Answering your frequently asked questions
Great leaders ask great questions—and we get plenty of great questions from our listeners and clients every week. So, for the next four weeks, Amy and I (and some special guests!) will be answering some frequently asked questions from leaders like you on a range of ministry topics.
This week, we’ll start off with a very common question we’ve received in the last few months: Is this the new normal for attendance and giving?
ATTENDANCE AND GIVING: THE NEW NORMAL FOR CHURCHES?
Leaders like to win, and giving and attendance are two of the easiest metrics to measure and determine whether or not we’re winning as churches (of course, these are only a piece of the puzzle of overall health). In this episode, Amy and I discuss the data and our thoughts on this commonly asked question and offer:
- A reality check for “the new normal”
- 3 tips to encourage and increase giving
- How to right-size your staffing and budget for today
- 3 tips to increase in-person attendance
This Episode is Sponsored by BELAY:
Think of tasks you never seem to catch up on—maybe it’s sermon preparation, volunteer coordination or supporting new members. What if delegating those could save you an average of 15 hours per week?
BELAY, a modern staffing organization with U.S.-based Virtual Assistant, Accounting, Social Media, and Website services, has helped busy church leaders do just that for more than a decade. And now, BELAY has a VIP offer exclusively for our podcast listeners. To learn more, visit belaysolutions.com.
Other Episodes in this Series:
- Do We Really Need to Keep (or Start) Doing Digital Ministry? – Episode 262
- Are People Coming Back to Weekend Services? – Episode 263
- What Does the Research Say About Multisite Health? (Q&A with Warren Bird) – Episode 264
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. On a weekly basis here at The Unstuck Group, we field questions from dozens of churches. And over time, we begin to see similarities and trends within those questions. For the next four weeks, Tony and Amy will be answering questions that you are asking on a range of ministry topics. Before you listen, though, make sure you stop and 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 archive of podcast resources from past episodes. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now, before we get into this week’s episode, here’s a word from Tony.
We’ve talked a lot about focus strategies that are actionable and measurable, but what if the only thing stopping you is time. Think of tasks you never seem to catch up on, maybe it’s sermon preparation, volunteer coordination, or supporting new members. What if delegating those could save you an average of 15 hours per week? Belay, a modern staffing organization with US based virtual assistance, accounting, social media and website services, has helped busy church leaders do just that for more than a decade. And today Belay has a VIP offer exclusively for Unstuck Church Podcast listeners. To claim this offer, just text unstuck, that’s U-N-S-T-U-C-K, to 55123, and get back to growing your church with Belay.
Tony, I have so many questions to ask you today, and that’s a good thing because we’re launching a new series based on the top questions that we’ve been hearing from pastors. And it looks like we have questions related to attendance, giving, online services and digital ministry, why people aren’t coming back to church, multisite, and my guess is we’ll be squeezing several other common questions into our conversations over the next few weeks.
Yeah, Amy, I love when pastors ask questions, and we’ve been getting a lot of great questions from pastors over these last several weeks and it’s gonna help us, I think, bring hopefully better content, better conversation in this series that we’re having. But I just, generally, I would say I love hanging out with leaders who ask great questions rather than leading with the answers, leading with their knowledge. In fact, several years ago, this is several years ago, I had a first opportunity ever to connect with a pastor, Amy, you and I both know him. And I will tell you, it was after the service. I had a chance with a couple of friends to kind of go back to talk with pastor after his message. And I just, I was intimidated a little bit going into that conversation, because I just had a lot of respect for this pastor. And what was fascinating in that time after his message, I just expected I would be asking him all kinds of questions about what was happening in the church and all the great things that were happening in his ministry. But I could not get a question in because he was just peppering me with questions that whole time. And I thought, what a great model for other leaders. Here’s this pastor, I would argue at the time at the top of his game, certainly a lot of great things happening in his ministry. But instead of waiting for me to ask him questions, he was leading the way by asking me questions. And again, I think it’s an indication of a healthy leader that those questions are obviously an indication of the curiosity that a leader still has. And that curiosity oftentimes leads us to making things better around us. And needless to say, over the past few years, the people who led with answers in the last few years, they may have sounded smart in the beginning, but they often looked foolish in the end, because a lot of the answers that people led with in the last few years, it didn’t lead to results. Let’s just put it that way.
