As the mist clears…

We can now see more clearly what’s been happening to churches in the UK, pre and post lockdown.

5 comments

Ok, and breathe.

I’m seeing lots of analyses of trends of what has been happening in churches over the last few years, pre- and post-lockdown.  Most of the number-crunching comes from US sources, so it doesn’t work over here in the UK; our churches have been significantly smaller, and our culture significantly less open to evangelical thought, for a long time.

Some things do work across the water, though.  It seems to be true that the lockdown/s accelerated a number of trends.  Those below seem important to me, but please note – I may well be wrong, and your mileage may vary.  I’m sure there are many counter-narratives to what I’m about to discuss, and if there are enough they will prove me wrong.

I’m going to coin two abbreviations for this:  PP is pre-pandemic, PL is post-lockdown. If those don’t work for your country or culture, adapt as needed –  UK readers will get it.

If you’re a statistician, I apologise for the crude nature of what follows. I’ve seen some statistics for the Church of England, that is all. My observation is that the pandemic and lockdowns were so disruptive, that we need to start again with our baselines.  We can compare life and habits before and after lockdown (that’s what I intend to do), but we need two or three more years of life PL before we can see what the statistics are really doing.

So what follows is anecdotally based, and I know that the plural of anecdote is not data. Please pile in with other stories.

To state the obvious, I’m commenting, not commending.  There will be many churches and leaders who feel that what I’m going to say is critical: that is not my intention.  I’m trying to pull some observations together.  I may have spotted trends, but while they might seem inevitable from what has happened, they are not all necessarily irreversible, if we decide to address them. 

Decline 

If the graphs were heading downwards PP, they now head down more steeply.  Those members who were drifting away found it easier to drift.  Our margins have shrunk.

If the graphs were heading downwards, they now head down more steeply 

And a church with a disproportionately older congregation would have been hit harder by a pandemic which particularly affected older people.  Someone said to me, ‘I’ve aged ten years over the past two.’ That’s going to affect more established churches and denominations.

Some churches, numbers still unknown, will have closed their doors.  More than would have been predicted PP. Others will be running on a reduced range of ministries – in particular, rumour says that children’s and youth offerings have been hit very hard because of lockdown, and the pipeline of kids coming through was severed for a long season.  Rebuilding that, and stopping the leaks, will take a lot of energy. 

Initial Recovery

There seems to be some evidence that medium and larger-sized churches have found it harder to recover PL, even to 75% of what they were seeing three years ago. So it isn’t true to say the reverse of what I observed above.  It is NOT true for most churches that if the graphs were heading upwards PP, they now head up more steeply. There seem to be occasional outliers on the very large (for UK) level, to which I’ll return.

A bit of rule-of-thumb geography.  Small churches occur all over the country, from deeply rural to tight urban.  Medium (UK terms, meaning 100+ on a Sunday) or large (250+) occur in areas of population density, meaning towns rather than villages, and probably towns with a larger commuter footprint, or cities.

Areas of greater population density are areas of greater population turnover.

Here’s a thought.  If a church had 40 people on a Sunday, and it wasn’t in an area of high population turnover, then getting back to that same number, means engaging with the same people. Now, given trends, its more than likely that attendance PP>PL, but to get back to that 40 means engaging the same 40.

Given that most medium- and large- churches are in higher turnover areas, though, they will be facing a different challenge. They may be assuming they will get back to PP attendance levels, but they probably won’t be gathering exactly the same people. They will be aiming to engage a partially or significantly changed 150.

To see this most starkly, imagine a church in a university town with a largely student attendance.  Overnight, almost, that was slashed as the students headed home for lockdown, and stayed there. Two years of graduating students have left.

Question: are you expecting to reach previous attendance levels? And is that with familiar, or increasingly with new faces?

Question: are you expecting to reach previous attendance levels? And is that with familiar or increasingly with new faces?

Natural cycles

Behind that lies a second challenge for the rest of us.  Because we were expected or required to close our church doors for a year or so, our natural cycle was broken, too.  Normally, people go and people join, and maintaining stability, let alone growth, requires deliberate attention on those who are new.  But during lockdown, people  may have left in a natural way (moved house, say), but they could not join a new church in the same way – the doors were locked.  Putting it crudely, the bath-plug was out, but the taps were turned off, week after week.

The bath-plug was out, but the taps were turned off, week after week.

Here’s some good news in that.  Those same medium- to large-churches will have already been used to good habits of engaging new members. So I would expect lots of these churches to be experiencing a higher-than expected set of new faces.  I’d love that to be a predictor of continued and accelerating growth, but I have two caveats.

  1. Some of that is backlog, and the most likely trend (barring revival) is a return to a more normal turnover.  So this is accelerated for a season.
  2. Some of that, though, is because people have changed church PL.  In particular, families moving because of the lack of youth and kids ministries in their previous church.  So it’s old fashioned local transfer-growth, but with a particular element which (barring revival) is unlikely to reverse.  Kids and youth ministries occur in fewer churches, which have enough critical mass to run (and even staff) it. And that’s just going to continue.
  3. The old rule, if the kids are happy the parents will stay, if the kids won’t come the parents will move, still applies.

