Seven Reasons Your Online Worship Attendance Is Declining

I remember clearly that first conversation with a pastor whose church started offering streaming worship services for the first time. The quarantine had just begun. With a bit of trepidation, he decided to lead his church into the digital world.

The pastor was amazed. “Our attendance went from 140 to 650!” he exclaimed in his email. Of course, he was referring to the shift in attendance from in-person to digital. He was wondering if a strategy of “digital first” or even “digital only” would be his church’s future. 

Six months later, he wrote me another email. His excitement was obviously missing this time. “Help me to understand what happened,” he wrote. “We had 650 viewing our first online service. Now we typically have 10 to 15. What are we doing wrong?” 

His situation was not an anomaly. We’ve heard from hundreds of church leaders. Most of them have similar stories. The burst of online attendance is waning, usually significantly. Our team at Church Answers has been researching this phenomenon. Though our work is far from complete, we see at least seven key reasons most churches are experiencing a dramatic decline in online viewing of worship services. 

  1. The curiosity factor has ended. When churches began offering streaming services, a lot of people viewed them out of curiosity. We found that a number of viewers were unchurched or nominally churched. They had no plans to stick around long-term. Of course, because so many churches began offering streaming services, the event moved from a phenomenon to just another item on the internet.
  2. Church leaders have begun to focus their energies on regathering in-person. As churches have reopened for in-person services, the focus and energy have been invested back into these services. Church leaders simply can’t do everything, so the early efforts to improve and promote quality digital services have waned. This reality leads to our third point.
  3. Many churches don’t have the resources to do both digital and in-person services well. During the quarantine, church leaders were able to focus much of their attention on streaming worship services. It was, after all, the only option. Now that a number of churchgoers have ended their quarantine and started attending in-person services, church leaders are putting their efforts into those gathered services.
  4. Church leaders are struggling to find stickiness in the digital church. It’s a new world for most of us. How do you get a digital viewer to return? Can sticky relationships be developed outside of in-person gatherings of small groups, ministries, and worship services? How do you get to know someone who may or not identify himself or herself in the digital crowd. 
  5. Many streaming worship services lack in quality. I was recently getting my hairs cut and was able to begin a conversation about church with my stylist. She was unchurched but told me she tried to view a couple of streaming worship services. Her question was telling: “Is the music always that bad in churches?” It took me a while to understand clearly her consternation, but I finally got it. She was referring to the audio mix of voices and instruments. Unless a church knows what it’s doing, the music can really sound bad via the internet.
  6. There is a lack of clarity of leadership for streaming worship services. Does the pastor take the lead in promoting and producing the services? Or is it the worship leader? Or is it the person responsible for sound and lighting? For many churches, no one has come forward to be the person of primary responsibility for the streaming services. Without clear leadership, this ministry flounders.
  7. There is simply an overall weariness. The pandemic is a real struggle for many people, including church leaders and members. As Jess Rainer recently said, “Church leaders have to make decisions they have never made before.” Now church leaders feel the pressure to have a clear digital strategy added to their seemingly unending to-do list.

 For these reasons and others, many church leaders simply don’t have the capacity to give attention to streaming services. Such neglect is reflected in waning digital attendance. Yet the digital world is still a mission field that should not be neglected. 

In the weeks ahead, we will be sharing with you how a few churches are reaching this mission field while doing all of the other ministries expected of them. 

Stay tuned . . .

Posted on December 7, 2020

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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  • Steven Katz says on

    IN MN we have experienced the pain of state goverment changing the rules. No in-person services allowed, restrictive in-person allowed, again no in-person services allowed.
    Hard to deal with ministry when the government is calling the shots

  • Thank you for the reality of problems on line services. I have also made this observation. Sometimes even in the middle of the service, we see the waning of the number of viewers. Our purpose is to cater specifically to church members who cannot attend church because of some restrictions. but it’s noticeable that only a handful follow the service. They also leave without finishing the whole service.

  • I am thankful that our team has done an excellent job to provide a high quality online experience. I am also thankful that the feedback from our church family and community is that we were not made for virtual church. That while they appreciate the quality streaming services, we were made for so much more. And the greatest of online versions have diminishing return because they don’t hold a candle to what God created for… assembling with the family of God face to face. Crises will cause us to embrace when and if totally necessary, but our folks would choose freedom with great risk over a virtual life with great safety any day.

