Seven Things We Didn’t See Coming in Churches at This Point after the Pandemic

Admittedly, it’s a tricky thing to find a precise beginning and ending point to a pandemic. We could accept the declaration from the World Health Organization that COVID-19 began on March 11, 2020. But the virus was rapidly spreading around the world prior to that date. The ending date is even more of a challenge to discern.

For our purposes, we look at post-pandemic as that time when churches started regathering in person. Some churches started a lot sooner than other churches, but most churches are back to in-person services today.

As we look back over this regathering phase, we admit that several developments caught us by surprise. Some are good. Some are not.

1. Digital attendance fell rapidly. We continue to be amazed at the dramatic decline in digital attendance in the churches reporting their data to us. We knew it would not be sustained at the same levels as during the quarantine, but we have certainly been surprised that the drop has been so dramatic.

2. Interest in evangelism is increasing. There are two ways to look at this surprise. First, we give thanks to God because more and more churches are responding in obedience to the Great Commission. But we are also aware that the interest is a bit pragmatic as well. Cultural Christians (an oxymoron, for sure) are not returning to church. If a church wants to reach people, evangelism is a necessity.

3. Church finances held well longer than expected. Billions of dollars of liquidity were injected into the market, which helped individuals and organizations, including churches, for a season. But we are surprised that giving has not declined rapidly with the cessation of government support and the onset of higher inflation.

4. The number of full-time church staff has declined more rapidly than expected. Our information is anecdotal at this point, but we believe that the majority of churches have by both necessity and by design reduced full-time personnel. The pace seems to be increasing.

5. Church revitalization has become an accepted discipline and practice much faster than expected. The discipline was growing both before and after the pandemic. But the rate of acceptance and growth of the discipline is nothing short of amazing.

6. Deferred maintenance crises in churches are hindering church adoption. Simply stated, many potential church adoptions have been delayed or dropped because the adopting church cannot afford to upgrade the facilities of the declining church seeking adoption.

7. Most church search committees still search for pastors like it was 2010. We thought we would see pastor search committees (or similar bodies) more willing to change their processes in light of all of the changes affecting American churches. This intransigent behavior portends poorly for a growing pastor shortage in America.

Of all these surprises, my prayer is that the increased interest in evangelism will grow and become an enduring part of our churches. If that obedience indeed takes place, many of the other challenges will be handled well.


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Posted on February 20, 2023

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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  • Raymond Bart says on

    A local pastor here in the Charlotte NC area shared on a talk radio station, that some of his members have decided not to physically return to church on Sunday mornings, but rather continue to watch the service on their electronic device. In other words, some Christians have elected comfort over the in person worship service on Sunday mornings. This is so sad! What are these people thinking???? God wants His people to be together in Sunday morning worship.

  • Rob Wagner says on

    Could you elaborate on what you mean in point #7 ( Most church search committees still search for pastors like it was 2010) Having helped 5 churches transition during a pastoral vacancy and I find search committees are usually good at finding a pastor that will preach good sermons and might even be a good fit for the church and community but are not equipped to help a plateaued or declining church (I know you disagree with the 80%+/- assumption) make a turnaround to health and growth.

  • Dr. Rainer,
    What kind of effect on the FTE averages has the decline in Full-Time staff had? If more staff are part time, bivocational, or covocational, does the FTE per attendee tend to trend up? Does decreased average frequency of attendance also figure into staffing FTE averages? It seems the old 75:1 or similar benchmarks may need some reevaluation based on these trends.

  • I would like more info on #7. What are some suggestions for searching for a new pastor in today’s post pandemic world?

  • Trent Dawson says on

    Dr. Rainer, do you feel the steep decline in digital attendance is seasonal or permanent?

  • Pat Posey-Maine says on

    6. Deferred maintenance crises in churches are hindering church adoption. Simply stated, many potential church adoptions have been delayed or dropped because the adopting church cannot afford to upgrade the facilities of the declining church seeking adoption.

    What do you mean “…declining church seeking adoption.”?

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    I enjoyed your webinar on how typical sized churches are growing. You pointed out that one way they are growing is through multiplication of services (at the same venue, at different venues). I had previously decided not to post on my blog an article advocating that churches combine their existing services due to church attendance decline due to what I had read in older articles and books which pointed out that this was not the solution for declining attendance people thought that it was. Each service has its own congregation. While we may think of them together as a single congregation, they are really separate and distinct congregations. Integrating two or more congregations is like integrating a two or more churches after a merger. The result may be a weaker church. Fostering a church, temporarily helping it, and adopting a church, taking it over on a permanent basis, is not the same thing. I am glad I held off posting the article as the webinar supported my own observations. We need to be creating more contact points with the community and not reducing them.

  • I believe your assessment is correct,as Pastors we must consider that it may be a significant amount of time before this new normal fades,if indeed it ever will. Blessings

  • William A. Secrest says on

    Our digital attendance has fallen to a handful of viewers. My next question has to do with your last point. How are churches to look for prospective candidates. In my denomination. American Baptist Churches USA, churches seeking new pastors are supposed to go through their area/region minister who will bring them resumes of prospective candidates. However, the problem with that is that we do not have enough prospective pastors to fill all of the churches that need new leadership. Part of the issue is that most of the churches in our area are looking for bi-vocational ministers. The issues and concerns are becoming more challenging and those churches will either adjust or die.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      William and Ed –

      Most churches continue to collect resumes and then take months to make decisions. Second, too many churches are simply unaware that they do not have the resources to compensate a pastor full-time. Third, a surprisingly high number of churches expect the spouse to earn sufficient income elsewhere to augment the low income of the pastor. Fourth, a majority of search committee will only look at pastors of a certain age range, typically 40 to 55.

      Until search committees, or their equivalents, move out of these paradigms, we will not make a dent in the shortage of pastors.

  • Thank you so much for your insightful article. Can you elaborate on how Search Teams need to adapt to new current realities?

  • Excellent post Thom. #6 is becoming problematic for many churches and not just adoptions. We have observed this for the past several years.

    In 2022, our team performed Facility Condition assessments that reported over $60M of deferred maintenance in the 2.4 million SF of facilities we assessed, averaging $25/SF. If you take $25 and multiply that times your church’s SF, you will have an idea of the magnitude of the situation. And it is far worse for older facilities with declining congregations.

    If church leaders do not take this seriously, deferred maintenance will truly become the church killer.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That metric is an incredible data point, Tim. And there is no better organization anywhere than Smart Church Solutions to deal with the facility assessment issue. Thank you.

    • And the existing deferred maintenance issue was compounded when facilities were unused and poorly operated during isolation. Many churches basically shut down the heating and air conditioning during the period of isolation. The problem is, climate control is not just for people’s comfort, it is critical for the life of systems and finishes and to deter the growth of molds, etc.