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May 24, 2021Culture, Research

Church Decline and Recovery During COVID-19, Part 2

A national project aims to understand the impact of the pandemic on the church attendance, giving, staffing, and church leadership.
Church Decline and Recovery During COVID-19, Part 2
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Most of us are aware of the effects of COVID on our home church. Many of us have heard accounts of various other churches through conversations with friends and colleagues. But it is hard to know what these individual stories mean for the church as a whole.

The National COVID-19 Church Attendance Project (NCCAP) represents our efforts to try to see the bigger picture. By gathering as many individual church stories as possible, from all over the country, we aim to provide a broad sense of the impact of COVID on the church and what the path to recovery has looked like so far. Through the collaboration of Wheaton College, Exponential, Outreach, and the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, our initial survey represents the experience of more than 600 churches, over 400,000 weekly worshippers geographically covering 47 states and the District of Colombia.

In our first article, we describe the nature of the project and its goals, and we gave an overview of our findings regarding church attendance patterns over the past year and a half. We reflected on the effects of COVID on church giving and staffing. Our final article of this three-part series will focus on church leadership and priorities at present and looking forward.

Initial Uncertainty. We all remember the beginnings of the pandemic. At the time, Christianity Today categorized viewpoints as polarized between, “The coronavirus is just another flu” and “We are on the brink of financial collapse”. Perhaps more impactful for church funding specifically was the tremendous uncertainty regarding how long the pandemic would last. It was common to plan events for “after the pandemic”—according to a study by Barna Group many pastors were planning to reopen by the end of April. In fact, the latest reopening date as an option on the survey was August. Just one week later, one percent of respondents selected the new latest option, October. This uncertainty combined with the initial disruption of the pandemic to church services contributed to monetary giving declining in 64 percent of churches by the end of March. Obviously, giving and attendance diminishing was a source of great concern.

Faithful Giving. How long did this widespread decline in giving documented by the Barna survey last? To get a sense of the longer-term impact of the pandemic on giving, we asked churches how much giving they actually received over the course of 2020, along with the amount they had expected to receive when they budgeted for the year before the pandemic hit. Thankfully, realized giving was remarkably close to what was anticipated, despite the initial drop. Based on those churches responding to our survey, the majority (55 percent) of churches experienced giving greater than or equal to what was budgeted prior to knowledge of the pandemic. The year ended with a total realized giving within one percent of what was anticipated.

Consistent Across Churches. The impact on employment throughout the pandemic varied substantially by demographic. For example, employment for low-income workers declined much more severely than for high-income workers. Therefore, due to the uneven impact of the pandemic across groups, we wondered if there might also be large differences across

churches in terms of actual giving compared to anticipated. Surprisingly, this was not true. The following statistic takes a little explaining but imagine lining up all churches from those with the largest shortfall to the smallest. Suppose we then looked at the church at the 10th percentile, i.e., nine out of ten churches would have had stronger giving, and one out of ten churches would have had weaker giving relative to this church. Even the 10th percentile church experienced actual giving only 14 percent below budget. The median church (the church precisely in the middle of the giving experience) experienced realized giving exactly equal to anticipated. The 90th percentile church experienced giving 19.4 percent above budget.

Staffing Also Remained Stable. The church is made up of people. We are not cogs in a machine but individuals with specific gifts and talents. Each of us has developed unique relationships and understanding with other individuals. Those relationships are tied to the churches we attend and work at. Significant turnover represents the permanent loss of much of that value. Thankfully, like giving, staffing has been remarkably stable. The majority (58 percent) of churches currently employ the same number of staff as in January of 2020. Only 22 percent of churches have seen a decline in staffing. Total employment across churches surveyed was down 2.2 percent. Given that national employment fell 7.7 percent over the same period, this represents remarkable stability in the church.

The CARES Act and Staffing. The CARES act included funds specifically tied to retaining employees. About 4 out of 10 churches responding to our survey received funds through the CARES act and it appears to have impacted employment. Among churches receiving CARES act funds, only 17.4 percent have observed decreases in staffing levels compared to 24.5 percent among churches that did not receive funds. Similarly, total staffing fell by 0.7% among churches receiving funds compared to a 3.0 percent decline among those not receiving funds.

What is remarkable is how unremarkable these statistics are. If you had this data out of context, you would never guess that it was surveying the state of the Church during a global pandemic. This is especially striking considering that 60 percent of in-person attendees from January 2020 were not attending in January 2021. When reflecting on the tumultuous experience of the church in 2020, perhaps one of the words to characterize the year was faithfulness.

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Church Decline and Recovery During COVID-19, Part 2