The latest report from “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations” tracked challenges that may be warning signs for U.S. churches.
By Aaron Earls
There are encouraging signs both for churches in the United States and Christianity around the globe. But there are also concerning trends, and leaders should be prepared to face these challenges in their churches.
The latest report from “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations” study led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research noted positive shifts for U.S. churches but also tracked challenges that may be warning signs. “Overall, it offers a mixed message—some evidence of rebounding positive trends, with other continuing negative characteristics, and a few new dynamics in congregational functioning because of lingering adaptation in this time of uncertainty,” the report says.
While some believe we have arrived at a new normal, the authors of the report argue that “the societal and religious alterations of the post-pandemic reality are still in flux; the unsettledness is still with us.”
The report highlights five challenges churches must overcome moving forward.
1. More churches in significant decline
Compared to three years ago, a higher percentage of churches say they are facing serious attendance declines. In 2020, 27% of religious congregations said they had lost more than 25% of their worship service attendance. In 2023, 30% of churches report a similarly steep drop.Compared to three years ago, a higher percentage of churches say they are facing serious attendance declines, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Click To Tweet
Currently, 54% of churches are declining by at least 5%. Meanwhile, 12% are considered stable—plus or minus 5% of their previous attendance rate. Another third of churches (33%) report growth, including 22% that have grown more than 25%.
Recent analysis by Lifeway Research of specifically Southern Baptist churches found 39% are declining more than 10%, 42.5% are plateaued, and 18.5% are growing more than 10%.
2. Aging leaders and congregations
The overall age of clergy continues to inch upward. A Lifeway Research analysis found the average age of U.S. Protestant pastors has remained fairly stable over the past decade, moving from 53.6 in 2013 to 53.84 in 2023. The Hartford Institute research found a more consistent increase, climbing from 57 in 2020 to 59 in 2023.
Not only is the pulpit graying but so are the pews. In 2020, 33% of congregational members were over 65 years old. That has grown to 36% in 2023. The aging is particularly evident within Mainline Protestant churches, where nearly 50% are older than 65. Meanwhile, the percentage of attendees at all religious services who are under 35, fell from 37% in 2020 to 32% now. So, according to the Hartford Institute, there are now more churchgoers older than 65 than younger than 35.In 2020, 33% of church members were over 65 years old. Now, that's grown to 36%, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Click To Tweet
3. Less desire to change
Churches are now less likely to be willing to change. The Hartford Institute reports have historically demonstrated a link between willingness to change and church growth. Now, fewer churches indicate a desire to change their methodology.
In the spring of 2020, almost 3 in 4 churches (73%) agreed they were willing to change, including 23% that strongly agreed. During 2021, almost 9 in 10 congregations expressed a willingness to change, including around 4 in 10 who strongly agreed. That number has since dropped. Today, 2 in 3 churches (66%) say they are willing to change, and only 20% strongly agree.
4. Navigating changing worship service experiences
Around 3 in 4 churches (73%) are conducting hybrid services that include in-person worship and online streaming. A quarter (25%) are only doing in-person, and 2% are strictly online. These were rapid changes for congregations and leaders, given only 20% said they streamed their services in 2019. Similarly, a 2019 Lifeway Research study found only 22% of pastors said they streamed their entire worship service online. More than 2 in 5 pastors didn’t livestream any part of their service or post it online afterward.
For those offering hybrid services, attendance numbers seem to indicate it’s better to concentrate on one or the other. Those who say they are mostly in-person (with little emphasis on virtual) have a higher overall in-person attendance average (125). They also have more regular participants (100). Those who say they are more virtual than in-person have higher virtual attendance (90) and more total attending worship (140).
On the negative side, those emphasizing virtual have one of the lowest numbers of regular participants in their church (60). However, the more emphasis a church places on its virtual services, the more likely they are to have grown in their worship attendance compared to pre-pandemic numbers, due to their increase in online worshipers. Additionally, those who say they are mostly in-person have experienced an average 9% decline in worship service attendance.
Per capita giving further complicates the picture. Overall, hybrid churches have higher giving rates for participants than other congregations. But a greater emphasis on in-person worship leads to higher giving rates. Those who are more virtual than in-person are giving the least per capita ($1,053). As the emphasis on in-person increases, the giving rates increase, with those attending churches that are mostly in-person giving $2,479 per capita. “This finding, along with the varying levels of volunteering and regular participation, indicates that virtual attendees are more spectators than active and engaged participants in the church’s life,” the report states.
5. Exhausted pastors
A 2021 Lifeway Research study found few pastors actually left the ministry in recent years. The annual rate of pastors leaving the pulpit in 2021 (1.5%) was statistically unchanged compared to 2015 (1.3%). But that doesn’t mean they never thought about leaving. The Hartford Institute report found pastors have grown more likely to consider leaving their specific congregation and the ministry completely.In 2021, 63% of clergy said they’d never considered leaving pastoral ministry. By 2023, that percentage fell to 49%, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Click To Tweet
In 2021, 79% of church leaders said they never seriously considered leaving their congregation, while 10% said it crossed their mind once or twice, 5% thought about it a few times, 3% fairly often, and 3% very often. By 2023, 62% said they never thought about leaving, while 32% considered it once or twice, 10% a few times, 4% fairly often, and 2% very often.
A similar jump happened among those considering leaving the ministry completely. In 2021, 63% of clergy said they’d never considered leaving pastoral ministry, 19% said once or twice, 10% said a few times, 5% said fairly often, and 3% very often. This year, however, only half (49%) said they never think about leaving ministry, 25% said once or twice, 17% said a few times, 6% said fairly often, and 3% said very often.
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Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.