New Church Health Data & Trends: Q4 Unstuck Church Report – Episode 223 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

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    Quarterly Unstuck Church Report

New 2021 Data & Analysis

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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, 194 churches completed the assessment to help us get a picture of where there is health and where churches appear to be getting stuck. For reference:

  • The average in-person attendance of churches that participated was 506 people.
  • These churches saw over 2,000 views every week through their online services or messages.
  • Churches who participated ranged in size from under 100 to over 7,500 people.

CHURCH HEALTH DATA, BENCHMARKS, & TRENDS

Amy and I won’t get into all of the numbers included in the Q4 2021 report (it’s free for you to download and read!), but we’ll quickly touch on:

  • Key stats around ministry reach (attendance, baptisms, and more)
  • Declines in kids and student ministries
  • Small group and volunteer engagement numbers
  • Giving and cash reserve averages
Anecdotally, we're seeing that rural churches are typically back to full in-person attendance numbers, or even experiencing growth, while larger churches in urban or suburban areas continue to struggle. [episode 223] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet On average, churches are seeing online service views around 4x that of their in-person attendance. [episode 223] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Churches are reaching fewer new people and, therefore, we're also seeing fewer people saying yes to Jesus and going public with their faith through baptism. [episode 223] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet Staffing compared to attendance has continued to rise in the last 12 months. In other words, we're seeing more staff in churches, even though attendance has either plateaued or declined. [episode 223] #unstuckchurch Click To Tweet

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Transcript

Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be in the unstuck church. While the year of 2021 has been anything but normal, there are trends beginning to emerge that are reflected in the data The Unstuck Group is collecting from churches all over the globe. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy walk through the fourth quarter’s Unstuck Church Report to take a look at fresh averages and benchmarks to help you gauge your church’s health. Before you listen today, though, make sure to subscribe to get the show notes in your email. Each week you’ll get resources to go along with that week’s episode, including our leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive and bonus resources that you won’t get anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now let’s join Tony and Amy as they explore the data from the fourth quarter’s Unstuck Church Report.

Amy (00:55):

Well, Tony, this week we’re releasing this quarter’s Unstuck Church Report. And Tony, I know these episodes where we unpack the fresh results are some of your favorite episodes on this podcast.

Tony (01:06):

They are. I mean, you can see it on my face right now. I’m just so excited for today’s episode, but I want you to be excited about it as well, Amy. And so we’re going to do something different in this podcast episode. We’re going to start with a game upfront because I know your personality and wiring, and you like to have fun. And so I decided for you to enjoy this episode as much as I enjoy this episode, we need to play a game. And the game is called higher or lower. And what we’re going to do is I’m going to give you a trend for the first benchmark of this report. And then you will try to answer whether the second benchmark that I mention is trending higher or lower than the first benchmark. Okay?

Amy (01:52):

Okay. Alright.

Tony (01:52):

Now it’s a little complicated. So we’re going to start with an example that is near and dear to your heart. Last year, the Minnesota Vikings had four wins through their first 10 weeks of the season. The number of wins through the first 10 weeks of the 2021 season, this current seasons, we need to know is that higher or lower than 2020?

Amy (02:19):

Through ten weeks. This year is higher because we were five and five after the first ten weeks.

Tony (02:26):

Oh see, there was a bi-week. And so you actually only had four wins through the first 10 weeks of the season. So it was actually, it was the same number of wins as last year. So if you’re feeling like this year feels like a repeat of 2020, like it does for the rest of us, then you would have got it right if you would have said neither higher or lower. So that was a bit of a trick question for the first one, but now we see how this is going to work. So this is now data directly from the report that we’re going to be talking about after we get past this game that we’re playing. So here’s the first benchmark from the report. 74% of churches have multiple service times on Sunday morning or over the weekend. Now the question is, is the percentage of churches with a contemporary style of worship higher or a lower than 74%?

Amy (03:26):

Higher?

Tony (03:27):

That’s correct. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Yeah. So actually I think it was only 6 or 7% of churches only have a traditional worship service. So most churches now have some service that is contemporary music, whatever that means. That’s always an interesting topic as well. So you’re now one for one in today’s game. Here’s the second question. In every previous Unstuck Church Report, about one in five churches that responded were multi-site churches. The question is, in the current report was the percentage of multi-site churches higher or lower?

Amy (04:05):

I’m going to guess higher.

