If you have returned to in-person church in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, have you scanned the room and assessed the numbers?
I’ve been doing it for months, trying to get a bead on whether most people have returned to church, or if they became comfortable watching online, or if they got away from church entirely during the time we were all in lockdown.
Now we have an official answer on how church numbers have fared since 2020 knocked us all out. Faith Communities Today (FACT), a multireligious and collaborative research initiative that has been tracking trends in the U.S. religious landscape since 2000, has just released the findings of its 2020 survey of 15,278 congregations from across 80 denominations and religious groups, the largest national survey of congregations conducted in the U.S. to date.
Their report, entitled Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview, captures 20 years of data, including a pre- and early pandemic picture of America’s faith communities. While their research shows some factors have remained the same, some new trends have also emerged.
Key findings include:
- Prior to the pandemic, many congregations were small and getting smaller, while the largest ones keep getting more attendees.
- Despite continued declines in attendance overall, about a third of congregations are growing and are spiritually vital.
- Being a larger congregation offers some distinct advantages, but each size grouping has certain strengths.
- Congregations have continued to diversify, particularly in terms of racial composition.
- A dramatically increased utilization of technology can be seen over the past two decades, even pre-pandemic.
- The fiscal health of congregations has remained mostly steady.
- There is a clear and demonstrated path toward vitality with characteristics that are consistent across the two decades of the survey efforts.
It’s an incredible volume of responses that will help church personnel compare their individual campuses to those of others in the nation and provide ideas for church growth.
Kent Shaffer, a ministry organizational strategist, believes there’s a reason why large congregations keep getting bigger. “One of the factors that I believe leads to this momentum is the adaptability factor,” he explained. “You would think that a larger church would find it more difficult to embrace change. The reality is that large churches have gotten large for a reason, and one of those reasons is that the willingness to change methods is built into their culture. Not every large church has this in their DNA. (And that’s part of the reason why not every large church is growing.) I really believe the vast majority of large churches have this ingrained into who they are.”
In other words, when people drop out or complain that the message isn’t relevant to their lives or that the music is lackluster or that the service can’t keep their attention, big churches are more likely to hear those messages and adapt accordingly. This willingness to adapt is one reason why large churches continue to grow even while smaller ones are on a decline.
Shaffer said, “When churches become married to their methods rather than their mission, the church plateaus and eventually declines. Typically, large churches don’t experience this. They have the adaptability factor. They’re willing to change and try something new…even if some of those new initiatives fail.”
These findings show that even with the obstacles placed before modern-day churches – increasing numbers identifying as humanist, lack of a sense of obligation to attend church, the ability to watch church from home – churches that are willing to reflect the culture continue to be popular with that culture.
As Pastor Patrick Kelley at River Pointe Church says, there is a spiritual synergy in being together at church. Churches that understand the need for that synergy will continue to grow.