I absolutely love the opportunities for streaming worship services and for people to be present digitally. It is both a ministry and mission opportunity. I hope all churches are moving toward making these services available. There are really no cost barriers.
The challenge we are seeing is the confusing nature of digital attendance. Perhaps it is because we are still relatively early in the introduction of digital worship in most churches. Perhaps we will see some common practices that will bring clarity to both the counting and purpose of digital attendance. For now, here are five reasons digital attendance is confusing:
- There are myriads of ways to count digital attendance. One church counts anyone who happens to click on the service, even if it’s for a second or two. Another church counts those who stay at least five minutes. One church counts a visit or click as one person. Another church counts the same click as two people, assuming that is the average number of persons viewing from a particular screen. I bet most church members don’t know how the church counts digital attendance.
- There is no consistency in how digital attendance is counted in total attendance in different churches. I am looking at the data from one church right now, where the digital attendance and in-person attendance are added together without visibility to the two distinctly different pieces of data. I looked at the data from another church yesterday that keeps the two metrics separate at all times.
- Most churches can’t answer their “why” question of counting digital attendance. When I ask church leaders why they count digital attendance, I often don’t get a clear response. In contrast, counting in-person attendance helps the church know building usage data, whether to add or combine worship services, and basic issues like how many people will be served communion or the Lord’s Supper.
- Most churches don’t have a plan for their digital services. Is it primarily for those who are physically unable to attend? Is it a mission opportunity that requires a plan to reach those digital attendees? Is it just like the in-person service in purpose and scope? Because most leaders don’t have a plan for digital services, the counting of the attendees has little purpose.
- Some churches are counting digital attendance to compensate for the in-person losses during the pandemic. A few pastors have shared with me that they count digital attendance to keep their congregation from getting discouraged. Many of them lost 20% to 50% of in-person attendance. Counting digital attendees lets the congregants know they are still connecting with people outside the traditional approaches.
I get it. There has been a huge increase in the number of new digital worship services created as a response to the quarantine and pandemic. It might just take time before we see consistency and get clarity.
Let me know what you are doing about digital worship services and how you are counting attendees. I still have a lot to learn.
Posted on March 21, 2022
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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I realize I am posting nearly 3 months after this article was published, but I am hopeful that I will still get a response and possibly some advice. I am Minister of Education, Media Team Captain, and Church Statistician at a small rural church in Eastern Kentucky, so these issues affect all of my ministry roles.
First, some background. For most of the 1990s, I served as Minister of Education, Sunday School Superintendent, and Vacation Bible School Director at our church. At this time, our church had 212 enrolled in Sunday School with an average weekly attendance of 90 (which required us to build a two-story education building); a church membership of 278 with an average weekly morning worship attendance of 140; and, our Vacation Bible School would have between 350 and 500 attending each year, requiring us to use the local middle school or elementary school for the week. Unfortunately, the pastor we had hired in 1988 became unmotivated, disengaged, and ineffective approximately 10 years into his tenure, however the church kept him on as pastor for 33 years (1988-2021), only firing him a little over a year ago. By the time he was let go last April, he had ended Sunday evening worship services about 20 years earlier, had ended Wednesday night Bible Study & Prayer Meeting 4 or 5 years earlier, had dissolved the youth group 10-12 years earlier, and had quit having Vacation Bible School 6 years earlier, all of which the church went along with. For the last few years of his pastorate, the only somewhat active ministry was the Women’s Missionary Union and the church met ONLY on Sunday morning from 10:00 AM to noon (on the dot) for Sunday School and worship. By last April when he was let go, the Sunday School had only two classes left — Senior Adult Men and Senior Adult Women — with an enrollment of around 25 and an average weekly attendance of 15. Church membership had decline from 278 to 148 and the average weekly attendance for Sunday morning worship service was 25-30.
I had left the church about 10 years into his pastorate when I was called to serve in my first pastorate, however I came back last year (after 25 years away serving as pastor of 3 different churches during that time) after the pastor of my home church was let go last spring. Our church hired an 80-year-old minister who, coincidentally, had very successfully pastored the church where I was first called to serve as pastor upon his resignation, to serve as our Interim Pastor. Under his leadership and guidance, the church reinstated its visitation program, Sunday evening worship service, Wednesday night Bible Study, the youth group, and Vacation Bible School. He served approximately a year until we hired our current full-time pastor, during which time our average weekly Sunday School attendance increased from 15 to 29, average Sunday morning worship attendance increased 25 or 30 to 45, average Sunday evening worship attendance of 22, and average Wednesday Bible Study attendance of 19. Our first VBS in 6 years (last year) had 56, and our youth group had around 8-10 young people at the time he left.
