The 30-40-30 Hypothesis for the Post-Quarantine Church

Are we beginning to see an attendance pattern among churches in North America?

During our weekly Church Answers team meeting, Chuck Carter raised this question. He coaches several pastors for Church Answers. Other team members chimed in, particularly those who work with church leaders every week.

There was a sense of unanimity among us that he was seeing what we all were seeing. For now, we are calling it the 30-40-30 hypothesis. Let’s look at some of the salient points we affirmed. 

  • Compared to pre-COVID numbers, about 30% of church worship attendance has disappeared. Of course, this number represents an observation more than detailed research. Also, there are always outlier churches. For example, one megachurch pastor told me that his worship attendance is only at 50% at this point. Another pastor said to me that his attendance is 110% above pre-COVID numbers. But, overall, we agreed that 30% is a good representative number for those who have not returned to worship services.
  • About 40% of the attendees that have returned are only marginally committed. They may show up once a month, twice a month at most. They are attendees only. They tend not to be involved in small groups, nor do they get involved in ministries in the church. Many church leaders suspect they do not significantly support the church financially, but most of these leaders admitted they do not have access to individual giving records.
  • Another 30% of the pre-COVID number have returned, and they are significantly committed to the church. They are involved in ministry and volunteer positions. They fill gaps where others have dropped out. They attend worship services with almost weekly faithfulness. And they are likely committed financial supporters of the church.
  • In summary, the 30-40-30 number represents the dropouts (30%), the marginally committed (40%), and the committed (30%).

Church Answers was planning to move forward with a more statistically reliable survey of churches regarding attendance patterns, but we are postponing it for now. We want to see how long this current COVID spike lasts. It is premature to determine how churches are doing when we have no idea what a new normal may look like.

We would love to hear from you regarding attendance patterns at your church. Is your church experiencing something like the 30-40-30 attendance pattern? If your attendance patterns are significantly different, let us know what they are.

Also, we see a slower recovery among larger churches, particularly churches with an attendance above 500. And megachurches (average weekly worship attendance of 2,000 and above) are recovering the slowest. Is this pattern true for those of you who serve larger churches?

These are challenging times for everyone, particularly church leaders. Please know that our team at Church Answers prays for you regularly. We are here to pray for your specific prayer requests and help you in any way we can.

Above all, thank you for your ministry in serving others in the name of our Lord. Despite the challenges you face, be assured that your work is not in vain.

Posted on August 30, 2021

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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  • Emma Pearson says on

    Thank you for your stand for the cause of Christ!

  • It’s summer time, so gauging attendance is tough. We were averaging around 500 pre-pandemic and were back to 80-85% before summer (and the spikes). That 15-20% is composed of some with legitimate health concerns and some over-cautious. We have about 10% who seem to be gone. Friendly when we contact them, but no expressions of interest. We did have 3 couples back for the first time this past Sunday, so, who knows!!? We are also seeing a fairly steady stream of guests.

    Online viewership is definitely down.

    Getting volunteers has been a challenge, especially for ongoing service. We had great volunteers for our “on-steroids VBS program,” but getting ushers, nursery workers, etc. is still hard.

  • The numbers fit our church well, but don’t tell the whole story. We are at about 70% of our pre-Covid attendance of 400, but more than 30% of the church haven’t returned because we have also added several new people since the pandemic.

  • Completely spot on! Well done!

  • For the year, we are at 65% of pre-COVID for Sunday School and 74% for worship, but those numbers are increasing. Last three months are up to 75% for Sunday School and 82% for worship. I think the 30% that your “rule” suggests that have left for good is probably about right for us, too. And, it is harder to get people involved in serving in ministries like AWANA or VBS. I would be interested in seeing more detailed research about this. BTW, our worship attendance is 220, just for comparison sake.

  • My church is currently on-line only (again) due to the huge spike in #s in Douglas County OR. Churches in. My community are seeing about a 30% return rate for in-person services (about 1/3 of previous numbers.) On-line viewing is slowing considerably at least for the church I serve, This is anecdotal, but it appears to me the more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches are seeing attendance stay steady and even growing – many of them never enforced masks mandates, many of them never went on-line only.

