By Kirk Petersen
It will come as no surprise to hear that church attendance, after years of steady decline, has cratered during the pandemic.
In its annual release of parochial report data, the Episcopal Church announced November 22 that 2021 average Sunday attendance (ASA) declined 35 percent from the already-depressed levels of 2020, reflecting widespread restrictions on church attendance that continued well into 2021.
In other, more encouraging metrics, reported membership had a much smaller decline of 3.3 percent – in line with recent years – while plate & pledge income actually increased by 3.3 percent.
There is no way to spin the attendance numbers as positive, but church leaders sought to put them in perspective.
In an exclusive online interview with TLC, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry acknowledged that even before the pandemic, church attendance in general has been declining for decades. “Obviously, there is decline. But I’ve got to tell you that as I travel around this church, I’m seeing indices of spiritual vitality. And not just because I’m going somewhere – the presiding bishop’s coming, everybody gets the troops out. No, no, no, I’m telling you, I’m seeing it on the ground. It’s there. It’s bubbling up, if you will, in all sorts of places.”
“As Scripture shows us, God is always doing a new thing,” said the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe by email. As executive officer of the General Convention, Barlowe has oversight of the church’s extensive statistics-gathering efforts. “The 2021 parochial report data is a modest insight into our cooperation with God’s mission during the time of great social change occasioned by the pandemic. We’ll be able to assess that more fully next year, after we review 2022.
The numbers are encrusted with metaphorical asterisks and caveats.
- The 35 percent figure overstates the decline in total worship participation, because online worship is not included.
- Conversely, one could argue that 35 percent understates the pandemic-related decline, as it comes on top of a reported 11.7 percent decline the prior year. ASA for 2021 was reported at 312,691 – down 43 percent over two years since 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, for which ASA was reported at 547,107. This followed years of annual percentage declines in the low single digits.
- While plate & pledge was up 3.3 percent in nominal dollars, the average inflation rate for 2021 was 4.7 percent, as reported in the church’s Fast Facts document – so the purchasing power of the donations declined slightly. Another way to look at it: Even though people were dealing with inflation and economic uncertainty in their own lives, they gave more dollars to the church.
The nearby chart shows how dramatically the attendance and income statistics have diverged. The pandemic decline in attendance is a sharp acceleration of a long-standing trend, while plate and pledge income has held remarkably steady.
Reported plate & pledge income dropped modestly in 2020 to $1.29 billion, from $1.35 billion in 2019, but recovered in 2021 to $1.34 billion, just shy of the 2019 level. Before 2019, plate & pledge had fluctuated for years in a very narrow range, from $1.30 billion in 2012 to $1.33 billion in 2018. None of these figures are adjusted for inflation.
In announcing the parochial report data, the Church Center noted that attendance has declined in many other denominations as well. The news release cited initial results from a five-year research project titled “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations” (EPIC), and quoted the project’s principle investigator, Scott Thumma, as saying the results of a summer 2021 survey “clearly show that the pandemic has had a profound impact across the religious spectrum.”
Another clear finding was truncated from Thumma’s quotation. On the EPIC project website, Thumma concludes his comment above by saying: “… and that some churches are faring better than others.”
Specifically, the EPIC survey states that while a majority of churches reported declining attendance, 28 percent of the 2,074 churches surveyed actually reported growth in “median attendance” between 2019 and the summer of 2021. The churches represent 38 Christian denominational groups.
Comparisons between the EPIC and Episcopal data need to be approached with extreme caution, because of fundamental differences in methodology. For example, EPIC reports a median decline of 12 percent between 2019 and 2021 for churches in its sample. At first glance, that makes the Episcopal two-year decline of 43 percent look horrific.
But these are not apples-to-apples numbers. The EPIC data measures both physical and online attendance, while the Episcopal data is based solely on physical attendance. The results obviously would be much closer if the Episcopal numbers included online attendance. It’s impossible to know exactly how much closer, but some clues can be extrapolated from the data.
The Episcopal Church continues to report ASA based solely on physical attendance because it’s an objective measure that has been tracked since early in the 19th century. Online attendance is in the Wild West of the statistical world. Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom all have ways of measuring viewers, but they all do it differently. (Barlowe explained other difficulties at greater length in the article on last year’s results.)
