their church. And then what we’re seeing then with that kind of commitment to that model is that 62% of adults and students are connected to some form of smaller group. That’s a little bit down from what we saw last quarter. I think it was closer to 70% last quarter. And that’s actually down from what the churches indicated from their data that they were experiencing a year ago as well. But this is one of those benchmarks that it’s, again, based on in person attendance. So because of that, it’s not a surprise that this number has started to come down because more people are attending services. And so a little bit less percentage are of that in person attendance is connected to a group. Still I’m mildly surprised that so many people remain connected in smaller groups really throughout the pandemic. Because we just continue to see throughout those months, I mean, just high levels of small group engagement, but it does appear that we’re starting to normalize now as far as this small group data and that we’re getting closer to that 60% average that we saw before the pandemic.
And that’s good news, right? When it comes to ministry connection, those numbers, but the numbers for volunteer engagement don’t look as positive, do they?
Yeah, unfortunately they don’t. And so, again, all those churches provided their data on what they’re seeing as far as trends with volunteer engagement, and what they reported is that it’s a little bit less than 40. I think it was 37% of their adults and students are serving at least once a month. And that is a slight decrease from what we were seeing even last summer, summer of 2021. And Amy, you know this to be true, it’s well below the average we would’ve seen before the pandemic where we would typically see, on average, 45 to 50% of adults or students serving someplace in the church on a monthly basis. So, this again, yeah, you’re right. This is not positive. What’s maybe even more concerning is we’re also seeing fewer volunteer leaders. I shared this in the report that that lack of volunteer leaders, it may be the most alarming number related to connections because every quarter we ask churches to share how many adults and students are in roles where they’re responsible for either leading a team or leading a group of other people. In other words, we’re talking about team leaders and group leaders. Sometimes there’s some confusion of what does a leader mean? Well, in our case, we define it as someone that’s actually leading a team or leading a group. And based on the data reported, it looks like churches have a span of care of one volunteer leader for every 14 people in attendance. What we know from the past, we have found that healthy growing churches tend to have one volunteer leader for every 10 people in attendance. And it’s not unusual for the healthiest of churches to have closer to one leader for every five people in attendance. But on the other hand, we also know from past research that declining churches typically have about half the volunteer leaders of healthy churches. So they’re closer to one leader for every 20 people in attendance, and Amy, I really view this benchmark of volunteers leading teams and groups as kind of one of those critical lead indicators of overall church health and church growth. And that’s why this fresh data is really so concerning to me at this point for churches across the board.
Yeah, that’s something we certainly need to monitor going forward, but it sounds like, Tony, it was timely for us to focus on volunteer engagement over the last four weeks on the podcast. And so for our listeners, obviously, if you missed that, you’ll wanna go back and listen to those episodes. Tony, for today, let’s wrap up today’s conversation by talking about ministry staffing and finances. Again, there’s way too much data in the full report to go through everything in today’s conversation. But could you share some of the items that stood out to you?
Yeah, let’s begin with the giving side of that. I mean, because typically that’s where pastors have the most questions, just to be honest. They’re genuinely wanting to hear what other churches are experiencing related to giving patterns. And on the surface, things look promising when it comes to giving, but I wanna share why I think we need to be a little bit more realistic about what the current data shows us. Again, looking at the year over year data from more than 300 churches that shared their financial information in recent weeks, these churches indicated that their general giving has increased by 6% from the same period last year. And that’s encouraging.
Yeah, that sounds promising. But I did pick up on the realism. By the way, notice I didn’t say pessimism about the giving data. So what’s that?
Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah. You have to remember that this data on giving includes a number of months before the recent economic downturn, and it will be interesting to see, I think, if the inflationary pressure on the economy will impact financial contributions in the months to come. And it’s just gonna be interesting to monitor the trends in the coming quarters, but I can tell you that I’ve talked with a number of pastors in recent weeks who have said they’re starting to see giving plateau or even some declines for the first time in several years. I had a pastor ask me just recently about his church’s current giving pattern. And essentially he was asking if the current giving amount should become kind of their new baseline, because it’s down from where it was a year ago. And to be honest, I hope it is the new baseline, because if anything, I’m guessing giving is going to continue to decline in the months to come. I mean, it’s just gonna be interesting to see when it comes to establishing a new baseline for in-person attendance, I think many pastors began to accept their new normal around Easter time earlier this year. But when it comes to giving trends, I think there’s been more optimism among pastors for some reason. And they’ve remained hopeful that giving is going to rebound. But remember where we started today’s conversation. I mentioned that when factoring in inflation, it appears that per capita giving is down from five years ago. That’s a double whammy because attendance, again, the per capita part of that equation is also down for churches from five years ago. And Amy, I know many pastors don’t want to hear this, but I think it’s time to embrace our current reality. This is the new baseline for attendance. If you want to see attendance grow, it’s not going to come from people coming back to church. You’re going to have to reach new people. And this is our new baseline forgiving. If you want to see giving grow, it’s not going to be from people who were financially supporting the ministry returning to their old giving patterns. You’re going to have to reach new people. You’re gonna have to help them take steps towards Jesus. You’re going to have to encourage them to embrace generosity and biblical stewardship principles. There really just aren’t any shortcuts left at this point. We’re gonna have to get more intentional, not just about how we increase attendance. We also have to get more intentional about how we help people increase their generosity as well.
Well, that’s all good stuff, Tony. Thanks for all the research you did to pull all that together. Do you have any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Yeah, we didn’t even have time in today’s conversation to talk about some of the other key differences we’re seeing between the smaller churches and the larger churches who participated in the survey. So if you want to see that data and learn about other ways that churches are experiencing this new normal, if you will, in ministry, in our communities, in the world around us, you can go to theunstuckgroup.com/trends to access the current report and subscribe to future releases as well.
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 that we can serve you and 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.