by Pete Phillips, Premier's Head of Digital Theology
In last week's post about whether church has fallen out of love with digitality, I reported some of the research which we've been seeing from congregations in what some have called the post-pandemic period. Of course, the pandemic isn't over in the UK or in the United States...
This is what I said:
But many people, especially in the Global North, are reporting less people coming back to church. There seems to be a suggestion of some churches being down to 1/3rd of their former onsite congregation with another 1/3rd remaining online and another 1/3rd who may simply have drifted away from church altogether.
It's a startling argument (backed by some of the research which came out earlier in the year) to suggest that only a third of pre-pandemic (onsite) congregations are now back onsite. A few people have come back to me on it to suggest I am being far too mean! Some of the evidence comes from the States where church going has traditionally been stronger than in the UK and which had a different experience during the pandemic in terms of lockdowns and breaks in patterns of onsite worship.
An article in Christianity from January 2022 gives an example of church which has experienced the 1/3rd loss, although regards their return to onsite church as a success story. Indeed, generally there seems to be a very pessimistic outlook. Canadian leadership guru, Carey Nieuwhof talks of the post-pandemic decline as an acceleration of what was already happening in North America - citing Barna's research which came out before the pandemic of historic declines in Church Attendance in the USA.
Nieuwhof makes the point that pandemics accelerate culture shifts. Just as we have experienced an accelerated shift to working from home and online shopping which are both making massive impacts on our town and centres and our mental health. Although some research argues, with lots of caveats, that WFH improves our mental health, most research argues that full-time homeworking impairs our mental health.
Interestingly, research from PewResearch in the US has a much more positive outlook on onsite attendance after lockdown with their research showing that about 32% of the adult population attended church in the US in March 2022 - that about 83 million adults. This is much higher percentage than UK church attendance which is currently somewhere between 4 and 7% according to Clive Field's research and 6% in the recent Talking Jesus Report - so about 4 million adults.
PewResearch's positivity comes not in the onsite attendance but actually on the digital attendance since their figures show a steady 30% of the whole population are watching online services on a regular basis. Nieuwhof, of course, argues that digital is the new mission field. And Premier have also been arguing this for some time. But in recent days, we've seen increasing stress in the Church around online engagement because of ministry burnout, post-COVID stress, and funding issues for training.
But just as we see millions of Americans engaged in both onsite and online church, so too we see millions of people in the UK continue to be engaged in online church. Indeed, the potential mission field for the UK church is MASSIVE!!! So back in 2021, in the break between lockdowns last Summer, we report a figure of 25% of a representative sample of the UK population engaging with organised online worship. That's a potential viewing figure of 17 million - 400% more than the number of people attending onsite church. So what Carey Nieuwhof is saying for North America is much more relevant for the UK - people are not flocking into our online service but they are tuning in/clicking in to see what we are providing online.
Of course, for Carey Nieuwhof and Barna's research lead, David Kinnaman, the key focus needs to be on engagement not numbers. So, I've been happily sharing Trevor Gay's discussion of Coffee Shop Sunday which grew from a 50 to a 750-strong fellowship on Facebook during the lockdown but in a recent study found an 86% engagement rate among that much increased congregation. Engagement is so important for a thriving church - engagement in worship, social action, pastoral care and service. Indeed, one of the big pieces of research yet to be done is the levels of engagement in the late-pandemic church.
We need to remember the thousands of people engaged in Cathedral Prayer activity - is it 5,000 in Durham's Community of Prayer, 30-40,000 engaged online at Canterbury Cathedral's prayer online activities (with their famous Cathedral Cat!)?
New Research coming out?
Apparently, there is a new piece of research about to be launched within the Church of England which gives a more positive breakdown of current attendance figures. I am led to believe that the research covers a representative sample across four CofE diocese. The findings are that late-pandemic attendance is now up to 75% of pre-pandemic levels with another 20-25% still attending online. So, in those figures, there is no decline whatsoever in church attendance. Indeed, online may well be higher than this and so it might be a sign of church growth.
This research may have some issues around non-reporting. It may be that the churches which are happy to send in results are happy churches where numbers are good. There may have been a reluctance to share lower figures. But, even so, there is nothing here of the 1/3rd of people who have stopped coming along to church altogether. Indeed, in travelling around preaching, I have seen a larger number of people in church and congregations are growing as we move into the late-pandemic period.
All of which does suggest the 1/3rd in church is far too pessimistic.
I'll update this blogpost when the figures come in from the new survey and give an update to it.
But how about you - how's your church doing? Email me back on firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pmphillips
Initial responses from a Twitter request:
90% back onsite
70-90% across different churches back onsite, 5% online in one
50-70% across different churches back onsite with 7-9 people online
95% back onsite (higher congregation than pre-covid
90% back onsite plus a few online (when COVID fatalities included all there)
Growth in morning prayer
20% decrease but new growth as well
Lost between 25-30% if regular attendance - not doing online now
85% back onsite, 5% on Zoom, 5% on phone link (Conferoo)
100% back onsite but also another twice that number online each week
100% engaged (wow!), 90% onsite, 10% online
33% more people onsite than before COVID
80% back onsite, no online provision
New growth since 1st lockdown - intentional work - about 600% more peopled handful engaging online
Again, some hesitation from me in that these are from my own twitter feed - so probably very digital engaged church leaders, keen on growth and so might be hiding less wonderful news from elsewhere. I still think the 1/3rd, 1/3rd, 1/3rd might be true in the long term rather than seeing it as a dead cat statistic thrown onto the digital table.