Our new pastor has been serving for about 3.5 months and we continue to trend in the right direction with Sunday School now averaging 31 in attendance, morning worship averaging 51 in attendance, evening worship averaging 25, and Bible Study averaging 22. We just had VBS this week and had 108 enrolled with an average nightly attendance of 97 and we have added 2 Sunday School classes so far (Children & Youth). I have just been asked to serve once again as Minister of Education/Sunday School Superintendent and I have a monumental task ahead of me. I covet your prayers as we all work together to rebuild the church and win our community to Jesus. The church came very close to ceasing to exist but, praise God, He saw fit to breathe new life into our little church and we have vowed not to allow the spirit of complacency to prevail anymore!
Anyway, all of that back story to ask two questions — first, do you have any recommendations/ideas to help us regrow our Sunday School; and, second, I’m curious if most churches include in the attendance count only the people who watch the live-stream of the service or do they perhaps count those who watch the service during the first week (or other set time period) after the video is available online.
Until the Net is Full,
We’ve played the same game of who counts as being present. In reality, none of the methods for counting digital attendance are as reliable as counting heads in the pews. But, we are comfortable with counting only those households who either comment during the Facebook Live stream or otherwise let us know they are present with us.
Do listen to on line services.Covid is a factor plus l like one of the pastors on line./(
Thom, Here’s a new one for me. Our church is having a major vote this coming Sunday to sell the building & entire property to another church. It’s a MAJOR DECISION. We were told yesterday by our pastor that digital viewers could vote if they were “active members” of our church. They will call in their vote via telephone. Our denominational Manual states “members present and voting” but exceptions are now being made because of the digital viewing since Covid. I’m anxious to see how the digital viewers affect the vote. ~~~~Jim Diehl, Denver, CO.
I have not heard that one, Jim. Thank you.
Disclaimer: I pastor in a small, semi-rural mainline Church which, at it’s largest, was certainly less than 100 ASA and since the early 1900s has varied from as few as 3-4 ASA to ~70 ASA.
This past year our denomination was pretty clear about their statistic gathering. Attendance was physical people who were present. The second statistic was binary – did you have an online worship presence or not. They seem to realize the important statistic is not about how many participate but that the tool of online presence is employed.
I may be an outlier. Even when we were only online I felt it was almost a fantasy to report “numbers” who attended online. Unless there is a sign-in sheet how do you know. In our case, those numbers were indicative of some form of engagement – especially when we were live-streaming.
But then, I struggle with shear numbers as a metric for Churches. I had a conversation with the senior pastor at a megachurch while in Seminary. He mentioned that their membership was relatively constant and that they each year they had an equal number join and leave. The problem is effectiveness is a qualitative measure that is hard to capture.
Helpful information, Les. Thank you.
We record our services and then submit to our YouTube channel. For us, Digital attendance is impossible to accurately count unless you have a registry which people are sharing who is watching. Without this registry HONESTLY filled out, attendance at best is speculation and unreliable. Our denomination wants us to report our attendance in person and digitally. Therefore, I fear bloated and inaccurate reporting of numbers.
Your concern is valid. Thanks, Charles.
In the months following COVID restrictions, we felt the two-thirds return and one-third remain online paradigm. But much like you intimate, the online numbers are nebulous. We made the decision to ignore the online numbers and focus on our on-campus numbers. We have experienced encouraging growth since January, which includes salvations, baptisms and double digit church membership requests. We find it best to engage as we can with those online, but our convictions has meant that our main focus is on people stepping onto our campus. We have found that people used online to learn more about us and eventually come worship with us and desire engagement. Interestingly enough, we had some pre COVID nominal attenders that use online as their new mode of attendance. A few things our leadership has determined:
1. We are committed to being a local church and this means fostering a relational and missional community.
2. Serving in a smaller midwestern town, we find online service is a tool that can foster relationships that transition to on-campus connections, but we have not found success in creating what some view as an online campus. Maybe this works in a more metro area but for us, focusing on relationships on campus has been vital.
3. It’s not realistic for us to compete with the online experience of large churches who have made huge investments of resources and staff.
We are a church of 300 and our lane is building community and this is resonating very well. I believe many leaders have an opportunity, a resurgence of the local church by fostering culture of gospel participants. It’s a time to be excited not discouraged, at least in my assessment.
Your input is incredibly helpful and encouraging. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You have helped several thousand leaders in doing so.
Thanks Thom, appreciate your ministry.
Thank you, Andrew.
Do you use a specific email or can you contact me via my account email?. I would like to talk with you about some coaching and advice. Thanks!
We get all of our requests at [email protected].
As a Pastor of a small church (ASA 34-40), we see our digital format to be used primarily by those people who cannot worship in person. We did find during covid and the subsequent spikes that our numbers stayed pretty steady though.
We are currently seeing most come back, but there are still a few that don’t often attend in person because it is easier to stay home. We would love to entice them back as face to face in real life is better than face to face in real time…
Very helpful. Thanks, Chip.