Empty pews are here to stay

A hybrid world breeds worship fluidity

by Richard Hong | Presbyterians Today

Rodnae Productions/Pexels

In-person worship services are returning at various rates and with various restrictions. And while some congregations are reporting in-person attendance that’s higher than it was pre-Covid, most churches are reporting lower in-person attendance with a significant number of people attending their online services. My congregation is in that majority.

While there are many factors that go into calculating the actual number of online viewers, which we will delve into in the next column, the larger issues emerging in this hybrid landscape are worship frequency and fluidity. When we see average attendance that is half in-person and half online, we may think that the congregation is divided into two different congregations. In my congregation, though, what we’re seeing is that most of our active congregation attends in person sometimes and online other times.

We have been livestreaming since 2017, but prior to Covid, very few people watched online. Our online attendance was limited to a handful of people who were home sick that weekend or were out of town. On any given Sunday prior to Covid, people decided to either attend church or not.

Then the pandemic period acclimated our congregants to online worship. Post-Covid, attending online worship has become a fully acceptable third option. So, on many Sundays and for many reasons — inclement weather, cranky children, oversleeping — those who fully intended to come to church in person decide to attend online.

Before the pandemic, frequency of worship attendance was already declining. A frequent attender was one who attended 2–3 times per month. Now what we’re seeing is that people are attending in person once or twice per month and online once or twice per month. It would be a mistake to look at the 50-50 split between in-person and online attendance and interpret that as half the people not being interested in the in-person community that is important to the life of a congregation. Most of our people want to have an in-person experience. They just don’t need it every week. In this light, one of the roles of online worship is to maintain the sense of connection with people between the times they attend in person.

So I encourage you not to focus on how your average weekly attendance has changed, but to look at your attendance in different ways. For example, in a given month, how many of your congregants attend more than twice per month? How many are monthly? How many are fewer than six times per year? How do we communicate most effectively with them? How do we keep them engaged? Would you even attempt to adjust your messaging or programming to reach these different subgroups?

And remember: Most in your congregation are not online versus in-person worship people. They are both. Appreciating the nuances of frequency will give you a better picture of how your parishioners are engaging with your congregation and help you engage them more effectively.

Richard Hong is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Englewood, New Jersey. Have a question or request for a future column? Email him at rich@englewoodpres.org.

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