October 21, 2020 Tony Morgan

Trends in Online Viewing, In-Person Attendance, Staffing, and Digital Strategies – Episode 165 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

Data from the Q3 2020 Digital Strategy Edition of The Unstuck Church Report

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Every time I get on a call with a pastor these days, they want to know if what they’re experiencing is similar to what we’re seeing in other churches across the country.

I’ve always enjoyed looking at stats and trends. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve tried to pull some information to help churches get a feel for what’s going on over the last few months.

In today’s episode, we have another round of survey data and analysis to share, and this report is, to me, particularly compelling.

In collaboration with Blackbaud, we completed the survey in late September, and more than 260 churches participated. Just to give you a sense of the types of churches that responded… the average pre-COVID attendance of all of these churches was close to a 1,000 people, and it included 34 churches that were less than a hundred people in attendance, as well as exactly 34 mega churches. So, I’m pretty confident the data gives us a good reflection of churches across the size spectrum.

The questions focused on how churches are adapting to digital ministry strategies, particularly in the areas of weekend services, online viewing patterns, staffing, outreach, etc.

We found some significant differences from the trends churches were reporting back in the early part of the year.

For example, in April, the churches we surveyed indicated online viewers had more than doubled. Current data (which is also a reflection of what I’m hearing from pastors directly) indicates online engagement has tailed off in recent months and is now below what their in-person attendance was pre-COVID.

I hope you’ll give this a listen, and also download the full report to process with your team.

In this episode, Amy and I hit some of the highlights…

  • What the data shows us about where churches stand today in regards to their digital ministry strategy
  • In-person attendance and online viewing patterns—and how they’ve changed—8 months into the pandemic
  • How churches have failed to make structure changes to support their digital ministry strategies, and what that means in the months ahead
  • How churches are (but mostly are NOT) allocating staff and volunteers to reaching people outside the faith
  • 3 strategies churches need to connect new people to faith and church
NEW DATA: The vast majority of church members are still watching services online, but close to 100% of church staff are dedicated to in-person experiences & ministry environments. #unstuckchurch [episode 165]Click to Tweet NEW DATA: 72% of churches don’t have ANY staff or volunteer teams focused on reaching people outside the faith/church. #unstuckchurch [episode 165]Click To Tweet

Leader Conversation Guide

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This week, we’re including a copy of The Unstuck Church Report for you to discuss with your team!

Opt-in here and get the report, as well as access to the full archive of Leader Conversation Guides.


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Links & Resources from the Episode

The Unstuck Church Report

From our unique point of view serving hundreds of U.S. churches each year, we notice benchmarks & trends in church health. 

Each quarter, we share a snapshot of the numbers we track on a macro level that we hope you will begin tracking in the life of your church.

Opt-in to receive the report in your inbox each quarter for free.


Strategic Planning for Digital Ministry

Your weekend experience is no longer the front door of your church—

digital ministry is.

It’s time to shift away from defining your digital ministry strategies as putting your services online and to start thinking about how to really connect with people outside the church and the faith, and how to better engage with people who are already connected to your church. We can help. Let’s talk.

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Transcript 

Amy (01:26):

Today’s episode is all about the trends that we’re seeing in churches. And so if you like numbers today, you’ve come to the right place. Tony, I bet you love these episodes, don’t you?

Tony (01:35):

I do Amy, you know, I’m a numbers guy, and I love the analysis of them. And then I like talking about them. And in fact, just to give you, let’s go back in time to Tony Morgan’s childhood, back in the day, and I’ve always loved sports. Baseball’s my favorite. And I used to collect baseball cards, and I mean, I would study those cards and all the stats on the back of them. I mean, it really captivated me. In fact, I knew the stats on the baseball card so much my dad would like kinda pull me out at parties with his friends and test me on the stats. And, you know, it was just like, I was like a freak show, I think, I don’t know. But because of that, I’ve always enjoyed looking at stats and that’s why, one of the reasons why, in the last few months, we’ve tried to pull some information to help churches too in the season. Because every time I get on a call with a pastor these days, they want to know is what they’re experiencing, like what we’re seeing in other churches. And so we’ve surveyed over these last months during the COVID season, churches a few different times. And most recently, we completed some surveys in September. And in fact, we previewed some of the results that we’re going talk about today in our recent Masterclass on the four keys to expanding your church’s front door. In the survey, over 260 churches participated. Just to give you a sense of the types of churches that responded, the average pre-COVID attendance of all of these churches was close to a thousand people, and it included 34 churches that were under a hundred people in attendance. So some smaller churches participated, and ironically, exactly 34 mega churches also participated in the survey. So I think what you’re going to hear today, as we unpack some of this information from the survey results, is a good reflection of churches really across the size spectrum, Amy.

