In a time of declining church attendance and recent adaptations due to COVID, how should churches navigate the increase of online attendance and its replacement of in-person services? What is causing this decline in churches across the US, and how can pastors counter these trends? A recent research study at Grove City College may provide some answers to these questions and raise topics for further exploration.
What was the project and how did it work?
This past semester, Grove City College professor Shannon Barrios incorporated a PRM service-learning project into the research methods class required of all communication majors. This research-oriented project allowed students to work with local churches and provide valuable insight into attendance trends at their church. A reflection of PRM’s broader goal to facilitate partnerships between churches and the college, this class led to successful outcomes on both sides; students gained valuable real-life experience doing practical research, and pastors were given information that will hopefully help them navigate larger the attendance trends impacting their own congregations.
The class was split into two groups that each functioned as their own consulting team. While the team leaders initially worked directly with Professor Barrios, they soon assigned roles to all members and worked autonomously from there. Both teams began by researching overall church attendance trends in America, then they collected data that provided specific information about the decline in attendance at each respective church over the past few years. Students met with each pastor on the front end, as well as visited each church in person, to establish a relationship with them and understand their specific goals. They stayed in communication throughout the project and were able to reconnect at the end when they personally shared their conclusions with the pastors through an end-of-semester presentation. Despite the similarities between the two churches, the teams discovered fascinating differences in motivation between the two congregations that may shed light on overall church attendance trends in America and generate questions that prompt further research in this area.
Understanding Motivations for Church Attendance
Although COVID played a significant part in declining church attendance, this pattern was present even before services moved online. The first research team summarized four significant findings in the church they worked with: 1) they found that a main reason for decreased attendance was a diminished feeling of community, 2) they saw a higher rate of attendance in those who volunteered the most, 3) they observed a negative relationship between attendance and pastoral changes, and 4) they concluded that one’s values do not always line up with one’s actions.
In the survey the students sent to the congregation, they found that the primary reason people attended church was for community. Therefore, things that breached their sense of community were factors that contributed to decreased attendance. Differing opinions on various survey questions demonstrated a wide range of beliefs on relevant topics within their congregation, such as satisfaction with the leadership team, satisfaction with how COVID was handled, LGBTQ views, etc. With people on all sides of the spectrum, this may be indicative of some underlying, and possibly unknown, tensions that disrupt members’ sense of community. Most prominently, COVID policies and one’s agreement or disagreement with them affected whether or not someone attended church. In their report, the students write that “since [the] Church ceased to have in-person services throughout much of the pandemic, the sense of community [there] may have decreased and negatively affected church attendance.” COVID policies and a lack of in-person meetings seem to be the main factors that decreased the previously strong sense of community and were therefore catalysts for decreased attendance.
Secondly, the research team saw a positive relationship between attendance and volunteering. They found that the more frequently people volunteer, the more consistently they attend church. People who attended every week were the people who volunteered the most. In their reflection on this aspect, students observed that this makes sense because people are more inclined to volunteer at a place they are invested in, and vice versa. For pastors, this raises the question, “How do we create a community that inspires this kind of service and investment? How do we encourage all members to fulfill their role as part of the body?” While this looks different for every congregation and each member within the congregation, commitment and a willingness to serve are aspects that help to develop this kind of flourishing community within a congregation.
Perhaps the most surprising, and potentially encouraging, outcome this team observed was the negative relationship between attendance and changes in pastoral leadership. The more pastoral changes there were, the less frequently people attended. In this church’s attendance history, the research team saw that numbers often fell when the pastor changed, and these changes led to more discontentment in the congregation. Importantly, they wrote that “the decline may not be related to the actual pastor, but rather the pastoral change” (emphasis added). With this data, they wanted to encourage pastors that transitional changes may be out of their control, and, therefore, decreased attendance may not be their fault. Rather than reflecting people’s dissatisfaction with a pastor, lack of attendance may instead illustrate this principle that pastoral changes, regardless of the object of change, may lead to decreased attendance. Relatedly, however, students also found a positive relationship between satisfaction with leadership and attendance. While changes in leadership may affect attendance despite the quality of the pastor, it is also true that satisfaction with leadership plays a big role in whether or not people attend.