Families in particular are moving because of the lack of youth and kids ministries in their previous church.

Giving 

The financial impact of the pandemic on churches seems to have taken two broad paths.  Churches which were reliant on renting out their buildings to generate the necessary income to run their ministries really struggled, because those renters didn’t come.  By contrast, those churches which which relied on giving seem to have fared better, because government schemes to support jobs came into play.  Giving may have dipped, but it has not ceased like rental income largely did. 

We have yet to see what inflation and recession bring into play, but that’s a different story.

Note: this is not a criticism of churches which have relied on rental income. Smaller congregations in large old buildings need to find ways to raise funds. But there is one correlation: irrespective of size, churches which explicitly teach and expect giving as part of membership will have had a less terrifying budget round.

What’s more, the closing of the buildings made cash-based collections impossible, along with a wider societal move towards cashless life.  Churches which were already set up for cashless giving, with a robust online offering, were better placed to make that accelerated transition.

Online presence

Leaving aside any theological reflection, there have been a clear series of phases for most churches.  The overwhelming majority were not live-streaming church PL. A few would do it for special events, but a regular online livestream was not on most churches’ radar.  

Phase 2: the lurch into lockdown put the majority online in some sense, mostly on Zoom and/or Youtube. This was a levelling season, because many of even our larger churches did not have the facilities to livestream anything more than a succession of iPhones. 

BUT Phase 2(B) was happening simultaneously, as larger churches diverted resources into moving away from that levelling point.  It seems obvious what happened: reconfiguring their teams (larger churches tend to have them), and diverting giving or reserves, they invested in a series of moves which, matching the easing of lockdown restraints, meant they could continue live-streaming with increasing sophistication.

SO Phase 3, was that many smaller churches ceased to offer their online services because they didn’t need to, or adapted it into something which would serve those unable to attend, but kept it minimal, many medium to larger churches have kept and improved their offering.

Note the ratios: there are many more smaller churches than there are medium to large ones, but those medium to large ones have greater online visibility.  So searching for a church service on YouTube will now direct the user disproportionately towards those fewer, but better resourced, streams.

Phase 4, then, is that we have moved clearly from a levelling phase to a marked differentiation, between those offering an online experience, which is of an increasingly improving quality as they keep investing in equipment and improve their skills, and those which have returned to a much more PP, in-person only, church.

Planting

Again, I don’t have data, but I am hearing early rumours that churches which had a strong planting habit, managed to maintain that during lockdown, and even planted during or shortly afterwards.  Frankly, I am in awe of their energy.

They might seem to bust those trends of smaller churches, but they are actually on their own curve: tightly committed, highly invested and focussed, nimble and trimmed back to their essentials.  They won’t have the resources of larger churches, but nor will they have the related costs and expectations, and they certainly won’t have the costs of being small but declining in an expensive facility. 

The really large church

There are a handful of other outliers in this scenario, which by their very large size make different rules for themselves.  Some have invested heavily in their online offering (Holy Trinity, Brompton, for instance, or Gas Street in Birmingham), others are rebuilding more classically with an in-person strategy, which is where I’m guessing most student-focussed churches are sitting.  The October recruitment bulge for undergraduates will revert to being the most effective growth point for them, followed by closely targeted teaching and discipling. With a couple of cycles, they my recover well  

Most churches don’t fit either of those patterns, and while we benefit from their resources, we don’t really live and grow by the same rules.

Possible implications when we join this up

I’m really aware that lots of people – especially in rural churches –  won’t like what follows (and it may not fit their reality, anyway, because of their more static populations)

I’m also really aware that lots of people – especially in smaller churches –  won’t like what follows, because it seems to amplify the ‘larger churches have more resources’ message.  I’m afraid that that is a reality. But as I said at the top, that doesn’t mean it’s an irreversible trend. Of course it is possible to devise schemes by which more money is shared from some to others, or people encouraged to move (or move back).  The inevitable and very awkward question for a smaller church, though, is whether there are embedded habits which encourage them not to grow. There might be conditions where additional resources are not the answer.

But, here goes..

Whatever has happened to the number of churches (and I’m guessing the number will have reduced), the overwhelming majority will register as ‘smaller’ churches.  More than that, because PP>PL, the proportion of churches which count as ‘ smaller’ will have risen.  And maybe even the absolute number will as well. Most (more?) churches will have fewer than 75 adults on a Sunday.

Simultaneously, though, a pre-existent truth still exists, which is that taken in total, more people will be in larger churches than smaller ones.  Why is that still true, despite what I said about medium to large churches recovering more slowly?