Amy (03:47):

Yeah. Well, one of the first things that jumped out to me from the survey results was the information about in-person attendance and online viewing patterns that we’re seeing almost eight months into the COVID pandemic. Do you agree with that? Wasn’t that interesting?

Tony (04:00):

Yeah, it was. So this’ll be one of the questions, because I know I’m having these conversations still with pastors, they think right now they’re the only churches that haven’t reopened. Actually what the survey showed us is close to 20% of churches, they haven’t reopened in-person services yet. And those churches do tend to be a little bit larger in average. So as I mentioned, the average pre-COVID attendance of all the surveyed churches was close to a thousand. But for the churches that haven’t reopened, it was over 1100. So these churches tend to trend a little bit larger, but if you do the math, it’s still 65,000 churches here in the US that have not reopened in-person services. Of those that have reopened, what we heard from the churches that participated is they’re seeing about 35% of their pre-COVID attendance. So about just a little bit more than a third of their pre-COVID attendance. Online viewers, though, this was interesting. You know, early on what we’ve heard from churches in our first survey that we did, which was from early April, before Easter, this year: two of every three churches indicated their online engagement was higher than even their pre-COVID, in-person attendance. But in this most recent survey in September, what we heard is online viewers are now 12% below their pre-COVID, in-person attendance. And so there’s definitely been a drop off in the number of people that are engaging online services. And some of this decline in online engagement can obviously be explained by the return to in-person services. But back in April, the churches we surveyed indicated online viewers had more than doubled from in-person services. So needless to say, the current data, which is also a reflection by the way of what I’m hearing just in conversations directly from pastors, indicates online engagement has tailed off in recent months.

Amy (06:15):

Yeah, the survey also collected information related to staffing and churches, Tony. I think we were hoping to find that churches have begun making structure changes, right? To support the digital ministry strategy, which links to online engagement, but what did the data show?

Tony (06:29):

Yeah, so this is fascinating. The survey showed that approximately one staff person is on the team for every 18 people in in-person attendance right now. And then on the other hand, there’s approximately one staff person that’s in a dedicated role responsible for digital ministry strategy for every close to 1300 online viewers.

Amy (06:57):

Tony, would you just maybe explain how you get those ratios? I know you get it, but help our listeners understand.

Tony (07:04):

Yeah. So I mean, the survey information provided us the data on how many people are attending your in-person services. And it also showed us how many staff people do you have. And then we asked about online viewers, and we asked about dedicated roles for digital ministry strategy. And though these numbers are not exactly apples to apples, they still indicate that churches have not initiated the structure changes that will be required to support a robust digital ministry strategy going forward. In fact, let me just give you an example. I was having a conversation with a pastor at a church in Florida recently, and the pastor expressed it this way. Only 30% of our church has returned to in person services. The largest majority of our church is still watching our services online, but he said a hundred percent of our staff is dedicated to in-person experiences and ministry environments right now. And I mean, he was just acknowledging the obvious, we have all of our staff dollars invested in in-person experiences and yet most of our church is engaging our ministry right now online. And we don’t have really any dedicated staff to be focused on that in this season. And so, this is, I think, a key challenge that churches need to begin to wrestle with. I mean, I would have hoped they would have started this process months ago. But online is not going away. And even with COVID patterns that we’re seeing, it’s going to be a while before our congregation comes back the church, but it’s certainly going to be a long time before the people we’re trying to reach are going to come to our services. So this is huge. But here’s the biggest red flag for me. We offered this statement on the survey. Here’s the statement. “We have a dedicated team of staff and or volunteers responsible for ministry strategy to connect with people who are outside the faith and outside the church.” And Amy, less than 30% of the churches agreed with that statement. So again, this was, do we have staff or volunteers that are focused on reaching people outside the faith and outside the church? And less than a third of churches said, yes, we have staff people in those types of roles. And I’m just thinking, how can we accomplish our mission if then 72% of churches don’t have any staff or any volunteers focused on reaching people outside the faith and outside the church? And so, you know, Amy, you’ve been doing so much work in recent months with churches to help them begin to shift, not just towards digital strategy, but towards structure that includes this component of reach. Can you explain that a little bit?

