Church Health Insights and Analysis from the Latest Edition of The Unstuck Church Report
If you try to measure church health by simply tracking giving and attendance, the last year has been very confusing. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say most pastors have been struggling to get a pulse on the health of their ministries.
But, truth be told, most churches didn’t know what to track (beyond giving and attendance) even before the pandemic.
While giving and attendance are obviously two critical components to monitor related to church health, the issue is that some churches are growing in those areas and are still NOT healthy ministries.
It’s not uncommon for us to find a church that’s financially healthy and yet completely stuck or in decline. It’s also not uncommon to find a church that’s growing in numbers but has a completely dysfunctional staff team, or very few new professions of faith.
Using the Vital Signs Assessment, we began tracking data on all the metrics we encourage church leaders to track, then opened up that data to pastors at large and shared the trends and insights we were finding through The Unstuck Church Report. You can subscribe to that quarterly report for free, or, if you’re subscribed to the podcast show notes, we’re sending it out to you for free, as well.
Each quarter, Amy and I dedicate one podcast episode to unpacking a few of the standout trends from the new report. In this episode, we touch on:
- What 12 months of data is telling us about the state of In-Person Attendance, Online Service Views, New Guest Connection, and Baptisms
- The metric we see as a KEY DIFFERENTIATOR between healthy and unhealthy churches—AND why we’re so concerned about it in this quarter’s report (it’s reporting at about half of the level we consider healthy)
- What % of adults and students are participating in smaller groups during this season
- The current state of volunteer engagement
- New data on Giving, Cash Reserves and Debt
Leader Conversation Guide
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Unstuck Learning Hub (both the Vital Signs Assessment and prior Masterclasses are all available here)
- The Unstuck Process
- The Unstuck Church Report – Q1 2021 Edition
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. How do you gauge the health of your church? If you’re trying to measure health only through giving and attendance, then the last year has been very confusing to say the least. When we’re assessing the overall health of our ministries, it’s really helpful to have a benchmark and some external data to compare our metrics to. That’s why quarterly we released The Unstuck Church Report with the most up-to-date trends from the data we’re collecting from churches. On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy research from the first quarter of 2021. Make sure before you’ve listened to stop and subscribe to get the show notes if you haven’t. Each week, you’re going to get tools to go along with that week’s episode, all the resources we mention and access to the archive of all of our podcasts resources from past episodes. Sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. Now let’s join Tony and Amy for today’s conversation.
Before we dive in to today’s conversation, I think listeners are sometimes interested in hearing updates about what’s happening in your life and with the team at The Unstuck Group, Tony. It’s been a few months since we talked about this. So how are you doing?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s been a fun season. And so, my goodness, how couldn’t it be, I think, after 2020, right? But, I mean, just a few highlights from recent months. We just had another masterclass last week, and that’s actually been, it’s been a fun pivot for us in the middle of COVID to get more intentional about really focused content on specific topics that we have heard pastors and church leaders are interested in, and so much positive feedback from those pastors and leaders that have been participating in those masterclasses as well. So that’s just been fun to be a part of those. And just to have that unique engagement with so many leaders, too. And then, Amy, I can’t tell you how glad I am that we have started to travel again. So, just being on the airplane, seeing new places again, actually being in the room with the teams that we’re working with, that’s just been so refreshing. But on top of that, goodness, we’re just working with all kinds of churches. I ran through my calendar again. It looks like Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey, Texas, Washington, Minnesota, California, Pennsylvania, Idaho. We’re actually working with a church in Toronto, Ontario, and all these churches, these are engagements this month that we’re working with churches. So that’s pretty exciting to have that type of connection with ministries really across North America. And then for me personally, after spending all of last year in Zoom meetings and working with people virtually, I just decided, Amy, I need to be around other people.
Listen to you. What’s going on?
I know. I don’t sound like an introvert. Do I? I went to a coworking space and so they’re not on my team, but it’s just good to be around other people in the workspace again and meet new friends and those types of interactions. So yeah, I’m doing well, but mainly because I’m just not behind the Zoom camera all the time now. So that’s been fun, Amy.
Yeah, Travel isn’t super fun right now on a plane in a mask for hours on end, but there is something magical about being with the teams and seeing their environments. It just makes it for me, it makes it stickier for me personally. Outcomes are great regardless of virtual or in-person, but there’s something about getting to know that team and getting to know that church in a much more tangible way. Well, that gives us a sense of trends at The Unstuck Group. And today’s focus is really about the trends that we’re seeing in churches. And every quarter, our team releases The Unstuck Church Report to help church leaders monitor what’s happening in other churches in areas like ministry, reach, connection, staffing, leadership, finances. So before we get into the specific numbers, Tony, can you tell us a little bit more about why we offer this resource?