Because medium-to-large churches will tend to have the ministry range to attract new members, they will be more effective in doing so – especially those families (nb. including, away from other churches).  They have resources which gave them space to innovate, even a little bit, and a critical mass for different things to happen.  Even though the experience inside that congregation may be that PP>PL, the experience of someone from outside is that PL at those churches is more vibrant than PL elsewhere.

Further, those churches will tend to have an online presence which makes it possible for people to see (and, crucially, compare) what the church is like before they attend. This is more than a great website – it’s now a back-catalogue. People can, and do, look before they come.

And, they have the PL habits of knowing how to handle new people.

This could well mean that the slower recovery during the initial phase has now been replaced by a faster (and accelerated) growth, built some backlog, which will turn into more normal growth patterns in the year ahead.  If you’re seeing strong growth now, don’t assume that that will continue, but definitely plan for continued growth, for sure.

Pre-existing medium- to large-size, plus clear teaching on giving, plus an openness towards innovation, plus a missiological spring in their step

So putting this all together, and depending on where you sit theologically this either highly offensive or blindingly obvious, pre-existing medium- to large-size, plus clear teaching on giving, plus an openness towards innovation, plus a missiological focus, will tend to have favoured the growth of (broadly-defined) evangelical/charismatic  churches.  Note ‘tend’, and you may well know different, but I stand by that.  And those are found among the theologically conservative groupings.

Numerically, more small churches. But resources sit with larger, orthodox churches, with a missiological spring in their step.

For a denomination like the Church of England, that’s a recipe for a difficult future.

Please pile in below: disagree, refine, clarify.

5 comments on “As the mist clears…”

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. We planted our church during the second lockdown. We had, had training for planting a church in person but then had to launch online. We are part of a family of churches so could draw upon the expertise/technical know how of others. We wanted to be outward focused so chose Facebook Live and saw some growth during the 10 months until we could meet in person. For the first year we found things could be quite organic. We have know reached a size where we need more structure to ensure things like a good welcome happen and people feel connected. Many things to think about as a small church plant.

    1. Thanks, Russell. Although planting at that time might have felt tough, I reckon you’re well-placed to make good decisions – lean and nimble!

  2. Thanks Chris. I think another trend you could have considered PL is that of Hong Kong families arriving and settling in the UK. The church I work at (university city centre) did lose some of it’s fringe, but I think we’ve now more than replaced that by HK families joining. This factor may well be felt in a few particular places in the UK though (Manchester, Reading, parts of London, etc.).

  3. This sort of discussion and reflection is really helpful as we seek to address weaknesses and invest in strengths. Thank you!
    I’m at a large city-centre church with quite a few students and we reflect a number of the trends you mention:
    – our total numbers are down: PP>PL
    – through the pandemic we were open as much as the law allowed and we experienced the joy of meeting in person a number who had been watching from home, had ‘joined’ the church, but hadn’t been able to attend during lockdown. That was both in 2021 and 2022 (some were more cautious than others – anecdotally character/politics/worldview were a more significant factors than age in deciding when people returned).
    – We have a lot of natural turnover and we welcomed families who might in the past have gone to a more local church, but come to us because of a larger children’s/youth offering (U18s grew by 7% from Nov 2019 vs Nov 2022). We feel a strong responsibility to plant/graft out with/to local churches that have a sustainable children’s work, rather than sucking the life out of others.
    – our student numbers are down. I’m guessing two factors: i) momentum was completely lost – there were fewer students around who had been with us to invite others (we lost a whole cohort or two); ii) in our situation there have been a few other good student churches locally who have either started or developed more focus on students. A third factor could also be that there are fewer evangelical students coming up to Uni (I don’t know the stats on that – though definitely true compared to a decade ago). Where there might have been a number of nominal Christians coming up to Uni 10 or 20 years ago (ripe for quicker conversion), now it is pretty much only evangelicals or Roman Catholics who would claim to be Christian in any meaningful sense.
    – where our numbers reduced by 10-25% (for the various congregations/settings) a church planted from us in 2019 (with about 60 people) has grown by 30% (Nov 2019 vs Nov 2022)! PTL.
    – we’ve kept a simple (tech permanently installed) online offering (YouTube; Zoom for the smallest congregation) and there are signs many watch before coming in person to join/enquire.
    – Two other trends we’ve noticed:
    1. Where people might have come 3 out of 4 Sundays PP, I’m guessing (from experience) that ratio has reduced. For some, they’ve got out of the habit of going every Sunday/got into the habit of other things. I don’t have any stats on that, I may be wrong and it obviously varies hugely from person to person/family to family.
    2. Again, anecdotally, we’ve noticed a greater openness to Christian things by non-Christians. The two areas we’ve seen this is inviting people off the street to a series of lunchtime carol services and a more significant take-up in enquirer courses (this could of course be from a whole range of different factors – we have started some new outreach projects which have fed into this).

    1. Tim, thank you – super helpful. Frequency of attendance is a factor (sometimes mitigated by the participation online while away, which in our case would have been possible before). Momentum is an issue in all of this, and part of our responsibility as leaders is to recapture that. And great news about plants!

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