Amy (10:12):

Yeah. Well, it’s doing what you are alluding to, which is we need to get a leader, a leader that’s paying attention to those people that are not interested in faith right now and maybe spiritually curious, because if our front door of the weekend is not really our front door right now, that digital side has to be. And so helping them figure out how do we get efficient and have the right ministry leaders on the connection side, the discipleship side? That’s the area, Tony, you know this, this is where we can engage high-level volunteers and people. A lot of us are built for that relational side and that discipleship-pastor-shepherding side, but the digital side and the reach side, as I’d like to call it, we need some new specialists on our team. We need some people who are good at specific things in this digital arena and designing content. It’s hard to find volunteers who are great at that. And so we have to shift some of our staffing dollars to be more intentional about hiring some specialists and letting the pastors and shepherds be engaged through the lay leadership models, you know, in order to pay for that. Yeah. Well, speaking of reaching people outside the faith and outside the church, I thought that the data related to the weekend services was pretty telling.

Tony (11:27):

Yeah, it was. And it was a bit discouraging to tell you the truth. And so, we asked about weekend services at churches and whether or not those weekend services were designed primarily for people who had already had faith in Jesus. So more than half of the churches, 56% of the churches said, that’s correct. Our weekend services are designed primarily for people who already have committed their lives to Christ. Only 23% of churches disagreed with that statement, suggesting that less than a quarter of churches are creating weekend worship experiences that are intended to be welcoming opportunities for people that are currently outside the faith. And that’s just so discouraging for me. And again, I mean, you guys know, you’ve heard me talk about this many times. I came to faith as a student. I was in high school. And so I was old enough to remember what life was like without a relationship with Jesus. And I’ve just seen through the years too how God’s just transformed me from the inside out. And he’s given me a different perspective for life. He’s given me not only forgiveness and hope and purpose, but I’ve seen what that relationship with Jesus has meant to my marriage, my parenting, my mission, everything that I’m about. And it’s just, there are still people in my life that don’t have that relationship yet. And it just, it’s what drives me. It’s what gives me the urgency that I experienced in my personal mission. And it’s so discouraging then, when I see that the primary avenue that we have as churches to engage with people, Sunday morning, the vast majority of churches, they’re not designing that experience for the person that is outside the faith and has been outside the church. And so, yes, I acknowledge part of the weekend service is about discipleship. It’s about helping believers take their next steps toward Jesus, but I don’t know how we can engage the mission God’s called us to if we’re not prepared for unbelievers to join us in our worship gatherings. So I would encourage you, if you’re one of those churches that currently is not designing your weekend services with unbelievers in mind, that you would go back and listen, it was a recent episode, Episode 161. We talked about three strategies for connecting people to faith and church. And the weekend service really needs to be one of those three strategies. You know, the data’s showing us, and more than half the churches that completed this assessment at least, it’s not happening in most churches. And so, I think this is an opportunity for us to grow. I think this is an opportunity for our churches to reconsider our entire ministry strategy, including specifically what’s happening on Sunday morning. Amy, any additional thoughts you have there?

Amy (14:41):

No, I think it’s been a challenge. I think prior to COVID, churches maybe thought they were doing the both/and like using their service to reach new people and helping believers take next steps. And then I think with COVID closing church and reopening, I think we just knew it was just our regulars coming back for many churches, and they they’ve pivoted because of that. And I think this raises the urgency to don’t stay there. Don’t stay in this place where we’re just talking to the people who are already convinced, but let’s get back to making this a missional space. I don’t know if it’s going to be people’s, you know, first step. We’ve been talking about that for weeks, Tony, but I do believe it’s going to be an important next step. And we need to make that a place that they feel comfortable engaging in and a safe place to ask their spiritual questions and not feel like an outsider. If they feel like an outsider, you’ve just answered their questions about faith in God. That it’s not for me.

