005 | How to Accurately Measure Online Church Attendance (and How to Measure What Matters)
April 23, 2020
Over the last four weeks, Barna has been checking in weekly on the state of pastors, their families and their congregants in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis through national pastor panel surveys. In addition to these weekly check-ins, each Monday, Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman, accompanied by expert guests and fellow church leaders, have presented and commented on the survey findings during a live broadcast of the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the trends we’ve consistently tracked over the last month—virtual attendance and online giving—as well as whether or not churches are currently serving their communities and what metrics pastors are using to measure digital engagement during this time of social distancing. You can watch the latest broadcast of ChurchPulse Weekly here, or, come Thursday (April 23, 2020), you can listen to the most recent episode wherever you get your podcasts.
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Churches report serving their community by distributing food and reaching out to those at risk
When asked the primary way in which their church is serving the local community, a plurality of church leaders (32% each) reports helping distribute food and supplies or reaching out to elderly, isolated and at-risk community members. Though another one in five (19%) sayS their church does not have an official / organized response at this time, another way churches are helping their local community includes providing financial resources for those who need it (10%).
Many U.S. churches also say they have partnered with another organization (33%) or church (23%) to provide services and assistance within their local community. Similarly, though to a lesser degree, 35 percent of pastors say their church has partnered with another organization (20%) or church (15%) to provide services and assistance outside their local community.
Church leaders say that attendance is still on the rise and giving is leveling out
This week, pastors say that their church service’s online attendance was higher than a typical in person Sunday service (59% vs. 49% last week) and the proportion of those who report that attendance was less than a typical, in-person Sunday service (20% vs. 33%) declined. This week, one in five pastors (21%) says that attendance this past Sunday remained steady.
Pastors indicate that giving has begun to level out after an initial decline; fewer pastors report financial giving being down compared to last week (43% vs. 50%). Slightly more church leaders note that giving was actually on the rise this week (23% vs. 19%) and about one in three (35%) says it had remained the same.
Fifty-six percent of pastors say their church will “definitely” continue to provide digital worship services once social distancing is over. Another three in 10 (29%) answered “probably” to this same question. Only 3 percent would not continue digital services (2% probably not, 1% definitely not) and another 8 percent are unsure. Four percent are still not offering worship services online, even presently.
For now, churches count online viewers as engaged attendees
Of those who are offering services online, how are churches measuring the effect of online worship services? Nearly half of U.S. pastors (48%) are looking at the number of views and another 13 percent gauge engagement by the number of people who watch the full service. One in 10 (12%) is relying on feedback from congregants, while some are basing their metric on comment activity (9%). Some see simply offering an online service in general (8%) as success.
As most pastors are basing the success of engagement off of the number of views, Barna wanted to get clarity on this measurement, asking pastors if their church uses a multiplier—for instance, assuming a certain number of viewers in a household, not just an individual—to help gauge attendance during a worship service. A majority of pastors (66%) answers no, though 23 percent are measuring attendance in this way.
“I think one of the biggest paradigm shifts,” says Kenny Jahng, founder and CEO of Big Click Syndicate, “is that if you’re looking just at attendance numbers, IP addresses or Facebook watch numbers right now, you’re just trying to measure content to consumer. … In the Church, that’s not really our objective of discipling people.”
Jahng continues, “I think we need to shift and say, ‘Are we doing things successfully to convert [views] into actual connections or actual relationships?’ This then forces you to say that this is not a one-day thing that we’re looking at. It’s a seven-day dimensional thing that we need to look at. How are you moving the content consumption into something beyond that, such as contribution to community involvement?”
“I’ve always suggested that church leaders measure the wrong thing,” states Danielle Strickland, a justice advocate, communicator and peace leader. “We’ve always been so infatuated with size, but it’s never the measure of impact. What does it matter that you exist? What does it matter what you’re saying? What does it matter to my own life? Those are always the metrics.”
“Everyone’s excited about more people, not just for their kingdom but for the Kingdom,” Strickland proclaims, “There should be a way of measuring how many people were provoked to some sort of curiosity, awareness or decision to look [further] into Christianity. If it’s about proclamation, which is where I think you begin to count those numbers, then that’s great… but by all means, measure that somehow.”
Strickland concludes, “If it’s about discipleship and spiritual growth, which is what most online communities are going for—trying to connect to your people in a time of disconnection—then I would again say we should measure actual practice, actual engagement and actual connection.”
In an effort to help serve the Church during this time of unprecedented disruption and as a continued part of our research into the State of the Church 2020, Barna and Gloo have created the ChurchPulse Weekly Crisis Toolkit, a free resource that includes three ways to help pastors see clearly and lead effectively in this time of uncertainty. To learn more about the Crisis Toolkit, click here.
About the Research
Barna Group conducted this survey online among 1,079 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–April 20, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.
Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020