By Kirk Petersen
Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) has long been the gold standard of measuring the size of a congregation. We all pray there will come a time when ASA numbers seem more important again. In the meantime, attendance started cratering on March 15, and God only knows how long that will continue.
Many churches are holding virtual services online, and that practice will grow quickly. Platforms such as Facebook Live, YouTube, Zoom and others all offer different ways to measure viewership. There have been lively discussions on Facebook groups and elsewhere about how churches should keep track of attendance and participation during the pandemic.
The Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, Executive Officer of the General Convention, oversees parochial report policy (among many other duties). On March 18 he published a one-page set of guidelines for data-keeping.
“Our message is, ‘Do not worry about this,'” Barlowe wrote. “Most congregations and dioceses will record the number and kind of worship (Morning Prayer, streamed Eucharist, etc.); and list the virtual attendance separately as “virtual attendance” or a similar designation, using whatever counting their digital media allows. That’s all that needs to be done right now.”
It would be easy to poke fun at the idea that ASA matters at all in the face of the pandemic. But the Episcopal Church has always devoted an enormous amount of resources — both by TEC and in every church — to keeping track of attendance at worship services.
Individual priests “religiously” record the attendance at every type of worship service that takes place, usually writing numbers by hand in huge, handsomely bound service registers. Thomas Cromwell introduced the practice in the Church of England in 1538. Many Episcopal churches cherish and protect registers that are a century old or more.
Each year, every Episcopal church is required to file a parochial report for the previous year including attendance, membership, plate & pledge income, outreach ministries, and many other items. The General Convention Office aggregates the data and publishes a variety of statistics, usually around the beginning of September.
Secular news stories will almost always talk about a church’s size in terms of number of members. But “membership” is counted in a wide variety of ways from church to church, and people who leave one church for another will continue to be counted as members of the former parish until the priest decides that they’ve really left.
Priests, data geeks and the Episcopal media almost always focus on ASA, which is an objective measure. Ads and parish profiles seeking a new priest usually cite ASA, and some vendors of digital religious products have sliding scales based on ASA.
The Living Church recently published an article about the 10 fastest-growing Episcopal churches, based on ASA over a five-year period. The article, which had been researched on and off for months, was posted on March 11 — the same day that TLC reported that the bishops of Washington and Virginia were suspending all in-person services.
The article promised brief stories over the coming weeks on each of the 10 churches. One of the goals of the series was to give other churches ideas on how they might increase their own attendance. The project is being reassessed, as some additional conversations with rectors may be appropriate.