Yeah. And actually I just heard from a pastor yesterday referring to vital signs and how they’ve used this tool now for several years just to kind of benchmark areas of health in their church and then opportunities for them to kind of rethink strategy and see some improvement in some key areas as well. But this all goes back to several years ago. I was just, I was concerned that the churches that we were working with were too focused on just attendance and giving. And, you know, these are still two critical opportunities, I think, for us to monitor the health of the church. But these aren’t the only things that help us monitor the overall health of the church. And in fact, Amy, you know this to be true, we we’ve worked with some churches that are growing in attendance, but they’re just not healthy ministries. And likewise, I mean, it’s not uncommon, honestly, for us to find a church to be financially healthy, but they’re completely stuck or in decline. And so because of that, I really wanted to open up what we were using to monitor the overall health of the church. And then COVID hit. And of course that threw us all in many directions looking for how do we monitor health in this season, especially in the times where we weren’t able to have physical gatherings. And so last year we refreshed our vital signs assessment to begin to capture some new data, including data that helps us take a look at more of the balance between online and what we’re doing there and what we’re doing in our physical gatherings. And it’s going to be, I think, helpful over time to kind of monitor some of these trends in hybrid churches to see what impact that is having to the overall health of the church, but this specific report we had 170 different churches provide their information through the vital signs assessment. That included some small churches. That included churches over 10,000 in attendance. And by the way, if you want to receive these reports, they come out quarterly. You can subscribe at theunstuckgroup.com/subscribe.
Well, and as usual, we don’t have time to talk about everything today, but we’ll make sure our listeners, they get a link to the full report in the show notes. But let’s hit some of the key findings from this quarter’s report. And Tony let’s start with the data around ministry reach. What would you like to highlight from that section?
Yeah, so no surprise in person attendance is down, Amy, in churches. So overall the average decline, year over year, was 28%. What I would say is this is the average of all churches over the last 12 months, but I will tell you, anecdotally, as I’m talking with larger churches or more Metro or suburban churches, you know, many times what I’m hearing is they’re at about 50% now in this season of where they were this time last year when it comes to in-person attendance. Now, on the other hand, that’s been offset quite a bit by online engagement. And in fact, churches reported in this quarter’s data that online service views are up 123% higher than the previous year. And so, needless to say, not only how are some people watching services online that previously were connected to the church, but what we’re hearing from churches is they’re seeing a lot of new people that are watching services online too, which goes to support our theory maybe before COVID that online, and not just online services, but our digital strategy, that’s going to be the new front door for churches, I think, going forward. And then also, when it comes to reach, I think it’s important to look at this data, the number of new people that churches are starting to connect with over the last year. There was a 35% decline in this number. And by the way, if you’re curious, how are we measuring this? We’re encouraging churches to look at the number of new people in their database over the last year. And if you’re curious to know what the current benchmark is, I’m not saying this is healthy, but this is what the average church is reporting to us. They’re saying the average number of new people added in the last year was 8% of their total database. So as an example, if a church was tracking a thousand people in their database, they added 80 new people to their database in this past year. But my gut tells me, Amy, that growing churches probably need to be at least double that number. I mean, there needs to be a much higher number of people that are, or we’re connecting with, and that are becoming known and sharing their name and their contact information. But because of that, because we’re reaching fewer new people, it’s no surprise too that baptisms were down. In this last quarter, church’s reported baptisms were down over 50% from the year before. And honestly this continues to be the most concerning metric for me as we receive this data. And I started to look through this. At a minimum, my hope would be that the decline in the number of new people and the decline in baptisms would also mirror the decline in in-person attendance. But unfortunately that’s not the case. The declines are actually more significant in both new people and baptisms. And that suggests that churches are re-engaging with people who were previously part of our churches but not having as much success connecting with people outside the church and outside the faith in this season.
I’m really actually looking forward. I know we’re talking about this quarter’s report. I’m actually looking forward to next quarter’s report because it’s going to be the first time we’re going to be comparing COVID numbers with the new reality. And that’ll be really interesting to see how we’re tracking year over year. Because first quarter last year, we still had attendance the first couple of months, and COVID hit the third month. So I think those numbers are going to be shifting and even more telling. Well, let’s shift to ministry connections then, Tony. What trends are we seeing in that area?