Right. Right. Well, today we’re gonna try to answer the first question we’re hearing from pastors, and it’s this, Tony. Is this the new normal for attendance and giving? And before I let you answer that question specifically, why do you think that’s still such a common question right now?
Yeah, Amy, I think there were several reasons for that. I mean, for one, leaders like to win, and let’s just face it, it’s easy to measure, and probably the easiest way to know whether or not we’re winning as churches, when we take a look at some of the metrics around attendance and giving. But just because it’s the easiest metric to measure, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the strongest indication of church health. I mean, it’s only one piece of a bigger puzzle that we need to consider. It’s also what churches have always measured. I mean, churches have always measured attendance and giving. In fact, I was recalling one of the very first churches I got connected with as a new believer, baptist church, you go into the sanctuary and Amy, I don’t know if you remember these, but there used to be this church attendance board at the entrance of the sanctuary, and it listed what was, you know, what’s today’s attendance. What was last week’s attendance? Offering totals? Sunday school? I mean, it was all right there. Those were the numbers that the church measured, and there was a sign right at the entrance to the sanctuary, just to remind us what the numbers were. So I mean, this is just, churches have been doing this for a long time. I also know attendance for most churches isn’t what it used to be. I mean, because of what we’ve experienced over the last few years, I think pastors are just interested, you know, is what we’re experiencing normal right now? And so, because of that, they’re just, they’re curious, you know. We’re not seeing the attendance numbers that we saw pre-pandemic. So is what we’re experiencing, is there something wrong with us, I guess is probably what leaders are wondering. And then giving for some churches is beginning to decline now. And many times during that initial year of the pandemic, I was hearing from pastors, you know, actually our giving has remained pretty healthy, but now giving is starting to decline, and there’s some sense that, again, something might be up, and Amy, that’s important to acknowledge because a lot of times, you know, pastors sense that something’s not right. Unfortunately we don’t commonly hear from them until the finances start to plateau, to decline. And so I think it’s just leaders, pastors, they’re curious about, again, what trends are we seeing? And again, because leaders like to win, they are, they’re curious about other churches and how other churches are doing and, you know, comparisons may not always be a good thing, but if it causes us to ask the questions about what we’re experiencing and should we be doing things differently? I think that’s a good thing if it leads to those types of questions.
Great. All right. So let’s talk about the specific question. Is this the new normal for attendance and giving?
Well, Amy, just bottom line. Yes. I do think this is the new baseline for both, for both attendance and forgiving. So let’s talk about the BC years, that’s before COVID. Do you like that, Amy?
Nice. Nice twist.
Yeah. Yeah. I’m gonna start to refer to before COVID as the BC years and you know, here we are, now this is year three of the new normal, if you will. And here we are. I mean almost everywhere, no more mask mandates. Thank goodness. No social distancing requirements. Even quarantine requirements, I think the CDC just a couple weeks ago, they kind of dropped some of the previous requirements that they were suggesting related to quarantines and so on. So even the CDC is starting to treat COVID like it’s just another virus rather than a global crisis. So this is just one more confirmation that we are in the new normal at this point. So, you know, back in 2020, 2021, I think we had some legitimate excuses for why people were not showing up for church, but here we are now in the third year of all of this. It’s now 2022. And I think what we’re seeing as far as attendance patterns and giving patterns, this really it’s the new normal, it’s the new baseline that we need to be looking at. The people who didn’t come back to church, they’re not coming back to church. So this is the new baseline. This is the new normal. And I guess we could just be asking, you know, really the only remaining question related to the people who haven’t come back to church is will church leaders classify those people as unchurched or dechurched? What do you think?