Tony (15:39):

That’s right. We did also ask about some related questions to the weekend service as it relates to the online experiences, and 50% of churches agreed with this statement. Our online service experiences are designed for someone in an online audience. Again, I think that speaks to opportunity for growth for us and our strategies because half the churches are, you know, not doing online experiences for an online audience. I thought it was interesting. We asked the question in reverse. Are our in-person experiences designed for someone in an in-person audience and 86% of churches agreed with that. But it did make me curious to know what audience for the other 14% are they targeting? I thought that was interesting, Amy.

Amy (16:32):

That’s funny. Well, finally, can you give us some highlights, Tony, from what we learned specific to digital ministry strategy?

Tony (16:40):

Yeah. So, again here, when you hear the stats here, you’re going to thank goodness we have a lot of work to do. So let me give you some key statements that we offered on the survey, and then I’ll share with you how many people agreed with these statements. We asked as an example, do you have a well-defined digital ministry strategy to engage people outside the church and outside the faith? We asked, do you have clear next steps for those people that you’re trying to reach? We asked the question about metrics. Do you have a way to monitor and measure whether or not your digital strategy is effective? And at most on those questions, about 20% of churches agreed, we have a strategy in place. We have next steps defined. Less than 10% of churches said we have a way to measure that digital ministry strategy, whether or not it’s effective. So goodness, Amy, there’s just a lot of work to be done. And needless to say, there’s opportunity here for churches. During the masterclass, as an example, I interviewed Nona Jones. She’s a pastor. She’s an author. She’s also currently the head of global faith-based partnerships at Facebook. So she’s working for Facebook. She and her husband are pastoring a church in Gainesville, Florida. You probably need to check out her book. I just, I’ve read through it in the last couple of weeks. It’s called “From Social Media to Social Ministry.” And in the book, Nona wrote this, “We must become less concerned about the number of likes we get on a post and the number of views we get on a video, and we need to be more concerned about the number of lives that were changed because of them.” And then she went on to write about the declines that churches have been experiencing for years, really for decades, especially with Millennials and Gen Z. She concluded this section in her book by writing this, “If the church experience continues to be limited to a physical address that you visit when today’s generation lives online, this trend is going to get worse.” And so, again, Amy, if we’re going to connect to people who are outside the faith and outside the church, we need those three strategies that we talked about in Episode 161. We need a personal evangelism strategy. We need to mobilize our congregation, the people in our church. We need a weekend service experience that helps people cross the line of faith. And we need to be invested in this online digital ministry strategy. We didn’t ask churches, how they’re doing related to their personal evangelism strategy in the survey. But let’s hope they’re winning there, because this survey suggested that the vast majority of churches do not have a strategy in place to leverage their weekend services to reach people outside the faith. And I mean, close to 80% of churches acknowledged we don’t have an online strategy to reach them either. So this, I think, is where we need to be focusing if our mission is to make new disciples of Jesus, we have some work to do because there appears to be a huge ministry gap in our churches today.

Amy (20:16):

That’s a big statement, Tony, when you think about those three strategies to reach people, and we can already tell two are anemic. I don’t get a sense that we’ve got great plans for personal evangelism. In fact, the weekend has been such a great place to invite to for many churches. And when that’s gone, our people just aren’t really equipped to know how do I build those relationships? How do I, you know, be a part of that? So we’ll have to talk more about that. The good news is God seems to be giving us some time to figure these things out. I hope this prompts those who are listening feeling, boy, I’m not sure we have those, those three areas covered. God’s given us some time in the midst of the pandemic to actually make these shifts.

Tony (20:57):

And the good news is, Amy. Jesus told Peter the church will prevail. So even in the midst of all of this, I’m glad that we have that hope.

Amy (21:08):

Yeah. Well, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (21:11):

Yeah, most of the work we’ve been doing with churches in this season is around setting direction and aligning structure for a post-COVID world. And that includes a heavy emphasis on a church’s digital ministry strategy. So if you are one of those four out of five churches that currently does not have a digital ministry strategy, I hope you’ll reach out to us. And also, if you’d like to read through the full report from the survey results that we’ve talked about in today’s episode, you can download it for free at theunstuckgroup.com/trends.

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Tony Morgan

Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group, theunstuckgroup.com. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com.
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