Over nine out of ten church leaders describe their church’s decline in attendance in streaming worship services as “major.” Many of them say the decline is at least 90 percent from its peak during the pandemic.
While we certainly anticipated that many church members would return to in-person worship attendance after the quarantine, we were not prepared for the magnitude of decline in digital services. And this decline took place regardless of the platform: Facebook, YouTube, and others.
How do we explain this decline? What observations do we have about this surprise? Here are five of those observations.
1. The desire to return to in-person worship services was a pent-up demand far greater than we thought it would be. Church members grew weary of looking at a screen. They missed the fellowship and connections their local church afforded. Though many members have been cautious about returning, they are nevertheless leaving the screen and returning to in-person at a rapid pace.
2. Watching streaming services never developed into a habit. One of the reasons millions of church members attend in-person services is because it represents a healthy habit they have developed. Viewing streaming services was perceived to be transitory by most who viewed them. It was never in the long-term plans of most people.
3. The novelty has worn off. There were undoubtedly many curiosity seekers who watched the streaming services in the early days of the quarantine. After tens of thousands of churches began offering digital services, it was no longer a point of curiosity.
4. Be careful not to invest too heavily in streaming services. Many church leaders continue to update the digital hardware and software at a significant financial cost. Other leaders spend hours each week preparing and refining the digital services. More attention needs to be paid to working toward getting more of our congregants returning to in-person services.
5. But don’t abandon digital services completely. They still have an important place in churches. You have some members who are physically unable to attend in-person services. You have people in your community who are not believers. Some of them are discovering local churches and hearing the gospel through streaming services.
We had a pastor connect with us at Church Answers shortly after the quarantine began. His church of 35 in attendance (in-person) increased to several hundred (digital) the first week of the quarantine. He declared to us that he could see his church reaching megachurch status of 2,000 or more in just a few weeks. I’m sure he was speaking tongue-in-cheek. At least, I think he was.
That first week represented the peak of the attendance. Today, only three or four people watch the services online. His story is not unusual in this strange world of the post-quarantine church.
I thank God for the mission opportunities of digital services. I think we have yet to discern all of their potential and future. The streaming of worship services likely did not turn out the way we anticipated thus far, but abandoning it now could prove to be costly to your Great Commission efforts in the future.
Posted on November 8, 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.
More from Thom
I think the last two points are most important to realize. The focus of online presence, for most churches (at least smaller ones) the video should focus on the underserved in the community – those who are incapable of in-person attendance and those who are seeking a church home.
It was my intent, from the outset, to do enough to be presentable without being a production. Not only because there is no staff to produce worship but because community is formed on presence – as we discussed this past week – on fellowship and communion. Chasing the “latest and greatest” equipment was likely to be detrimental and may actually be more of an idol than a worship tool.
I think this church happens to do online very well and has great engagement. Have you seen anyone else doing what they’re doing? https://fb.watch/99tPmUMpAi/ (yes; I work here. 🙂 )
Our online viewers (live and on-demand) are back to pre-COVID levels. Maybe slightly higher. I’d like to think that means it’s because people have come back, but….
Our in person attendance continues to fluctuate greatly. Generally November is when we see our best attendance (along March/April), but not this year. We were back to close to 95% pre-COVID in the spring, but summer vacations and renewed COVID have cut that to 80-85%.
Yes, your numbers are typical of the reports we are getting.
Another observation: All we can record and broadcast is “the show.” Assembling together was never supposed to be “watching a show.” At worst, this is what our churches have become (in person) – a crowd watching a show. If we’re only going to watch “the show,” we might as well watch it at home, or so the logic goes. But the truth is: “the show” doesn’t fare very well on TV. Even bands that sound good live don’t sound good on my computer. Pastors look like poor imitations of TV preachers. It’s poor television, like fireworks, parades or symphony orchestra performances. You don’t have to watch “the show” for long on your computer to realize that. So we change channels.
If we’re going to put something on the web, maybe we should do something that looks and sounds better on the web. And let’s stop telling our people – or anyone else – that watching “the show” somehow equates to assembling together with God’s people, because it doesn’t.
You are right.
There are so many ways to use the streaming services. Updates of events and activities of programs and ministries of the church. Also the leadership could have all types of created studies and programs to enhance learning God’s Word. Even the pastors could add a devotional or informationall message once or twice a week.
What about keeping prayer times and updating of praying requests. To me prayer should be the top priority of ministering to others. Working without God (not praying) is like walking on a line over Niagra Falls without a net.
Perhaps much of the issue with online services is that we were so focused on the technical aspects that we missed the interpersonal connection challenges. If it’s better late than never, we need to cultivate online service “hosts” to make online participants (not “viewers”) welcome and respond quickly to comments to keep people engaged. Our online services made it even easier to be passive Christians than our well-planned in-person services!
Good point, Guy.
I believe the pendulum on this is still swinging.
My church streams the services at 8:30 and 9:30, and offers a recording of the 8:30 service at 9:30 on FB Live. Our worship attendance is back to roughly 80% of pre-Covid levels, and our online presence has, as our tech director says, varied too much to put any decent trending numbers on. The two main demographics of online viewers are seniors who don’t want to go out in bad weather and former members who live in other states.
For the record, our giving is up about 7% over pre-Covid Levels
Thanks for the feedback, Lyn.
Streaming ‘worked’ when in person attendance was prohibited. Streaming worked when folks hadn’t yet replaced their Sunday morning routines. It’s absurd in today’s culture of ‘on demand’ viewing, to only stream at a specific time/hour. Making the sermon or service available for the viewer’s timeline is critical going forward. Streaming also worked when folks wanted to see their service, their pastor, perhaps even their entire worship service and saw that as a window into what was happening ‘right now’. We found it hard to not become distracted with household chores, routines or meals and subsequently ‘missed’ half the service. That discipline of eat, shower, dress, get in the car to be ‘there’ on time is not present when the process of ‘going to church’ is no longer a calculation.
Additionally, the quality and caliber of the stream actually matters. Poor sound, poor video quality and simply a slavish repetition of a service on a single fixed camera and mic are distracting at best and annoying at the worst…
Thank you, Chris.
My church livestreamed on Facebook and on cable TV before the pandemic. We are not seeing an abrupt decline in online viewers, but rather people alternating between viewing services online and attending them in person. The pandemic also has not finished with us and there is the danger that we may prematurely scale back our live streaming. I think that we need to take a wait and see attitude on this one and not allow our preference for in-person church, hybrid church, or virtual church color our thinking. I think that we need to be aware of any bias that we have and not let that bias whatever it may be dominate our thinking. There has been an ongoing debate over inpersonal versus digital church and like everything else in the United States and the church it something over which we are becoming polarized. Polarization to my mind is not a good thing. There is also dynamics like self-fulfilling prophesy and negative bias at work . I would give it one or two more years before I would draw any hard and fast conclusions.