I think dechurched. So many labels. All right. And is this the new baseline for giving?
Yeah. You know, I actually mentioned in last week’s episode, I hope so. And the reason why I say that is I’m hearing from pastors, more commonly in recent days, giving seems to be plateaued or is starting to decline. But if anything, I anticipate giving will continue to decline in the near future. And the reason why is we’re, you know, we’re all experiencing this inflation. It’s impacting our household finances.
Yes, it is. I couldn’t get outta Target for under a hundred dollars anymore.
Yeah, well. Maybe you shouldn’t go to Target as much, but I know you’re from Minnesota. It’s kind of your…
It’s our store.
You’re drawn to that big Target sign. I know. Yeah. So, I mean, inflation is impacting households. Investments are taking a hit. I don’t know. I try not to watch my retirement investments because retirement seems to be getting further and further out every day. And we’ve had one or two years of not reaching any new people. So new people, thankfully, are starting to engage with churches, but Amy, you know this to be the case. It takes new people a while to get connected to the church, get connected in relationships and discipleship before we start to see them give financially to the church. And so there’s a giving lag that exists. And if we had one or two years of not reaching new people, I expect in the immediate future, even though new people are connecting to the church, it’s gonna take time for their giving to catch up with that. And the other factor here is just, I don’t think churches have adjusted expenditures, primarily staffing in the last few years, because they were waiting for attendance and giving to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Here’s, I guess, what I wanna encourage you with. I hope this is encouragement. You have already experienced your recovery as churches. And I say this is encouragement because we can’t be waiting any longer to address the expenditure side of the equation. We need to start looking at are we financially in the right spot to adjust our expenditures primarily around staffing to this new normal, as far as giving is concerned as well?
All right. So there’s no doubt. It sounds like you believe this is the new normal for attendance and giving.
Yeah, but let’s be honest. It’s also the old normal, or maybe this just makes this the normal, normal, Amy. So listen to this. This was from Pew Research. And I just need to share this. This is what they said. “Rates of religious attendance are declining. Over the last decade, the share of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, that’s dropped by seven percentage points while the share who say they attend religious services less often, if not at all, has risen by that same degree. In 2009, regular worship attenders…” and they classify this as those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, “they now outnumber those who it attend services only occasionally or not at all by a 52% to 47% margin. Today, those figures are reversed. More Americans now say they attend religious services just a few times a year or less than they attend at least monthly. And that’s now shifted to a 54% are rarely, if ever, going to services to now 45% who attend at least monthly.” Amy, that’s from an article that Pew Research released back in October 2019, about six months before the world shut down. And so the decline in church attendance, it’s, it’s even more stark when you look at the differences between generations. Again, this is from 2019. My dad’s generation, 60% attended church at least once or twice a month. My generation that had declined to 47%. My kids’ generation, the decline was down to 33% were attending church at least once or twice a month. And again, this is from 2019, and this concern about church attendance being down it’s not a new normal. Again, I think this is the normal, normal thing. And my question is given everything we’ve experienced in the last few years, why do we think that somehow these trends are going to reverse on the side of the pandemic? Again, if anything, I think this is just going to compound the challenges that we were facing before COVID. And so if we’re waiting for people to come back to church, though, you can keep on waiting, but they’re not gonna come back. We’re we’re battling attendance decline in churches. And again, this goes back many, many years. It goes back decades. So we need to fully embrace this as the normal, normal.
So if this is the new normal, normal Tony, what’s next? I mean, where do we go from here? And maybe we can start with giving, where do we go from here from a giving perspective?
