For the past several years I’ve been invited to participate in a stewardship study conducted by Brian Kluth in partnership with Christianity Today that explores stewardship trends among American churches. This year’s survey was complied from the responses of nearly 1,100 churches from all 50 states. Of the respondents, 60% represent churches of 200 or less and 18% are between 200-500 in attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic tinted this year’s results in an interesting way. Here are some of the highlights from the executive summary.
- Giving has stabilized or increased for most churches. 22% have seen increases while another 42% have seen stability. Still, 36% of the churches have seen a decrease in giving since the shutdowns began. These numbers correlate with the fact that during the same time period 21% of American households experienced a decrease in personal income.
- Another corresponding reason is the decrease in the in person worship attendance for those who have opened for public worship. 58% of the churches who have re-opened have reported less than half the attenders they had prior to coronavirus. Online worship attendance is also beginning to trend down since the onset of the pandemic.
- Optimism about future budget requirements is marginal. 12% of churches expect salaries and benefits for staff will be decreased. 25% believe that major projects and purchases will be delayed. 19% believe that funding for programs will decrease, and 8% anticipate that support to missions and denominational entities will be reduced.
- Pastors are hopeful about the viability of their congregations. 63% believe their churches will stabilize and another 46% believe their churches will become stronger and grow. However, 16% of pastors anticipate their congregations will face and struggle with difficult decisions. And, 7% believe their churches will either merge with another congregation or close. This corresponds with the data from Barna Research in mid 2020 that projected one in five churches will close in the next 18 months due to the impact of the coronavirus.
So what does this mean for church stewardship in 2021? Here are some observations and predictions I have for the future.
- Churches will need to maintain and continue to develop their digital footprint. The coronavirus caught a lot of churches on their heels when the shutdowns began. They did not offer an online worship experience and neither were they equipped to do online giving. Many, if not most churches, successfully mitigated this vacancy in the past nine months to an impressive degree. However, it must continue to be in place and enhanced because whether we intended or not, technology has given people permission to decrease their in person worship if they come back at all. This may necessitate a revision of staff job descriptions and the reallocation of budgeted resources.
- Churches cannot expect to return to February, 2020. Coronavirus has signaled a significant shift in culture both at home and abroad. In my opinion the worst thing a church could do is expect a reset and carry on as if the virus was simply a blip on the radar. We need to eliminate the phrase, “get back to normal.” Churches that desire to be both efficient and effective in the future are going to have to re-engineer programs and outreach for maximum impact. In short, the church of the future cannot continue to maintain a campus centric ministry (“y’all come!”). The church of the future will need to creatively think of possibilities and opportunities “beyond the walls.”
- Finally, the path forward, especially for the smaller congregations of 200 or less, will be cooperative kingdom collaboration. Churches will need to be open to sharing resources, facilities, programs and even personnel in order to provide ministry for and with their congregations. Of course many congregations have done this previously, mostly around social needs in their respective communities such as food pantries and clothing ministries. Going forward, this may extend to many of the traditional ministries (in particular children and youth) that have previously been held close to the vest.
My prayer is for you in 2021. God is not finished with his church. If there was ever a time to pray and seek God’s will for the future, it is now.