Long ago, I stopped my wait-and-seeing for who else was going to come back to church after the pandemic. Adjusting my expectations has helped me to view anyone who shows up at worship as a pleasant surprise. That happened last Sunday: someone who had been attending FHC online because of COVID really felt the longing to come back to in-person.
At the same time, we’re looking at a largely downward trend in church attendance as 2024 begins. This decline in membership and attendance has been going on for decades, and the pandemic accelerated it. The reason is that the U.S. is becoming a post-Christian culture. In the 1990s, only 8 percent of the population identified as atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated; now, 29 percent identify that way.
In a parallel statistic, in the ‘90s, 90 percent of Americans identified as Christian; in 2023, it was 63 percent. Looking at the aging of particular demographic groups in the church and the general population, we can see several notable statistics:
The average senior pastor’s age is 60 – and 30 percent of church members are now over 65, both of these reflecting the aging in the general culture. Add to this the fact that congregations tend to age out with their leaders, and you can see that the church at large is facing a huge leadership succession crisis. This is because younger leaders aren’t entering ministry at the rate they used to—and because senior pastoral leaders are holding onto their positions longer, keeping younger leaders in secondary positions.
Baby Boomers are dropping out and Millennials are moving into significant roles in the church. Post-COVID, people now in their 60s and 70s didn’t return to church as strongly as people expected, from 31 percent attending regularly before 2020 to now 22 percent who kept attending after the pandemic. Mobility and health issues are more significant for Boomers with aging, and many Boomers feel more and more like they’ve “done their time.” But surprisingly, Millennial church attendance is rising—30 percent among white Millennials, and 40 percent among non-white Millennials—now forming the largest demographic of weekly and monthly church attendees, forming the heart of most church attendance, serving, and even giving. A hopeful sign!
27 percent of churchgoers now rely on online church: 10 percent watch solely online and another 16 percent switch between online and in-person services. Furthermore, 30 percent of Christians report using internet searches for information about their spirituality and 21 percent to access and reflect on the Bible.
The notion of a “stable” church is disappearing. Only 12 percent of churches are neither declining nor growing, with one-third of churches reporting growth and 54 percent in decline. In other words, churches with momentum are gaining in momentum, and churches without momentum are losing people quickly. Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof believes the church is going through a period of consolidation: after the pandemic broke longstanding patterns of church attendance, people reconnected with churches in 2022, but often with a new church that was a better fit for them.
Church attendance is half what it was in 2000, even though online attendance boosts overall attendance figures. In 2020, median attendance was 65, in 2023 it was 60, but online attendance increased overall median attendance to 75.
What’s all this mean? For one, a growing number of churches will struggle and disappear who resist change or continue trying to serve a culture that no longer exists. This trend will combine with aging clergy and congregations and a lack of younger leaders to further reduce the number of churches.
Churches that endure through this period of sifting and decline will gain momentum, and be larger, younger, and with better resources. And with the idea of “stable” congregations (no growth, no decline) disappearing, Nieuwhof says, revitalization will become more important than ever. And I would add to that the importance of a compelling vision and mission for ministry specific to our context. What are you seeing?