Many statistical U.S. church trends seem to paint a bleak picture, but not everything looks grim.
The most recent report from the “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations” study led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research highlights several positive indicators of church health emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. “In many ways, churches across the country are in a better position than they were a year ago,” the report says.
Within the report, five specific trends can give church leaders and members hope that the post-pandemic reality continues to improve.
1. Attendance continues to rebound
Prior to the pandemic, the median in-person attendance for a U.S. house of worship was 65. By 2021, that had fallen to 45. In spring 2022, median attendance inched back up to 50. By the spring of this year, it had jumped to 60.
If virtual attendance through online services are included, more people are participating in the average church now than prior to the pandemic. In 2021, median in-person and virtual attendance was 65, the same level as the in-person alone in early 2020. By 2022, total attendance with both metrics reached a median of 75. While that has remained the same in 2023, more are attending in-person, indicating some previously hesitant online participants have physically returned.
Previous Lifeway Research studies of U.S. Protestant churches have also indicated a return to in-person attendance by many churchgoers. A recent Pew Research study highlighted some of the reasons the remaining holdouts still haven’t returned.
Overall, the Hartford Institute report found churches, on average, are 9 percent below their pre-pandemic worship size, but that varies widely across congregations. In most churches, attendance is still down considerably, but 33 percent of congregations are above pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, 16 percent of current attendees began participating in their congregations since 2020.
2. Church income is on the rise
While Lifeway Research found half of U.S. Protestant pastors said the economy was hurting their churches in the fall of 2022, the Hartford Institute report found church income increasing after a dip last year.
“In 2020, the average church had a median income of $120,000, but income has been at or above that mark throughout the past three years,” according to the report. “This year’s survey showed median income to be $170,000, up nearly 42 percent from three years ago. Even adjusting for inflation, this still represents a remarkable increase of over 25 percent since 2020.”
The report continued to reveal online giving as the most impactful tech shift a church can make. “Congregations without online giving have a per capita annual giving of $1,809, those with ‘a little use’ see giving rise to $2,052, ‘some use’ jumps to $2,388, and ‘a lot of use’ results in per capita giving of $2,428—almost a 30 percent increase over those not using it,” according to the report.
3. Volunteering is increasing
Pastors often struggle with developing leaders and volunteers in their churches. In fact, 77 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say that is one of their greatest needs, the highest percentage of any other difficulty in their ministry or personal life. According to the Hartford Institute research, that may be getting easier for church leaders.
Prior to the pandemic, 45 percent of the congregation volunteered regularly. That fell to just 15 percent in 2021 before increasing slightly to 20 percent in 2022. By 2023, however, volunteering is up to 35 percent of regular participants.
4. Conflicts are down
In the early days of the pandemic, many pastors reported tensions and disagreements within their congregations. Seemingly, those times of intense dissension are gone in most churches. All three types of serious congregational conflict are down compared to 2020. The percentage who say people left due to the conflict dropped from 35 percent to 30 percent, while those who say funds were withheld fell from 13 percent to 9 percent and pastors leaving because of the fighting fell from 12 percent to 7 percent.
Meanwhile, churches that reported minor conflicts that never reached a serious level grew from 28 percent to 32 percent, and churches that said they had no conflicts at all increased from 36 percent to 39 percent.
“One possible implication of these seemingly counterintuitive findings might be that people in contention with their existing church might have left prior to, or early in, the pandemic,” the report said. “Therefore, the result might be that the last three years have created congregations with attenders that are more homogeneous and of one mind which leads to less serious moments of conflict.”
5. Leaders are optimistic
With these hopeful signs, it’s no wonder pastors and leaders are increasingly optimistic about the future of their church. Around 4 in 5 say they have a positive outlook for their congregation’s future, including 45 percent who say they are very positive. Far fewer say their perception is neither positive nor negative (9 percent), somewhat negative (9 percent), or very negative (2 percent).
Not every factor in the report points in a positive direction. “It is apparent that congregational dynamics are still in a state of flux,” said project director Scott Thumma. “Churches, and especially clergy, continue in a recovery phase. Even though aspects of church life are rebounding, the destiny of many faith communities is still uncertain.”
Still, it is clear church leaders have reasons to believe that if their congregation survived the pandemic, there is reason for optimism moving forward. Challenges still lie ahead, but these encouraging church trends should buoy pastors.
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