Tony (04:07):

You guessed correctly. That is right. It’s actually now one in four churches are multi-site. So, pretty fascinating how you knew that answer too. Number three. Here’s the third question. You’re two for two. Now the third question in the higher or lower game: Churches are spending 55% of their budget on paid staff. The question is, is the percentage of people serving higher or lower than 55%?

Amy (04:37):

Oh, that’s an easy one. That’s lower. That’s a trend we see everywhere.

Tony (04:42):

It is lower. And we’re going to talk about that a little bit more in this episode. All right. Here’s question number four. Churches on average had the equivalent of 24 weeks of cash in the bank. All right. 24 is the number to remember, Amy, because the question is this for the church that had the most committees, just think church committees, the numbers of church committees, was the number of committees for that church higher or lower than 24?

Amy (05:12):

Oh my gosh. 24 committees or more. Hmmm. I have to say lower.

Tony (05:20):

You guess correctly. They had only 20 committees at this church. So yes, very good. And I think that makes you four for four. So here’s the very last question. The US will celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2026. Isn’t that amazing?

Amy (05:39):

Wow.

Tony (05:39):

The oldest church that provided their data for this quarter’s report also launched in the 18th century. And the question is, is the age of that church higher or lower than the age of our country?

Amy (05:56):

So you’re having me do math. 250th in, you said, 2026, in the 18th century. We were founded in 1776. I will have to guess it’s older.

Tony (06:11):

This church actually is older. I think it was 1730 was when the church was founded. Yeah. So, but it was early 17th or early 18th century. So Amy, that’s remarkable. You finished that game five for five, but most importantly, I can see it in your face. Now you are going to enjoy this episode.

Amy (06:33):

Yes. I am excited for today’s conversation and that hopefully got people interested in the other trends that we’re seeing. You know, every quarter, our team releases The Unstuck Church Report to help church leaders monitor what’s happening in other churches in areas like ministry reach, connection, staffing, leadership, and finances. But before we get into the specific numbers, Tony, can you just tell us a little bit more about why we offer this resource?

Tony (06:59):

Yeah, so, gosh, I can’t even remember. I think it was several years ago, certainly before COVID, we started doing this assessment every quarter and trying to release these reports. So that again, you mentioned it, so that churches really get a sense of not only what’s ministry look like in our church, but how are we doing compared to other ministries too? Are the trends we’re experiencing matching up with the trends that other churches are experiencing as well? And honestly, one of the key reasons why I wanted to put this together is, I just, I felt like churches were focusing too much on attendance and giving, and both of those metrics are important. We still track them. I think it’s important that churches track them, but Amy, you know this to be the case, we’ve run into a number of churches through the years that were growing in attendance, but they were not healthy churches. And then, more commonly, actually, we find churches are financially healthy, but those same churches are stuck or they’re in decline and not seeing a lot of life change happening in those ministries. And so for these reasons, I wanted to broaden the metrics that we were looking at, really to give churches a sense of how we might get a more holistic look at what church health might be. And so we want to help churches make sure they’re monitoring the right data to help them make better decisions about ministry. And with that, I guess it was about a year ago, we refreshed our vital signs assessment, because obviously the dynamic of church ministry was changing. And we wanted to make sure we were both capturing data around how people are connected to the church and in-person environments, but also how they were connecting with church through digital ministry, online church and things like that. And we just felt like church leaders wanted to know how other churches are doing particularly in this season. So, the key question is what can we learn from other churches? In this particular report, Amy, over 190 churches responded to these questions. Some churches, very small, by comparison, maybe think churches under a hundred in attendance, in in-person attendance. And then we had one church which had over 7,500 people in in-person attendance. And by the way, at this point in the COVID pandemic, that’s pretty phenomenal when you find a church that has that many people still gathering in in-person worship experiences. And by the way, we’re only going to be talking about a portion of the data included in this quarter’s report. So if you want to read more, you can subscribe to the full Unstuck Church Report that comes out each quarter at theunstuckgroup.com/trends.

Amy (09:59):

Yeah. So over 190 churches, small to very large, so a good sampling of people’s current results. As usual, we don’t have time to talk about everything today, but we’ll make sure for you, our listeners to get a link to the full report in the show notes, but, Tony, let’s hit some of the key findings from this quarter’s report. And let’s start with the data around ministry reach. What would you like to highlight from that section?

