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5 encouraging church trends

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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. Median worship service in-person attendance climbed from 45 in 2021 to 60 by 2023, according to a study led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.CLICK TO TWEET

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% below their pre-pandemic worship size, but that varies widely across congregations. In most churches, attendance is still down considerably, but 33% of congregations are above pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, 16% 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% from three years ago. Even adjusting for inflation, this still represents a remarkable increase of over 25% since 2020.”Adjusting for inflation, church income has increased over 25% since 2020, according to a study led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

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% 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% 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% of the congregation volunteered regularly. That fell to just 15% in 2021 before increasing slightly to 20% in 2022. By 2023, however, volunteering is up to 35% 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% to 30%, while those who say funds were withheld fell from 13% to 9% and pastors leaving because of the fighting fell from 12% to 7%.

Meanwhile, churches that reported minor conflicts that never reached a serious level grew from 28% to 32%, and churches that said they had no conflicts at all increased from 36% to 39%.

“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% who say they are very positive. Far fewer say their perception is neither positive nor negative (9%), somewhat negative (9%), or very negative (2%).

What’s next?

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.

This article originally appeared at lifewayresearch.com. For more insights on church and culture and practical ministry helps from Lifeway Research, sign up for their Daily Insights newsletter.