Yeah. So the days of us expecting people to give to the church because they’re members of the church, those days are behind us. In fact, I would encourage you, rather than focusing on church membership, how do we increase engagement in our churches? This is something. In fact, I was encouraged. One of the churches that I’m closely connected with, they’ve made this the point in all of their ministries this year, every single ministry area, they’re solely focused on how can we get more engagement in areas like serving, groups, giving, and on down the line. This is gonna be their priority and really sole focus for this next 12 months. And so, because of that, I think we do, we need to be more intentional about how we address giving in our churches because just being a member is not going to increase giving to the church. So with that, we need to talk about it. And again, I mentioned there are a lot of new people right now that are coming to the church that are starting to participate in the church. And in many instances, these people, they don’t have any church background, they don’t have faith background. And so when it comes to how they’re using their finances to support the mission, the cause of the church, this is gonna be a new thing for them. So we need to be able to encourage them. We need to teach on this. We need to help them take steps in faith, but we also need to introduce them to Jesus’ teaching on money. And, Amy, I’m a little concerned because I know a lot of churches have purposely moved away from offerings in their church services. And I get it. I mean, people don’t carry cash with them anymore. So it’s a little bit of a conflict for us to be passing around the bucket or the bag. Did you have buckets or bags at your church, Amy?
We had bags. And the last thing I did before I left that position was I got rid of the bags.
Yeah, yeah. I get it. But I still think we need to in the services be intentional about how we’re talking about giving at some point in our services. Especially for people that are brand new to the church and potentially brand new to the faith. And then the other key thing here is we really do need to connect giving to our mission as a church. We need to talk about the lives that are being impacted. We need to talk about how ministry is producing transformation in people’s lives. And we just need to remember to explain the why behind why people are investing in the mission of the church, that it’s going to lead to transformation in your life. It’s gonna lead to transformation in the lives of the people that our ministry is impacting, and ultimately that’s going to lead to transformation in the community around us. In other words, we need to connect giving to our mission. And this is gonna hopefully help us get beyond just that assumption that if people show up, if people are connected to the church, if people are members of the church, that they’re going to give.
Yeah, the best way that I see that happen, Tony, in the churches that I attend, whether it be for Unstuck or my home church, it’s telling stories and reminding people all the time. It reminds people of what your mission’s about too. So two for one there.
Well, anything else related to the new normal forgiving that we need to consider?
Yeah, let me go back to this again. I mentioned this earlier. We have to, at this point, begin to reduce expenses to create margin in our ministries again. And I do. I believe that begins with rightsizing our staff team. And I mean, we just spent a whole month talking about empowering volunteers. And so we need to double down on that. Let’s try to raise up volunteer leaders, build volunteer teams, and then with that, right size our staff teams so that we’re creating some financial margin for the ministry as well. I think this is the appropriate time to revisit our expenses around buildings and facilities, just with a couple of churches recently that are looking at different options to reduce facility expenses. And some of that is related to kind of looking at how they can use their space to maybe generate some revenue in partnership with other organizations within the community. And frankly, some of the churches we’re working with are looking at maybe finding other spaces that they can be using in their community to hopefully reduce the cost. And Amy, I just know a lot of stuck churches are just burdened by the facility expenses that they have, either related to debt service payments or just ongoing maintenance and upkeep of their buildings. And my goodness now is a good time to be just taking the long term view of how we’re investing in our facilities and if that’s really helping us accomplish the mission that God has for our churches. And then lastly, I think it’s time to take a hard look at ministry expenses. Are we doing what we’re doing in our ministry areas because this is the way we’ve always done them or could we be looking at other options, other cost savings options, other ways to streamline what we’re doing as ministries, to continue to help us accomplish our mission as a church?
That’s good. All right. Before we finish, let’s circle back to attendance. If this is the new normal for attendance, where do we need to go from here in that category?
Yeah, Amy, my hope is that we might finally agree that this really is the new normal and that the only way we’re going to see attendance numbers increase is by reaching new people again. And so with that, I think first, we need to make sure we have both a reach strategy and a spiritual formation strategy. And so, you know, it’s time to ask those tough questions. Do we have both of those strategies? If so, can we actually name them and can our staff team name them and then the broader leadership team, can they name them? And then are we measuring both our reach strategies and our spiritual formation strategies to make sure they’re actually working? Secondly, we need to stop trying to count online viewers as attendees, as if they’re physically in attendance. We need to stop using those multipliers to inflate those numbers. Now notice, I’m not saying you should stop trying to grow your online audience and engage people online, but we need to stop assuming that those that are watching online are engaging with our churches and our ministry as if they were actually in face-to-face relationship with other people, and related to this, Amy, I think I’ve mentioned this in the past. I just, you know, I’m a big football fan. Football season’s right around the corner. I might start cheering for the Minnesota Vikings though, because I’m not very happy with the direction that the Cleveland Browns organization is taking. But that’s a story for another podcast.