Tony (10:24):

Yeah, so let’s just jump right in with attendance. I think that’s a question that still pastors are asking about frequently, and what the data shows from this current study is that average in-person attendance is still down 34% from the same period last year. So we had, you have to remember, this current report is looking at churches that completed this assessment sometime within the last 12 months. And some of those churches did this assessment either late in 2020 or early in 2021. And so they’re still comparing, for those churches, some of their attendance patterns to pre-pandemic attendance patterns. Next quarter will actually be our first chance to see a full year’s worth of data that will show attendance patterns during the pandemic itself. Now what I will say too is, anecdotally, we still are seeing rural churches are typically either back to full in-person attendance numbers or maybe even experiencing a little bit of growth. Churches that are in urban areas or suburban area and also very large churches, they’re still struggling to get back to pre pandemic attendance numbers, and it shouldn’t be any surprise. In fact, I just was looking at some survey data that accompanied the name of Qualtrics did just in the last weeks here. And it indicated that only 41% of people are comfortable going to religious services during the holiday season. And so if that’s the case, especially for larger churches, no surprise that we still see attendance patterns where they are at this point. On the other hand, the number of online service views has more than tripled from the previous year, which stands to reason again, as churches are struggling to get people to come back to in-person attendance, the online engagement continues to increase. And if you’re curious to know how many online service views should we expect compared to our in-person attendance, the average is roughly four times the number of online views as your in-person attendance. And so if you’re wondering is our online engagement strong or not? If you’re more than four times your in-person attendance, your online engagement is very strong.

Amy (13:02):

That’s an interesting new kind of number to take a look at.

Tony (13:05):

Yeah, I agree, Amy. I think it’s good now to have that benchmark in place to know how are we doing with our online engagement. Also related to ministry reach, the decline in children’s ministry is, by the way, it’s declined 38% is deeper than the decline in student ministry, which has only gone down by 23%. And again, this is looking at both children and students that are coming together for in-person environments. Now the question is what’s driving that? My only suspicion here is maybe parents have more caution with their younger kids. And certainly that would be the case for parents that were waiting for vaccines for children. It could be that students are just tired of online engagement. I suspect that’s the case, and they’d rather be hanging out with friends and in-person gatherings. And that may be the reason why that decline in student ministry isn’t as significant as the decline that churches are experiencing with children’s ministry. Another factor when we’re looking at reach is just the number of new people that we’re reaching as churches. And here what the data has shown is that we’re down about 20% when it comes to reaching new people. And the way we encourage churches to track this is to look at the number of new people that you’re tracking in your database. And so what you can consider here is the average number of new people added was 10% of the overall number of people that churches are tracking in their database. Let me say it this way. If a church was tracking a thousand people in their database, the average church added 100 new people over the past year. So Amy, I think looking at our tracking of new people, rather than trying to get people to come back to church, by the way, many of whom who haven’t been back to church in about two years, we need to start focusing on this benchmark instead. So how can we start reaching new people again? And related to reaching new people, baptisms were down 49% year over year in this report. And granted, some churches were only meeting online in the last 12 months. And of course that makes baptisms more challenging. But anecdotally, I can tell you from my conversations with pastors, that this decline in baptism, isn’t purely a result of a lack of access to water. Churches are reaching fewer new people, and therefore it stands to reason that we’re also seeing fewer people saying yes to Jesus and going public with their faith through baptism.

Amy (15:51):

All right, well let’s shift to ministry connections. What trends are we seeing in that area, Tony?

Tony (15:54):

Yeah, so a bit of good news here, when it comes to connecting people in the smaller groups, because what we’re seeing is 65% of adults and students are somehow connected into a smaller group in all the churches that responded to this most recent survey. And by the way, that’s a 2% increase overall in group engagement. And now looking at the data, we can tell you that almost 90% of churches offer some sort of small group option in their churches. And so rather than, just think about ministry gatherings for men and women, where they also then break out into smaller groups, or rather than thinking about Sunday school class options, 90% of churches now specifically offer small group options in homes. And so that’s certainly a trend that we’ve noticed through the years. And honestly it appears that it’s even picked up during the pandemic itself. On the other hand, we referred to this earlier, volunteer engagement is still a struggle for churches. In fact, there’s now a further 3% decline in volunteer engagement. And overall, what we’re seeing is only 40% of adults and students are serving at least once a month in the churches that responded, and Amy, that’s the lowest level of volunteer engagement we’ve ever seen in this assessment. And because this is such a challenge for churches, let me just share this best practice we’re hearing from the churches that we’re serving right now. Rather than focusing on trying to get people to come back to serving roles, these churches have learned it’s much better to focus on engaging new people in serving opportunities. So think about the new people that have come back to church or the new people that are connecting with your church. Trying to invite those people into volunteer serving opportunities is where we’re hearing churches are actually making some progress when it comes to increasing the number of people that are serving. And by the way, related to volunteer engagement, staffing compared to attendance continues to rise. In other words, we’re seeing more staff in churches, even though attendance is either plateaued or it’s declined. And you might ask what comes first, the chicken or the egg here? In other words, because volunteer engagement is down, are we leaning more on paid staff? And so we’re actually hiring more staff to do ministry? Or because paid staff numbers are up, we’re not leaning as much on volunteer engagement? I don’t know which comes first there, Amy, but there’s seems to be a correlation that as volunteer engagement numbers are coming down, staff numbers are increasing. And one way or the other, I think there’s some correlation there, so we need to pay attention to that.

