By Kirk Petersen
Commentary

ASA is never going to be the same.

Average Sunday attendance has long been the gold standard among data geeks for measuring the size of a church. Everybody’s ASA cratered in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, so to try to maintain a semblance of apples-to-apples in the data, churches were asked to report average attendance for just the first two months of the year when they filed their annual parochial reports.

The General Convention Office, which administers the data counting, released the 2020 data on October 6. ASA dropped from 547,107 for 2019 to 483,108 for the first two months of 2020 — a decline of 11.7 percent, compared to a 2.5 percent drop the prior year.

Yikes! Everybody knows church attendance has been steadily declining for decades — but a double-digit drop in a single year? Well, not really.

Michael Barlowe

“There’s certainly a seasonal variation in attendance, and frankly, post-Christmas until Lent is the lowest period, aside from summer,” explained the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, executive officer of the General Convention. And of course the biggest holidays of the church year, Easter and Christmas, are excluded for 2020. The data on baptized membership tells a much different story — a decline of 3.4 percent reported for 2020, versus 2.1 percent the prior year.

In other words, ASA just stopped being the gold standard. Data geeks are going to miss it.

Barlowe told TLC that he expects the church will continue to track ASA as a measure of physical attendance, using the traditional low-tech method of ushers counting people in the pews. But online worship is going to continue even after the pandemic is over. The parochial report asked numerous new questions for 2020, and 75 percent of churches report they expect to continue offering online worship, while only 7 percent said they have no such plan.

Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom all keep track of viewers, but they all do it differently. “Platforms don’t lend themselves to a uniform way of reporting attendance. Is it eyeballs on the screen, is it only within 24 hours, or one week, all those kinds of things,” Barlowe said. Another factor is length of online engagement. If someone bails after the sermon, should that person be counted as having “attended”? The answer doesn’t really matter, because there’s no practical way to know how many people watched how much of the service.

The church is actively working to decide how to measure attendance (and viewership) going forward, but “it’s a work in progress for everyone,” Barlowe said.

Many of the new questions asked for 2020 were qualitative, rather than based on numbers. But Barlowe said methods are evolving in ways that can provide some numerical measure of narrative-based data, based on things like the number of times certain words are used, or whether things are stated in an optimistic or pessimistic way.

The reports generated more than 4,000 pages of written responses, and for help in analyzing the information, the church turned to the University of Pennsylvania, where a Ph.D. candidate in the sociology department has been doing relevant research. Elena van Stee issued a lengthy report describing the methods she and a team of research assistants used to analyze the data for trends. “Barriers to engagement were not experienced equally across The Episcopal Church. Rather, fault lines of inequality were exacerbated and exposed,” she wrote. “The responses suggest that congregations in poor and rural areas; those with limited clergy, staff, and volunteers; and those with aging congregations were especially challenged by the circumstances of the pandemic. Some of the most vulnerable congregations ceased operations altogether.”

Some other findings from the data:

  • Before the pandemic, only 7 percent of congregations offered some form of online worship. During the pandemic, that jumped to 87 percent.
  • The majority of congregations, 64 percent, said they did not make any changes in their use of endowment or reserve funds during the pandemic. Nineteen percent increased their use of such funds, while 17 percent decreased.
  • Forty-one percent of congregations applied for and received funds from the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP).

Barlowe said he was heartened by the feedback about ministry priorities. “The macro-emphases of General Convention – racial reconciliation, the care of creation, evangelism – those things are really reflected at the grassroots level through the parochial report,” he said.