Five Reasons Digital Church Attendance Numbers Are Getting Confusing

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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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16 Comments

  • 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./(

  • Dr. Jim Diehl says on

    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.

  • 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.

  • Charles Perkins says on

    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.

  • Good thoughts,

    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.

    Doulos,
    Andrew

  • 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…