Amy (18:53):

Yeah. Can I just jump in with a couple of thoughts on this one? You know, definitely with the staffs that I’ve worked with, they’re wondering are we right sized now? You know, I think what you were saying is that we used to use this ratio, how many staff, you know, like for every X number of people at our church, we hire a full-time person, right? And so we always said, we should have a target of hiring one full-time person for every 100 attenders at the church. And of course, through the pandemic, well, who are our attenders now? Are they are online or are they in-person? And so we aren’t using that metric, but I’m seeing a lot of staffs that never reduced any staffing during the pandemic. And that’s probably because finances were good. And, I’ve just been encouraging them to be shifting more people towards their online ministry then instead of just trying to do the in-person, because most of the ministry, you know, everyone wants to go back to in-person, we’re overstaffed in those areas now, but if they don’t want to cut staff, refocus some of those numbers on reaching that online community, because that’s really there where people are taking their first steps. So it becomes a reach metric in my mind. One more thing on the volunteer piece of thing, Tony, what are you seeing with volunteer leadership?

Tony (20:10):

Yeah, so related to that, and actually we talked about volunteer leadership in last week’s episode, and so if you missed that, you might want to go back and listen to that specifically. But what the data is showing is that now churches have one leader for every 11 people in attendance. That’s actually the strongest we’ve ever seen when it comes to volunteer leadership. And that is an improvement over what we saw in the data even six months ago. So I think we’re seeing this is one area where churches seem to be winning now in this season of ministry.

Amy (20:44):

Again, there are many more trends in the full report, which is available for free, but let’s wrap up today’s conversation talking about the financial trends. What are the key findings in that area, Tony?

Tony (20:55):

Yeah. So what we’re seeing here, unfortunately when it comes to actual giving for the very first time in our reporting, we’re seeing a decline in giving, and giving was down 1.5% year over year. Again, first decline we’ve ever noted through our assessments. In addition to that, giving units are down 8%. In fact, giving units are down more than the total giving number is. And so what we’re seeing in the churches is core givers are actually picking up a bigger chunk of the responsibility for funding ministry. And if I’m a pastor, a church leader, listening to this, then I think the challenge might be how do we engage new givers and how do we make sure new givers are taking steps when it comes to generosity as well? And so, just trying to think about those strategies for encouraging people to take next steps with biblical stewardship, I think what this data’s pointing to is there’s opportunity there. At the same time, we should be celebrating those core givers in our church that appear to be they’ve been much more generous in supporting ministry, especially in this last year. On the reverse side, I guess you could look at this as good news, churches have increased their cash reserves to 24 weeks of expenses. And by the way, that’s up from 15 weeks pre-pandemic. But when I look at 24 weeks of cash reserves, my goodness, that’s about six months of reserves and Amy, that just feels too high. And so, you know, for many churches now we’ve been through the crisis. We kind of have a sense now of where we are, where we stand in our ministry, where we stand in our finances. And I really do believe it’s time for churches to start investing in new ministry initiatives to accomplish our mission. And so rather than continuing to increase cash reserves, if they’re at that level, now we need to be considering how do we invest in the mission that God’s called us to as churches?

Amy (23:09):

Very well said, Tony. Well, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (23:13):

Yeah, just a reminder. We do this every quarter. We try to track how churches are trending across the country, really around the world, and this Unstuck Church Report, it’s a free report. It comes out every three months. Currently we have over 8,000 church leaders subscribed to this report. And if you would like to get this report delivered to your email inbox every quarter, you can subscribe at theunstuckgroup.com/trends.

Sean (23:42):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. Like Tony said, don’t forget to download this quarter’s Unstuck Church Report and sign up to get future reports for free. You can register and learn more at theunstuckgroup.com/trends. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. With every tool and process we develop, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. We’re here to help you get your church unstuck. You can start a conversation with us by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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