Get ready to be a long suffering fan.
But I know what suffering’s all about as a Browns fan as well. But anyways, I mean, the NFL executives are not sitting around wondering now how many people were watching the game from their living room and then trying to equate that to an attendance number at their games in the stadiums. They don’t do that. But churches do that all the time, and so we need to remember we really have two audiences. There’s an online audience, and we need to engage them and encourage them to take steps. But that engagement and the steps that we’re encouraging the online audience to take, they need to look very different, and they are very different than the way we engage people and encourage next steps for when they’re showing up to services, when they’re connecting and in small groups or events in person. That engagement strategy needs to look completely different and the next steps need to look completely different. So, we need to move away from equating online engagement to actual physical attendance and stop inflating our attendance numbers, because I think that’s delaying some important conversations about how to get more people in the building to connect with and to serve other people. And, Amy, I just, I’m firmly convinced that face-to-face relationship, face-to-face connection, is critical to spiritual formation. So that’s probably a topic for a different day, but let’s stop equating online attendance to in person attendance, because I think it’s really delaying the tough conversations we need to be having about how we engage people in the church building and help them take their next steps towards faith. And then lastly, we just need to stop blaming lower attendance on people attending services less frequently. Several years ago, I was working with a church, again pre-COVID, and you can’t do this anymore. Actually Apple has made it impossible for us to do this, but they were tracking the IP addresses of every mobile phone that came into their church building. So they had very accurate data on how often people were actually showing up to church, and they found that it was 1.7 times per month based on that actual data. So now maybe it’s 1.3 times a month. Who knows, and really who cares? The question is how do we get people to show up and experience something so helpful that they’re compelled to return and they’re compelled to invite their friends. Let’s stop using the excuse of people attending churches less frequently to prevent us from looking at the experiences that we’re offering on Sunday morning and trying to create such compelling experiences through worship and teaching that people want to be there, and they want to invite their friends to join us. So again, the bottom line on this whole thing is I think we’re sometimes using the data we’re collecting to avoid the tough decisions that we need to be making. And instead, we need to look at the data as kind of the push to encourage the right questions about the changes that we need to be making, not only to reach people, but to continue to help people take their next steps towards Jesus.
You know, that last part you were talking about, Tony, I can’t remember who said this. I don’t think it’s an original with me, but they said “People attend a weekend service, but people invite to a weekend experience.” And I think I’m hoping we have some questions, so we can do a podcast on weekend experience again, because the remarkable places people want to go to, and they wanna bring their friends along with them. So, any final thoughts, Tony, that you have before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Well, again, we have the smart pastors and church leaders, Amy, listening to this podcast because they’re always leading with questions. And so I’m glad you’re asking questions. In fact, if you have questions related to today’s topic or anything else that you’ll be hearing in the coming weeks, don’t hesitate to email us. You can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. But we want to encourage you in this unique season to continue to navigate the new normal. And if there’s any way that we can help you help your church, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’d love to connect with you and talk about how we can help serve your church in this new season of ministry.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As we mentioned at the top of the podcast, our friends at Belay have a VIP offer exclusively for Unstuck Church podcast listeners. Belay’s modern staffing solutions have helped busy church leaders delegate important details for over a decade. Their US based contractors provide virtual assistance, accounting, social media, and website services to level up your church through the power of delegation. To claim your VIP offer, just text “unstuck”, that’s U-N-S-T-U-C-K to 55123. That’s 55123. And get back to growing your church with Belay. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.