  • John Warsaw says on

    Our church (PCA) has picked up several NEW attenders since reopening. Do you have an idea of how many of the 40% marginally committed or even the 30% committed are new to that church, or are new believers?

  • We have experienced the 30/40/30 hypothesis, but with on difference. We have been seeing about 20-30% of our pre-covid numbers coming to our church as first time and returning guests. It’s been very exciting to watch.

  • Our church had finally climbed to about 90% of pre-COVID levels until this last round of the virus variant.. Now, we are back to 75-80%.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    What I have observed here in western Kentucky is that smaller churches have tended to keep holding inperson weekly services against the recommendations of the state and local health authorities or have been quick to resume these services when circumstances permitted. Contributing factos that I have identified are the PERCEPTION that smaller gatherings are safer than large ones (they aren’t; they simply reduce the number of people who may be exposed to COVID-19 infection in one gathering), the substantial number of older people who comprise the membership of these churches and who have a longtime commitment to a particular church, and the significant role that meeting together in the same room plays in the life, ministry, and worship of these churches. A fourth possible factor may be how independent the church may be. For example, Baptist churches with a congregational polity are more likely to keep holding inperson services or quickly resume them, United Methodist churches which are part of a connectional polity are more likely to do what the other churches of their denomination are doing in their district or conference. They are more likely to adhere to the latest recommendations of the state and local health authorities. I expect that we may see some regional differences but I do not think that they will be substantial. The location of a church, the attitudes of members of the community toward the pandemic, and public health measures such as masks and vaccinations, and the impact that the virus has had or is having on the community are also factors that may affect attendance and active participation. Most of the people who have returned to my church’s inperson services are older, more committed members of the church who are fully vaccinated and willing to wear a face mask. The church is pro-active in taking steps to reduce the risk of infection to returning members and attendees, based upon the latest recommendations of public health experts. The church is located downtown and has a long history in the community. It is involved in a number of caring ministries to the community. It is also known for its music ministry and children’s ministry. As well as holding inperson services, it livestreams its service on cable TV and Facebook and records them for later replay.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Those are some really good insights, Robin. I am particularly intrigued by the difference between churches that have congregational polity versus those that don’t. Thanks!

      • Bob Myers says on

        The AME church right next to ours was shut down from May of last year until April of this year on order of the bishop. And the local pastor did not dare to diverge from what he was told. His efforts through outdoor gatherings and regular FaceBook engagement were nearly heroic. I felt for him. We were only closed by order of the governor (Illinois) for a few months until the courts forced him to allow churches to meet.

        I do think polity does make a big difference.

  • Jonathan Waits says on

    We are seeing a consistent 60%+ in our services now relative to pre-Covid average worship attendance. That’s our actual number. If everyone who has actually returned actually showed up on the same Sunday, we would have closer to 90% of our pre-Covid numbers in the room. In the last month we have transitioned back to all in-person Sunday school and started tracking that attendance number once again. In four weeks the average there is just over 80% of those who come to worship also come to Sunday school. As for our membership…well…that’s a more complicated question. On paper somewhere it says our resident membership is close to 600 which is utterly preposterous. If I were to guess, I would say our total membership is something more like 180 and maybe not that high. We’re definitely not north of the 200 member mark. Our giving this year is running about 4% north of budget. I know that makes us an exception to many of the current church norms, but we’ve got exceptional folks.

  • Bob Myers says on

    Fascinating hypothesis. I hadn’t considered analyzing the current situation in those terms. I’m not entirely sure how it applies to my congregation.
    I think the first number – 30% haven’t returned is probably close to our reality. The next number, 40%, is cloudy for me because ours is a gentrified congregation. Many don’t venture out at night and participate in small groups. But most of them do faithfully participate financially. As for the 30% who are highly committed, I wonder if our number is closer to the 20% of the traditional 80-20 formula in the “volunteer” realm. Again, our average age is a significant factor. There is, however, a greater sense of spiritual engagement in our worship services, even though my assertion is only anecdotal. Our singing and engagement in corporate prayer is much more robust than it was pre-pandemic. Response to the sermon is raised as well.

    I guess, in summary, that middle number might be skewed a bit in gentrified churches like ours because of financial commitment without volunteerism and small group participation.

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