The headlines are everywhere—the church is shrinking! More people are choosing “no religious affiliation” over congregational membership every year. Clergy are considering leaving their congregations. Churches are closing every day.
But is that the whole story? New research studies and our work with congregations at Convergence can help paint a more complete picture of congregational life in 2023.
By the Numbers
First, the reports of declining church participation are accurate. While there has been some rebound in 2023 when compared with the most severe pandemic years, most churches are seeing fewer people in their congregations and worship services than they did pre-pandemic.
Churches that took part in our standard Convergence Vitality Assessment in 2023 reported that their median in-person attendance in 2022 was 55. This was slightly higher than the churches that completed our Convergence Vitality Assessment in 2022, which reported that their median in-person attendance in 2021 was 52. However, 2021 still contained severe COVID surges that suspended or significantly reduced in-person worship in some congregations. Yet when we asked our Vitality Assessment churches to recall their attendance numbers in 2019, they reported a median attendance of 85 and a range of 8-150. In our small sample of churches, declines in attendance ranged from 10% to 50% between 2019 and 2023. None had increases in face-to-face attendance between 2019 and 2023.
This is in line with the most current research, which suggests that in-person worship attendance is generally still below pre-pandemic levels. The 2023 Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC) study of 4809 US congregations representing 57 denominations found a median of 60 in-person participants attending the primary worship service. This is a decline from the Faith Communities Today 2020 (FACT) study, conducted pre-pandemic, which reported a median weekly primary worship service attendance of 65 people.
Virtual attendance sometimes makes up for and exceeds the decline in in-person attendance. The 2023 EPIC study found that congregations responding to their survey reported a median of 25 online attendees. If online and face-to-face attendance are considered together, the EPIC study reports a median total worship attendance (online and face-to-face) of 75, which is higher than pre-pandemic levels. The churches that completed our Convergence Vitality Assessment Leader Survey in 2023 all had some form of online participation available. Most commonly mentioned were live streams on Facebook or Youtube, followed by videos posted after the fact, and less commonly mentioned were interactive formats like Zoom.
However, questions remain about how congregations integrate online participants, who are often only able to view rather than interact with the weekly worship service. Among those who completed our Convergence Vitality Assessment Participant survey in 2023, less than 1% had only participated online, while 19% had only participated face-to-face, and the vast majority of 80.5% had participated both ways. 14%, though, reported that in the past year they had participated primarily online. This significant segment of participants felt invested enough in their congregation to take our lengthy survey. Yet, as they primarily participate online, they may feel disconnected at times from the rest of the congregation. Now that pandemic closures seem largely behind us, however, the EPIC found that online activities other than worship are available at less than half of churches. If congregations are to truly incorporate these only-online or primarily-online participants into the life of the congregation beyond just viewership, they must be creative about offering other ways to participate online and build relationships between mostly online folks and those who are mostly or only face-to-face.
In fact, it increasingly looks like virtual church options add to church vitality and financial sustainability, as the EPIC study found that growth is correlated with the presence of hybrid worship and particularly with the number of virtual attendees. The same study found that churches that offer virtual or hybrid options see greater per capita giving (although when more people attend in-person than virtually at that hybrid service, the larger the per capita giving tends to be).
In spite of declines, many of our churches and their participants remain optimistic. Optimism is increasing among our Convergence Vitality Assessment survey takers, rising from 57% in 2022 who were excited about where their church was headed to 64% in 2023. The 2023 EPIC study found that, amazingly, 80% of respondents were positive about their congregation’s future. In the attendance data for the churches we work with, we have also begun to see some bounce from the dips of 2020 and 2021. It remains to be seen if this will continue upward or level out at some new normal.
A small but increasing percentage of our Convergence Vitality Assessment survey takers even report that their congregation feels like it is growing. While 63% of Vitality Assessment Participant survey respondents in 2022 and 2023 believed their congregation was shrinking, the percentage that sees their congregation as growing has increased from 5% to 9%.
People are still finding and beginning participation with our client congregations. 10% of those who took our Convergence Vitality Assessment Participant survey in 2023 had begun participating with their congregation in the past 3 years. This was down from 12% in 2022. The EPIC study found that 16% of current attendees had begun participation since 2020. So people are joining churches, just perhaps not fast enough to replace those who are no longer there due to departure or death. This may explain why congregants believed their church was growing even as the decline over the past several years was evident from their attendance numbers.
Who is joining churches in 2023? The 2022 PRRI American Values Atlas study found that 67% of Americans identify as Christian, 6% are spread among non-Christian religions, and 27% are unaffiliated. The unaffiliated group is growing, while the Christian segment is shrinking. This is true across age groups, but while only 17% of those over 65 identify as unaffiliated, 38% of those under 30 do so.
While these statistics seem bleak for attracting new, and particularly younger, participants to congregations, we find in our Convergence Vitality Assessment clients that those who have begun participation in the past 3 years are younger, with only 35% over 65, compared with 49% over 65 among those who have been members for 4 years or longer. Newer members are also more diverse in terms of racial identity and sexual orientation.
The primary reasons these newer members begin participation include being invited by friends and family and moving to the area. The only shift in these motivators between longer-term participants and newer ones is that newer participants are less likely to mention children as a primary motivator for involvement.
Now that you know more about the state of churches in 2023, you may be asking – What does this mean for my congregation?
I would say it means at least one thing:
Your congregation is likely smaller than it once was, but new people are still seeking and finding congregations and becoming involved with them every day.
We will be sharing many additional research findings and insights with you over the coming months as we look back on 2023. In my next article, I’ll share research findings and insights from our work about what often holds congregations back from vitality and growth.
In the meantime, it would be wonderful to know what you are observing and what you most want to know about the church in 2023.
- What are you seeing in congregations that is intriguing?
- What trends are you noticing?
- What questions do you have?