  • Thom,

    I have been doing Facebook live for my sermons for years, but not the music portion of the service. The music content must be handled by those who know what they are doing, not to mention the music rights that can be violated without proper licensing. My purpose for the response is this: streaming a church service usually was for those that were out of town, sick, or weren’t able to attend for some other unknown reason. Covid magnified the need for the on-line church, but not the how-to-do online church correctly. Pastors and churches who have more than a hometown following will have a budget to hire a creative pastor for this ministry. It can be a great companion to the in-person worship experience, but usually not to be the main source for the church worship experience. I am in no way an expert, but just my personal experience, and probably the same for others.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    We are also seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases across the United States and reading warnings from the CDC and health experts that we can expect more cases in the next few months. Churches that have reopened their buildings and relaunched in-person services are now faced with the prospect of temporarily suspending their in-person services or risk these services becoming superspreading events. While the development of several vaccines for the COVID-19 coronavirus offers a ray of hope, the process of vaccinating the US population may be a slow one due to distribution problems and vaccination fears. We will still need to take safety measures like face masks, social distancing, limits on the length of gatherings, and limits on the size of gatherings and the rooms in which they are held due to such factors as the airborne transmission of the virus and the need for adequate ventilation.

    Limiting the length of a gathering reduces the length of time that the people in attendance may be exposed to the virus. The CDC estimates that more than 50% of infections are caused by asymptomatic people. Temperature checks will not detect asymptomatic people since they have not symptoms and a temperature is a symptom. This is why wearing face masks is critical. Asymptomatic people spread the virus not by coughing or sneezing but by just breathing. Worship activities like singing, chanting, shouting, loud talking, and dancing increase people’s respiration rates and the amount of air and virus particles they inhale and exhale. Limiting the size of gatherings reduce the number of people who may infect others and the number of people who may become infected. Limiting the size of gatherings makes contract tracing easier as does pre-registration for gatherings. Rather than scheduling in-person services and on-campus classes and small groups on one day, we may have to schedule them on several different days because some rooms may not be adequately ventilated.

    Right now in my state the governor has requested that churches temporarily suspend in-person gatherings until the middle of December due to the high incidence of infections in the state. Almost all of the state’s counties are red-zoned due to their high incidence of infections. My country was one of the first to be red-zoned. One of the reasons for the high incidence of infections is that people are ignoring the safety measures with which the state and local authorities are asking people to comply. The county and municipal officials are begging local businesses to enforce mask wearing on their premises. People taking unnecessary risks at Thanksgiving and Christmas is expected to boost the incidences of infection. The CDC has urged people not to travel for the holidays and to wear masks indoors wherever they are when they are away from home, The CD has also urged people to wear masks outdoors when they are unable to social distance and to wear them at home if a member of the household has been infected or possibly exposed to the virus. People whose jobs require them to have frequent contact with the public, for example, grocery store employees at the checkout counter, are particularly vulnerable to exposure to the virus.

    These developments really put church leaders in a bind. How do they plan for the next few months in such a volatile situation? One of the implications is that churches do need to upgrade their online ministries. A church’s online ministries need to become a major part of their over-all strategy to reach the unchurched and to serve their existing congregations. However, many people living in rural counties or poor inner-city urban neighborhoods do not have internet access. My county, while it contains a college town where I live, is rural. The segment of the population that does not have internet access (and I was a part of that population segment for several years) must access the internet at the county library. A few may have access to the university’s computer lab or the senior center’s computers. In rural counties and poor inner-city urban neighborhoods a church’s strategy must take these limitations to the use of the internet into consideration and include alternative approaches to reaching the unchurched and serving their existing congregation.

  • Pastor Samuel Geiger says on

    Thank you for these insights.
    We as a small church have struggled through the question of online services. Not all agree with having them and even more are rather critical of what is produced. But with that said, our viewership has stayed level and increased slightly over the past few months. This information will be helpful in going forward.

  • Thom. I read your list with great interest. I spent 20+ years in the TV business when I served bi-vocationally preaching and teaching on nights and weekends, while engaged in ” the business” during the week. One thing that you might want to add to your list is that many congregants (once the newness wears off) start to treat the streamed content like a TV show. They “tune in” to see if the content i.e sermon topic, music, or who is singing, is interesting to them. If not, they find another “program to watch”. Also, every show on TV eventually declines in ratings because the viewers get bored, or their attention is drawn away from a show that they loved for the first 4 seasons, but now has been upended by a new competing program. I’ve experienced the same kind of thing when it comes to our ONLINE “audience”, but why should we be surprised; this was happening when folks were coming to church on Sunday. The fire dies down and the interest wanes, because of our entertainment mentality. If there is a game on or an activity that piques their interest, then that will be the “program” they choose to engage with on that Sunday. Please encourage your readers, not to let the numbers i.e ONLINE views, or persons in the seats to depress or encourage them. Thanks much, Sincerely Rev. Julius A. Harper, Senior Pastor Santa Clarita Christian Fellowship

