Whenever I’m asked to comment on certain trends that show up in surveys and projects from Lifeway Research, I hesitate.
Looking at data and then predicting the future can sometimes lead people to wonder if the world is headed inevitably in a certain direction, as if God were far removed from day-to-day life. Many of the trends we may have predicted for the church just a year ago would look foolish today, due to the disrupting influence of a pandemic.
The truth is, God is the great Disrupter of trends. From the roar of revival to the unexpected calamity—God is the great Mover of history.
There is, however, something to be said for understanding the times in which we live. If we can discern widespread activities and trends in evangelical churches, we should consider their implications and trajectory for ministry in the coming years. Here are four things to watch for:
“I don’t know how many people go to my church anymore.” That’s a common refrain among pastors these days. Looking out over sparsely filled sanctuaries, many church leaders wonder if they’re still holding on to 75% of their pre-COVID congregation. A few worry their church’s size has been halved.
The destabilization of church attendance has affected smaller and larger churches. In one survey before the pandemic, 45% of pastors served in churches with worship attendance below 100. Now, it’s almost 3 in 4 pastors whose worship services are that size.
Meanwhile, in the early fall of 2020, the pastors of larger churches (attendance of 250+) were the most likely to say their current attendance was less than 30% of what it was at the beginning of the year.
What will the church look like on the other side of the pandemic? If online engagement is any indication, we may be looking at something like “fruit basket turnover.” In another report, only 40% of churchgoers report watching their regular home church online. And 23% said they streamed a different church (either in place of their regular church or in addition to their regular church).
It’s possible that some well-known megachurches throughout the country are picking up viewers who don’t live near them. Is this a temporary phenomenon? An enduring trend? Once the pandemic is over, will church attenders gravitate toward other churches in their region or remain where they were before?
Whatever the outcome, for 2021, expect your church’s attendance to remain destabilized.
We’ve already seen churches across the country pressing “pause” on particular programs and ministries in the local church.
Many churches postponed, transformed, or canceled Vacation Bible School. Camps were largely empty across the country. Sunday School classes, particularly for kids, have been hardest hit and, for many churches, the slowest to come back. Some churches (8% back in the fall) said they’d deleted a ministry altogether.
At the same time, church staffs have been impacted. According to this Lifeway survey, 6% of pastors say their church reduced the pay or benefits for staff members, and 6% say they were forced to delete a staff position. African American pastors—in communities that have been hardest hit by COVID—are the most likely to say they had to cut staff pay or benefits (21%) and delete positions (18%).
What does this mean for 2021? Look for churches to slowly build back programs and ministries, often doing more with less—fewer resources and staff members. Look also for churches to rethink the wisdom of restarting certain ministries that had outlived their usefulness.
Pastors and church leaders quickly pivoted to video during the early months of the pandemic. As churches have reopened and often sizable segments of the congregation have continued to watch online rather than attend in person, pastors have learned to adapt their services and preaching style in ways that communicate to people in the room and watching at home.
More than one-third of adults who’ve attended church and engaged with online services during the pandemic (36%) says they have trouble focusing. This is especially true for those with children in the home (41% vs. 33% of viewers), according to a Barna study.
Over the years, pastors have tended to underestimate the length of their sermons. Eighty-five percent of Protestant pastors say their typical sermon is under 40 minutes. Research shows their congregants believe otherwise (66%).
So whether the pastor thinks he’s preaching under 40 minutes or the congregation feels like he’s preaching longer than that, it’s clear there’s a mismatch here. Churchgoers (12%) are six times more likely than pastors (2%) to say the typical sermon lasts at least an hour.
“Many pastors have likely been preaching shorter sermons while their churches have met virtually,” says Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research. “More than a quarter of churchgoers would prefer such shorter sermons when they return to meeting in person.”
It’s likely that a pandemic that has altered practices regarding the length and focused nature of a sermon will lead to shorter, more focused sermons in 2021.
The pandemic started out with a boost in Bible sales, reported by multiple publishers. But that initial rush to the Scriptures slowed down by the summer. According to the Annual Bible Survey, the proportion of Americans who use the Bible daily fell to fewer than one in 10 (9%) by June—the lowest number on record.
Is there a silver lining in this research? Yes. And it demonstrates the power of church attendance and relationship. There is a direct correlation between increased Scripture engagement and those efforts typically organized by a church, including mentorship programs and small group Bible studies.
“This study supports the idea that the church plays a significant role in benefitting people’s wellbeing and Scripture engagement,” said Dr. John Farquhar Plake, director of ministry intelligence at American Bible Society.
“To increase Scripture engagement, we must increase relational connections with one another through the Church. The pandemic—and now this survey—have shown that when relational church engagement goes up, so does Scripture engagement, but when it goes down, Scripture engagement drops with it. In other words, it’s probably the relationships people have with one another through Church that really make the difference.”
The same report also showed a tremendous openness (67% of American adults) toward Scripture. And in June 2020, more Americans were exploring the Bible for the first time compared to January 2020.
The church has an opportunity not only to lead the way in helping Christians remain committed to reading Scripture, but also to reach out to unbelievers who have expressed curiosity and interest in what the Bible says.
2021 may be a year still marked by changes and instability, but what remains true is that God is sovereign and leads the way, empowering us with the strength to continue in His work and ministry.