Lastly, this team concluded that one’s values do not always line up with one’s actions. Just because someone claims that faith is integral to their life does not necessarily mean they frequently attend church. Students reported that, although attendance declined, “the majority of respondents rated faith and worship as having a high importance. This shows that faith and attendance do not always match.” This may lead to further ruminations on the meaning of faith in one’s life and the importance of traditional forms of worship versus nonconventional ones. Does this trend demonstrate a generational difference in views about how faith is lived out? Should we question and challenge people to reconsider what action genuine faith ought to display? Or is it in fact an encouragement that faith itself does not appear to be declining as much as church attendance is? Perhaps these are questions that pastors must tackle individually for their church. Perhaps answers to these questions may open up unique opportunities for outreach and fellowship as pastors re-evaluate their approach to church engagement.
Online vs. In-Person Services
The second team’s findings emphasized the tension between people’s preference for in-person services and increased, consistent online attendance. This team reported that COVID merely expedited the steady decline in attendance that was already taking place. They pointed out that while technology has benefited global outreach efforts and missional opportunities for churches all over, one might ask if it has also become a crutch for local members who choose to attend online rather than in-person.
At this church in particular, a survey indicated that its members value churches that have a welcoming environment, a supportive community, good teaching, and opportunities to be involved. All current members did in fact agree that their church was welcoming, most people did like the teaching, and most people did feel involved. Despite this clear passion for and satisfaction with their church community, and even though over half of them claimed to prefer in-person services, many congregants have transitioned to only attending church online. This presents an interesting dichotomy. Upon further questioning, respondents attributed “their continued online worship attendance most significantly to COVID-19 policies (55.2%), health concerns (50.7%), and convenience (41.8%).”
Based on questions about COVID policies, this team found similar results to the first team: one’s satisfaction with the church’s COVID policies affect their attendance. According to questions about convenience, almost half of the respondents indicated that “overall convenience was the central reasoning behind their digital participation.” Interestingly, the highest decline in attendance was among 18-34 year-olds, while the lowest decline in attendance was among families with kids. The group pondered what this might imply about the relationship between one’s stage in life and one’s perceived value in church attendance?
During a time of reflection, students speculated about the impact of generational differences on attendance. One person commented that while older generations might be particularly motivated to attend church due to conviction and routine (typically rooted in tradition), younger people seem to be especially motivated by the sense of community and quality of teaching (i.e. what they perceive they will gain from attending). From personal experience, students explained that the convenience of online church as a college student is very appealing amidst the academic workload and college-life schedule, especially when going to church in person does not provide the sense of community they hoped for. While they explained the important role that quality of teaching played in their decision to attend church or not, they expressed that, “It’s hard to go to church when it’s more convenient to do it online and there aren’t people in our stage of life there anyway.” In one sense, it can be encouraging that young people do in fact pay attention to and search out good preaching. On the other hand, it raises the question, “How do we foster community that feels ‘relevant’ and meaningful for congregants, including younger people?”
Even so, some of these church attendance results surprised the students and reminded them of the importance of in-person church attendance. One of the student leaders, Lauren Border, stated that it is “surprising to see the research about the decline of attendance for young adults because we could be that statistic. It can be easy when you get out on your own to stop going to church, but it’s important to realize that church does matter!”
Pastoral Implications and an Exhortation to the Church
This research project raises some fascinating questions that have practical implications for both pastors and congregants alike. Regarding technology, it brings up the debate of how social media ought to be used. One student commented that, “Going online is a blessing, not a necessity.” Should it be used to gain church attendance and expand an online community, or should it be eliminated out of tough love to help congregants return to in-person church? Likewise, Barrios asks, “What do we do with people who have not necessarily left the church but are online and staying online? Do we set our efforts on trying to bring them back into the four walls of the church, or do we take the approach of trying to bring the church outside of the four walls and engage the community in a way that’s different than what’s been done before?” If community is the end goal, how do we best attain it, given the particular needs of each congregation?