  • Mary van Zuuk says on

    Thank you, Thom for your always insightful articles. I’m not a pastor, just someone “in the pew” but I have a heart for reaching the lost. My thought is that it is also the lack of seeing each other face to face. There was always an excitement in our lobby prior to the service and lots of hugging. Then, here in BC, Canada, we were being limited to 50 people per service and no more touching. We could register to come about twice a month. Some people only came once or twice in that period, as the pastor greeted them from the pulpit and said how glad he was to see them. (We are a church of about 200.) Not sure if they viewed online. And yes, a number of people came as often as they could. I think there needs to be some teaching done via Zoom or other platform, so that we can at least see each other’s faces. Can old-fashioned Sunday School classes become new-fashioned Sunday School classes? When people actually “participate” and feel their input is valuable, they are more likely to want to repeat that. I think, anyway.

  • I think the digital church magnify what the in person church is and if the in person church isn’t right the digital church won’t be right either. Just my opinion.

  • Thank you for the information. Here at Grace Lutheran in Pottstown PA, we have been doing broadcast worship for several months. At first, we were recording then uploading to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but it was tedious and we don’t have the young, tech savvy minds to make it more user friendly. We have learned and are now streaming live on Facebook and uploading to the other formats, much easier. But, we have problems with quality. A church sanctuary is not a sound booth. Churches were designed to project sound out to the worshipping congregation. Microphones and sound boards help with the sound quality, but there is still an echo present. Worship is meant to be live when viewed in the sanctuary. A video camera must be of a quality that makes the viewer feel that he/she is there. A jumpy picture, erratic zooming or the feeling that one is sitting in the noise bleed seats doesn’t make one feel part of the experience. Then there is the internet, the dropped signal and the audio versus audio lag. These are things that we are learning about our broadcasting experiment. In general, it has not been a bad experience, but we can be counted amongst the older, smaller congregations that are lacking the skills and the funds to do top notch broadcasting.

  • Eric Freeman says on

    I’ve found that just as in a “ Regular “ service, the music is very important. Good music will keep non believers interested until the Word begins to speak to them. And all the team members must be invested by inviting people to both the in church and online services. We need to have people to follow up with the online viewers . There must be a clear strategy for success. The Pastor can’t do it alone. Thanks for this information! Truly a blessing!!!

  • I might even add an 8th item: Repetitiveness. The same pastor, the same camera angle, the same background, the same everything. People are fickle, they always want something new or they become indifferent and drift away. Also, online giving is down because people think, “Why should I give, I’m not there is person.” Sorry to say this as a Pastor, but people give to what they love. This pandemic is exposing people’s commitment to God and the church they say they love. Keep up the great work Thom.
    Mike Morawski
    Summit Church, Simsbury Ct
    [email protected]

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks you, Mike.

      • Our small congregation started virtual Worship services in March when the pandemic started. This was a new experience for us but provided us an opportunity to reach out to people in different parts of the country and international. Our congregation instituted a virtual daily 7:00 pm Prayer call , Wednesday Bible Study and targeted meeting for youth, women, etc. Also, we were able to hold quality virtual workshop in partnership with other congregations, on topics such as grieving, depression, Christians and the Law.

        Attendance on Sunday was much stronger at the beginning. but has been consistent lately about 60% of what it was at the beginning. I have heard comments like “I am Zoomed out”,” when is the congregation returning, onsite.”. Most of these comments were people who are new believers or “lukewarm” Christian. Our team has worked weekly on the quality of the services by holding pre-production meetings with all participating parties.

        Our congregation is working on improving our website.

        Nine months later with the potential of being virtual (in Northern Virginia) at least until spring 2021, any recommendation would be a blessing.

    • I do agree with you. I would say in that, those churches that use a PiP or Picture in Picture and focus just on the content in the corner to keep the Pastor Center and Main Screen are missisng the mark. While it needs to be a rather even distribution of content and speaker, anytime someone does PiP and puts the content in the bottom corner, you can’t read what it says when viewing on a phone.

      I also highly encourage the investment of at least a second camera if not a total of three or more.

      Based on learnings from Church Marketing University and others to include Mr. Rainer, a big take away for me is that our Church Websites, Livestreams, Social Media, etc should not raise more questions than it actually answers for a guest or even member who may be viewing your online platforms.

      When questions are not answered, when truth seems elusive, and wose when a church seems to pander to it’s audience, it becomes boring, quick fast and in a hurrry.

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