The Upside & Downside Impact of the Pandemic

Last week I heard researcher Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research give a midstream report on its Lilly-funded project “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.” It’s a five-year study of the pandemic’s lasting influence on churches and church leaders. One broad bit of context—the average church today seats 220 people, but has about 60 people attending… Apart from that attendance gap, the project has uncovered plenty of concerning trends, but also signs of hope.

On the Downside

  • Declining in-person attendance in churches – In 2000 the median church attendance was 137, but by 2020 the median was 65. Since the pandemic, the in-person average is 60–10 percent below pre-pandemic levels. At 60 people you can barely afford a full-time person and have no leftover money for age-specific programs. About a third of congregations have seen a 5 percent rise in attendance, but 55 percent are below where they were three years ago. It’s not just the marginal people who are not coming back to church—it’s every strata of commitment. People realized in the pandemic that their community was not as strong as they thought, and worship wasn’t as meaningful.
  • The average age of clergy is increasing – In 2000 the average ministry leader was 50 years old—in the last couple of years that averaged spiked to 58.
  • The age groupings in congregations don’t look like the age patterns of the wider culture – There are significantly more people over 65 in congregations than in the culture at large. Both clergy age and the age of people in congregation are creeping up by one year, every year—a huge increase.
  • Ministry leaders’ willingness to change increased greatly during the pandemicbut has receded back to lower than pre-pandemic levels – Only 21 percent say they “strongly agree” with a willingness to change, the lowest number in the last two decades. Change meant survival during the pandemic, but people are more rigid now. “I’ve already been forced to change so much, and now I’m done with change.”
  • Fewer congregations are offering “mainstay” programs – The study is finding big declines in many areas: 1) Prayer groups, 2) Children’s Christian Education, 3) Adult Christian Education, 4) Youth Programs, 5) Social Justice Activities, and 6) Community service activities.
  • Clergy are discontent – When asked, “How often do you think about leaving the clergy or your church,” half of today’s ministry leaders (51 percent) say they’ve thought of leaving the ministry—it was just 36 percent in 2021. Career ministry people feel exhausted and battered.

On the Upside

  • The median income of churches is $170,000, compared to $120,000 pre-pandemic  And income has gone significantly up between Spring 2022 and Spring 2023 – from $120K to $170K. This spike may be the result of government PPP and ERTC payments and assistance. Meanwhile, the wider use of online giving has boosted per capita giving by $100 per person. Anecdotally, pastors say they’re still strapped for cash.
  • Volunteering went down from 40 percent to 15 percent from the start of the pandemic until Winter 2021, but has crept back up to 35 percent today – Many older volunteers who retreated during pandemic have come back, but their role is now filled by a younger person.
  • Serious conflicts in churches have decreased – Likely, this is because congregations have become more homogenous—people have gravitated to churches where they better “fit.”
  • Ministry leaders have a positive outlook for their church’s future – Almost half (45 percent) are very positive, and 36 percent are somewhat positive.
  • Hybrid worship practices have gone way up – But the vast majority of congregations have a little bit of virtual attendance on the side; it’s not a primary feeder of attendance. Traditional programs have restarted after the pandemic, but have shifted back away from virtual offerings.
  • Congregations that scored high on optimism are more likely to have grown –  In optimistic churches, donations have increased and they have a better sense of mission and purpose. High optimism fuels higher growth and spiritual vitality. But which comes first? Are positive outcomes leading to hope, or is hope leading to positive outcomes?

If you would like help in facing your own congregation’s challenges and opportunities, reach to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into a hopeful future.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In the Spring of 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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