In either case, both teams emphasized the role pastors can play in encouraging congregants to remember why we want community. Yes, it is more convenient to stay at home and do church online. Yes, it is hard work to go to church – especially when you’re coming off a long week, or you had a late night and still have a looming to-do list, or you have to get all the kids dressed and out the door on time. Covid gave us new avenues for outreach, and we adapted out of necessity, but should the recent past dictate the future of church worship and community? We may have become so used to being online that we have forgotten the joys of meeting together week to week. Both research teams urge pastors to remind their congregants what they are missing out on and why fellowship is so important. Maybe it first takes some informal meetings to refresh relationships and ease the transition. Maybe outreach outside of the church doors is the best way to help people re-integrate. The students noted that it will take hard work, commitment, and pushing through the uncomfortable in order to restore thriving church communities and attendance, but the blessing of fellowship is so much greater than the hurdle of returning to it.
On another front, both of these project emphasize the role of the pastor and how important it is for pastors to look for creative ways to re-integrate people into the church. Maybe this involves continuing to use technology, or maybe it means lovingly removing it as an option except out of necessity. Maybe this requires unconventional church services, or maybe it involves strong encouragement to members to return in-person. Each congregation may have different needs and motivations for attending, and lack of attendance may not be directly correlated to leadership.
The findings also had implications for congregants. Both groups found that it was important for congregants to evaluate what it is that prevents them from attending church on any given week and consider how to best live out the call to meet together and spur one another on to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25). When each person functions as an active member of the body, their respective gifts have the ability to bless others in profound ways.
A Reflection on the Impact of this Project
This service-learning research methods class was certainly one of a kind and a win-win for all involved. While one of the biggest challenges was navigating a large team of nine people and all the different group dynamics, Barrios remarked that students found it ultimately rewarding to produce a tangible, buttoned-up product that contained everyone’s contributions. Lauren, along with several of the other students involved, shared that this project was not just part of a class they were required to take; it was meaningful because it carried weight in the “real world.” Lauren explained that “this project felt relevant because we were able to do hands-on research with real people, discovering the root of real issues that could have an actual impact on solving problems.” Yet in spite of dealing with legitimate concerns in the church, the classroom setting provided a helpful safety-net that gave room for mistakes throughout the learning process. In addition, Professor Barrios expressed that there is a uniquely hopeful element to this kind of research because there is the potential to incite palpable change and help pastors thrive. “A service-learning project is the only opportunity to get that kind of relational connection,” she said, “which is such a huge part of building the Kingdom.”
In her concluding thoughts, Barrios remarked, “Something that is really important to me as an educator is to create a space for people to explore information and topics in a way that allows for a manifestation of who they are created to be in Christ.” Creating this experience in a classroom setting and “allowing students to explore areas that are most reflective of who they are,” she continued, “is something I really love, and it is an honor for me to have been part of that.” Her students clearly witnessed this passion she had for the project, and they were grateful for the genuine care she showed them. “Professor Barrios is one of the most wonderful professors we’ve ever had,” Lauren said. “She was always there to help you without doing things for you. She walked that line well. It was encouraging to have a professor be so invested and proud of you.”
Looking to the Future
A special opportunity that aids both students and local churches, Professor Barrios sees great potential for this kind of initiative in the future. Students will develop valuable, practical experience that looks fantastic on a resume, and their young talent will perpetuate growth and beneficial changes for the surrounding community. A rare blessing, she hopes that efforts will be made to continue supporting this kind of project and help it to flourish in the future.
Mikayla is a writing intern for the PRM and a junior majoring in Psychology and Biblical and Religious Studies. She is from the Chicago area.
Photo credit: Andrew Seaman