Barlowe told TLC by email that “we’ve tried to gauge average weekly online attendance (reported in the AWO column) for the first time – a figure that must be understood as containing a variety of interpretations, since there is as yet no standard measurement of online attendance or viewing.”
The “AWO column” is not mentioned in the news release, but can be found in one of the supporting documents, titled “Average Attendance by Province and Diocese 2019-2021.” The various congregations and dioceses reported online attendance however they saw fit. The committee that devised the parochial report “specifically declined to define a standard method for measuring online worship, because of vast differences among churches in terms of platforms, definitions, and units of measure,” TLC reported in January.
With that caveat, total churchwide “average weekly online” attendance was reported at 193,110. If one adds that number to the ASA of 312,691 – in an attempt to parallel the EPIC data – the two-year decline from 2019 changes from 43 percent to 7.5 percent.
As the EPIC report states about its own survey results: “These numbers reveal how turbulent and chaotic the last two years have been on US congregations. At the same time, when compared to pre-pandemic data, these numbers show how the pandemic has not created a new problem. Rather, it seems to be exacerbating and accelerating declining trends that congregations have been facing for years.”
EPIC did not break out attendance figures by denomination, focusing instead on the differences in “the delivery mode of worship services.” Churches that worshipped solely in person saw the steepest declines, while churches that worshipped solely online declined less. Churches that maintained a hybrid mode of worship reported increased total attendance.
In the interview, Curry expanded exuberantly about the spiritual vitality he sees in churches, spinning story after story from his extensive travels. For example, he described a small Northern church that discovered slaveholders among its parishioners from before the Civil War. The church reached out to the community through the Episcopal “Sacred Ground” dialogue series on racial healing.
“They got into relationship with people who were descendants of those former slaves,” he said. “And when I was there that Sunday, everybody was in church. Everybody was in church. And more than that, this little bitty congregation had at least 10 kids who were acolytes. Now that’s spiritual, something’s going on there. And it’s not just a public show.”
In conclusion, after half a decade of covering parochial report statistics for TLC, I’d like to step into the narrative here with a few observations of my own.
As Yogi Berra may once have said, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But the statistics for 2022 will almost certainly show a strong increase in attendance when those numbers are released late next year.
Although many jurisdictions continued restrictions on public gatherings well into 2021, the most severe lockdowns occurred in 2020. So why is it that ASA declined by “only” 11.7 percent in 2020, while it dropped 35 percent in 2021?
It’s because the data for 2020 was an artificial construct. In an effort to provide useful comparisons between ASA numbers, churches were instructed to report ASA for only the first 12 Sundays of 2020, before the world started shutting down. Thus, the 11.7 percent decline in 2020 had nothing to do with the pandemic. It reflected the fact that the period between Christmas and Lent is a time of low attendance — the 2020 numbers did not include the major holidays of the year.
In reality, there were far more people in church in 2021 than in 2020. So if the total attendance for 2020 had been divided by 52 Sundays instead of 12, the reported decline for 2020 would have been dramatically greater — and the 2021 attendance would have been reported as an increase, not a 35 percent drop. Most restrictions have been lifted as 2022 progressed, so ASA can be expected to increase. (However, a return to 2019 levels is highly unlikely.)
There’s a downside to the Episcopal Church’s two centuries of meticulousness and transparency in reporting statistics on attendance, membership, and donations. The data provides fodder for disaffected former Episcopalians who take delight in celebrating any misfortune that befalls the church. This sometimes takes the form of predicting that there will be no Episcopalians left by 2050, or whenever.
This is nonsense. The decline is real, and the church population is aging – but a visitor to any diocesan convention will encounter enthusiastic young priests who will still be preaching in 2050. The new president of the House of Deputies is a Latina in her early 40s. The church that produced 11 American presidents has too much institutional heft to disappear.
The Episcopal Church still dwarfs the size of the Anglican Church in North America and all the other churches that have left over doctrinal issues. The 2021 ASA of 312,691 represents 312,691 souls seeking God in an Episcopal church – and Jesus seems to think that each of them is important. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:19–20.)
To quote Curry again: “I was baptized in 1953. … I’m a bishop and now, well, there’s continuity, but boy are they two different churches. … I just think the Spirit is leading us and reinventing us and possibly rebirthing us into something new for God. And it will be something beautiful.”