Yeah. So a few key areas that we looked at, and there are more in the report itself, but for today’s conversation, let me highlight the number of people, adults and students is what we asked her just to report to us, that are participating in smaller groups in their church. And right now the average is 63% of adults and students connected in these smaller groups. And, you know, that’s actually a 9% increase in group engagement year over year. So that’s pretty promising that in the middle of all that we’ve experienced in these last number months, there’s actually an increase in smaller group participation. And more than 80% of churches are offering small group options now, and that’s a shift we’re beginning to see as churches move more from maybe a Sunday school model to offering small group options, at least making that an option for people in their churches as well. Another area, of course, that we look at as volunteer engagement. And even here we’re seeing volunteer numbers are starting to recover. And it’s obvious there was a significant drop in volunteer engagement as more and more of our ministry was pushed online. But you can see, teams, churches are starting to recover because volunteer numbers were up 11% year over year. And if you’re curious what the current benchmark is, churches reported to us that on average 43% of their adults and students are serving at least once per month on a ministry team at the church. And then another key area, if you’re not looking at this, I would strongly encourage you to consider monitoring this, because we have found this next category to be one of the key differentiators between healthy, thriving, growing churches and churches that are stuck or in decline. And it has to do with the number of volunteer leaders in a church. So this is not just people that are serving on teams. These are leaders that are leading either groups, small groups, or they’re leading other people on ministry teams. And on average, what we’re seeing is there’s one volunteer leader for every 12 people in in-person attendance. Now, what concerns me that, Amy, with that number is that’s actually not too bad if you don’t factor in the part of your church that’s not with you for in-person attendance. And again, if we were fully back in physical gatherings, I actually think that number is about half of what it needs to be in a healthy church. So I think there’s opportunity for us. We’re seeing an improvement when it comes to group participation. We’re seeing improvement when it comes to volunteer engagement. I think where churches need to really double down and give more focused attention is how we’re identifying, equipping, empowering more volunteer leaders in our ministries.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Again, there’s a lot more trends, a lot more trends in the full report, which is available for free, but let’s wrap up today’s conversation around the financial trends. What are the findings in that area, Tony?
Yeah, so there’s actually a good news here. And this is encouraging for me, because my goodness at the beginning of COVID, when all the churches were shut down, I was concerned, what will the financial impact to be on churches? But what we are seeing is on average giving is up in churches. So, by, 1.7% to be precise. On the other hand, the number of giving units overall was down by 9% year over year. So, you know, I think that says a lot about some of those key people in our churches that are there. They’re connected, they’re invested, and they’ve been very generous in this last season, too. So for fewer giving units to be giving more, as far as total giving is concerned, is very positive. Also, we are seeing churches actually have more cash reserves than they did at the beginning of COVID, which again, I just, it’s kind of shocking to me to see this, but specifically, pre-COVID about, again, a year ago, churches had 15 weeks of cash reserves set aside on average, right? And now that has increased to 22 weeks of cash reserves.
It’s kind of funny, the biggest fear coming out of when COVID first. Well, I shouldn’t say say the biggest fear, but churches immediately attended to the people that were already connected. And this giving thing was, I think, one of the biggest fears, and we’ve said it probably a dozen times this past year. Giving is up, finances are good, and it’s been the area and now we’ve increased our cash reserves because we understand that the world can pivot on us rather quickly and want some form of security, but we’ve seen churches with a lot more than 22 weeks now, too. And we’re actually challenging them to spend it, like invest it.
That’s right. That’s absolutely right. And you know, final area of finances. And again, there’s some other categories that we include in the report. Debt is down too, so not only are churches kind of socking away more money, they’re also paying down debt. And, you know, there are several data points here that suggest churches, they’ve generally made it through the last year in better financial position than they were pre-COVID. Giving’s up. Cash reserves are up. Debt has been reduced, but as you just suggested, Amy, our hope is that churches now will leverage this financial health to begin investing in refreshed vision that helps us make more disciples of Jesus. It’s not going to help us in our mission if we just continue to sock money away. We need to make sure that money gets reinvested now in this next season.
That’s right. All right. Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
So, Amy, churches, after hearing about all these benchmarks and other churches, you may want to participate as well. And you can do that by taking our Vital Signs Assessment. This is where we collect information in a number of different categories, so that you can kind of compare where is our ministry compared to these other ministries that are participating, and you can do this through our learning hub subscription. It’s included with a number of other tools and assessments and resources, and all of our masterclasses from previous quarters. And all of that’s available. You can just look for it on theunstuckgroup.com website, and this’ll be a great way for you to monitor trends in your church in some key areas beyond attendance and giving. And as I mentioned earlier too, all of this summary data is included in our quarterly Unstuck Church Report. It’s free. We make it available every quarter and you can subscribe at theunstuckgroup.com/subscribe.
Thanks for joining us for this week’s conversation. If you like what you’re hearing on the podcast, and it’s been helpful for you, we would love it if you’d stop and give us a review on your favorite podcast. That’s a huge help in getting this content out to other leaders. And if you’re sensing you could use some help building a healthy church and a healthy team, we’d love to start a conversation with you. Just visit us at theunstuckgroup.com/start. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.