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

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39 Comments

  • Rev. Susan Presley says on

    We must be doing it wrong (or right?) because our online attendance is increasing rather than decreasing.

  • Douglas Fetterman says on

    This article was passed on to the elders of Hope Community Church in Schaumburg, IL.
    I agree that quality of what is seen and heard as a streaming service needs to be a priority but often times it can be confused with creating a program that ends up being “entertainment” and not it’s intended worship service and Biblical instruction. That means finding a competent person within the individual church that can handle the details and time required to pull it off. Thank you for publishing this and future digital articles to help us navigate this tough but needed topic.

  • An active member says on

    My local church has music led by a paid person who sings off key. A cluster of people were talking after a congregational meeting. (masked but not socially distanced). 4 said they muted the music in online services. 3/4 of the cluster were board members! Yet they are afraid of speaking up at board meetings. Music should be one area of the service that could shine during virtual services.

    The church has a website without an easy link into the live streaming service.

  • Dee Carol says on

    Some observations of attending my local church online since early March:
    • the digital location of service changed 5 times – sometimes day of service – long URLs in picture (can’t copy to paste)
    • the service link is placed last minute
    • over summer the service moved outside (no remote access) with masks optional
    • state and local COVID protocols interpreted liberally (Town cited the outside services)
    • tone-deaf pastor does not shut off his microphone during hymns or if he does, forgets to turn it back on
    • when technology fails, no attempt is made to notify those at home (email list, Facebook, whatever)
    • no channel to report service failures live
    • pastor frequently asks for input from congregation, does not repeat the question/input, and offers commentary
    • visuals are not viewable at remote location

    At some point, even loyal, technically proficient parishioners are weary of 9-months of chaos and have no wish to return to in person. Church, make a decision, use the best equipment you can afford, and know you (only) are on camera and on microphone.

    I attend my home church but get far more out of the 4-5 other services I attend – some mega churches and others tiny churches that allow simplicity to rule. One of the best has a theme announced each week and asks parishioners to send picture on the theme; all ages read scripture online from home, Sunday school kits provided in safety so kids engage online as well.

  • Ed Johnson says on

    I’d love to move forward with something like this and hire a tech person. Anybody have a job description?

  • The change that was coming has arrived. More of the persons who claim to be unchurch or spirit lead but not religious are now able to be engaged without a sense of fear to belong without any judgement. I was told year ago that the when we as a formed religion took away congregational fear, more would feel welcome. I used the term Pioneer Mission Ministry and yes it is back to basics theology. This time the internet is the buckboard and the words and feelings come from the Leader who listens and hears the heart of the people.
    In our future is the hope of theologians of the New Mission where the music of songs is where the people fill in the blank of scriptures that have the words to match the moment. I know from my experience the old ways are unlikely to return. Church become faith centers for families to hear more about worship around the dinner table the the alter table. Bread of life is shared with smiles and bright eyes that say love is here. Traditions of old are now the sounds of home and hearth, warmth is felt by being together in these days. It is not the dark of winter that brings us doubt,

    As Bishop Elect The Rev. Anna Greenwood-Lee word resonate the Front door is on the screen, where all are welcome, come and journey as my Friend Herbert Driscoll says in his marvelous Hymn
    https://www.sixmaddens.org/come-and-journey-with-a…/

  • I’ve been hearing this for months. What I’ve not heard about are those churches that are transitioning or balancing this well. Who’s succeeding and who can we learn from?

  • What are some effective strategies for connecting with online worshipers? We are a church of 125 members. Traditional, informal worship – 15 in person, about 100 Facebook Live viewers. We have a well-trained tech person, but not a large budget.

  • As a congregant i would put one of the biigest issues at passive vs active participation. In person I feel a part of the worship experience, actively engaging and contributing to the worship service. At home, I am relegated to a passive environment with little contribution to the overall worship experience. I feel this is what would keep people returning digitally: figure out how to get those attending involved to impact the service.

  • Thanks- we have (I have) been experiencing some of what you shared. We have a great core team that is really committed! We have had three people place their faith in Christ from our on line- praise God!!!
    We want our online to continue strong after we move to in person again.

  • Mark Armstrong says on

    Our church invested well in live streaming technology because we’re in it for the long haul. We have focused on producing the best quality service we can and have noted the difference between being physically in church, watching the stream live and then later the uploaded recording. The distinctions are important. We are training others to manage the technology and since live streaming is geeky, one or two blokes have been interested. I love technology, but as the minister I know I should be doing other things.

    We are looking to partner with a remote, country church and regularly live-stream, perhaps even buying the hardware on the client-side. The aim is to built relationships. Technology alone won’t do that, so we are looking to partner with a church we can visit once or twice a year and encourage their walk in the Lord.

  • Thank you for the insight I’ve seen are online numbers declining slightly as well. However I’ve also seen a consistent number of individuals who really prefer the online format. I am concerned that once we go back face-to-face will still need some sort of digital and or online presence.