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How Should I Be Evaluating Attendance During COVID-19?

| 2 min read

Written by Todd Rhoades
Apr 6, 2020 9:43:24 AM

Most church leaders are starting to settle into the new normal.


Of course, this week is Easter, so there is not much of a breather yet. But a week from now, we will be able to hear a collective sigh of relief. Who would have thought that we could have made it through 4 or 5 weeks of not meeting physically as the church? And who would've believed in a million years that there would be no Easter services in 2020?

We've joked for years that many church's main metrics are the two B's: Butts and Bucks. And while attendance and dollars are not the primary indicators for a healthy church, they are once again at the top of the list as leading indicators as to how your church is weathering this crisis. So today, we'll be looking at attendance.


How should I be looking at attendance during this crisis?


Barna Research is doing a weekly study to try to determine the pulse of churches during this time. Week two of the study came out this past week (week three results should be out early this week). It gives an initial look at how churches are fairing during this time in regards to attendance and giving.


According to Barna, about 46% of churches are seeing less weekend attendance (with 21% saying it was 'much less'), and about 54% are seeing higher turnout (with 25% saying it was much higher) during the first two weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.


Of course, this may be comparing apples and oranges for a couple of different reasons:

  • Because they are! In-person attendance and on-line attendance ARE two different things.
  • Everyone, it seems, is using a different metric to tally their on-line number. Is it the total number of streams? The average number of streams? Is it a multiple of 2.5, 3.2, or something else to calculate the final numbers that we're comparing. (For example, does 100 people viewing your live stream calculate into 250 in-person people, or 320 in-person people?)


In many ways, however you calculate your numbers; this does NOT match the most recent Pew study. Of those that said they attended at least church services at least once or twice a month before this crisis hit, only 57% watched an on-line/TV service. 


Most churches I've talked to that are live streaming are pretty happy with their on-line numbers so far.  


So what does all this mean? What should you be asking or monitoring?


Here's the big one:


When will we be able to meet in-person again?


The President has given until the end of the month as the date for things to start opening up again. Of course, this may change according to the circumstances.


It may help to see what some businesses are anticipating:


  • Carnival Cruise Line has canceled all Alaska cruises through June 30, to San Francisco for the rest of the year, and another ship through October 30, 2020.
  • AMC Theatres have announced that they are 'hoping' to reopen movie theatres by mid-June.
  • The Democratic National Convention was supposed to be held July 13-16 but is delayed until August.


These seem to start to indicate that we may be in for a little longer haul than anticipated.


Here are some of the questions churches should be asking moving forward:


QUESTION 1: What if people CAN'T come back to my church until June? July? August?  


This could be a real concern for certain pockets of our country. What if your church can't meet in-person for 3-5 months (we're already entering month 2). You'll want to continually monitor attendance trends (using whatever consistent calculation you're using).


If on-line attendance starts to slip from week to week, it may be time to try different strategies to keep people engaged and connected.


QUESTION 2: What if people WON'T come back to your church immediately when the 'stay at home' orders are lifted?


How long will it take for all of us to feel comfortable being in a room with large groups of people? No one is quite sure.


Read what "Bar Rescue" host Jon Taffer is thinking about how this might affect restaurants: "The biggest worry that I have is the premise of spacing continuing into retail environments. [People] are still going to be cautious and want some spacing... so when restaurants start to space out their tables, it reduces seating capacity by 40 to 50 percent and nobody is talking about this. This will lessen the revenue that restaurants can bring in."  


He continues: "When we consider the change in capacity, this could affect sports arenas. It could affect movie theaters. It could affect Broadway. So if the seating capacity of these businesses is going to get changed and our overall revenue capacity lowered as a result of it, that's really powerful."


But that's restaurants. How does this apply to churches?


People may be skittish to come back to your big room. In-person attendance may be slow to return to previous norms. 


I think we need to prepare for that.


There could be a period where churches will need to do both: in-person AND on-line until people feel totally comfortable meeting in large groups again.


QUESTION 3: What if there are so many people that come back to your church, you can't handle them all?


Todd, you're speaking out of both sides of your mouth.


Well, yes, I am.


The truth is: anyone that tells you they know right now what this will look like in a month or two is lying. No one knows.


The American people are quite resilient. We may decide when we get the 'all clear' that things are back to normal almost immediately. Restaurants will instantly fill. Concerts will sell out. And political rallies will resume.


Maybe they will. Maybe they won't. We. Just. Don't. Know.


I've heard some people say that churches will be packed when all this is over. I have no idea if this will be true. BUT you need to be prepared in case it is. What if your church sees a huge increase at your weekend services when this is all done? Will you be ready to minister and disciple those that God sends your way?


QUESTION 4: What if revival happens and it does not translate into more people coming to your church on Sundays?


I hear a lot of talk about potential revival, and I'm praying along with you that that happens. There are significant signs of spiritual awakening starting to happen, and I think that will increase the longer this crisis goes.  


But don't automatically think that revival in 2020 means that our churches will be (physically) packed. Take what you're learning now about discipling people on-line that might be beneficial in whatever new reality we eventually settle into.


These are the four questions that I think every church leader should be asking about attendance during this time.


I'd love to hear your thoughts.


What are you asking? What are you learning? What are you seeing during this time at YOUR church?  


Take one minute now and let me know what you're thinking/learning


Next week, we'll look at finances, generosity, and giving.




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