How Do You Measure Online Worship ‘Attendance’?

This Is Not the Year
To Procrastinate
On the Parochial Report

Virtual attendance is only one of the new wrinkles in the annual parochial report, which is due March 1.

This year’s form also asks for racial and ethnic membership data, and calls for narrative responses that may be substantive enough to discuss at a February vestry meeting.

A video and detailed instructions are available at the General Convention website.

By Kirk Petersen

Perhaps the emergence of online worship is God’s way of telling us that we care too much about attendance figures.

Excessive focus on average Sunday attendance is a problem that long predates the pandemic. But at least ASA was a simple, objective measuring stick. Not anymore.

It’s still easy to count the people in the pews, of course. An usher walks quietly up the side aisle with one of those little clickers. But how do you account for the multitudes of people who worship via Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, Vimeo, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Instagram Live, Twitch, TikTok, or PajamaChurch?

OK, I made that last one up. Think of it as a placeholder for the dozen or more other legitimate options mentioned in the instructions to the parochial report — the annual effort to measure the size and financial strength of the Episcopal family.

The church releases statistics annually, late in the following year. For 2022, the church reported a decline in ASA of a staggering 35 percent — a number heavily burdened with caveats, and based solely on in-person worship. It sure would be comforting to offset some of that decline by including online worship.

As every parish priest knows, the deadline for submitting parochial report data is March 1. With that in mind, I set out to determine the emerging consensus on the best way to measure the number of people worshiping online.

The simple answer: There’s nothing even approaching a consensus. There probably never will be.

“You need to talk about online worship and engagement in context, and by platform, because the experience of engaging and how they count is so distinct,” said the Rev. Dr. Molly James, deputy executive officer of the General Convention, who oversees parochial reports. “Zoom, YouTube, Facebook all measure differently.”

Show of hands, parish priests: Who thinks the parochial report questionnaire should be longer and more detailed? This year, the parochial report asks three questions about online worship: Do you measure online participation? If so, how? And what’s your weekly average?

This is part of a long-term journey toward developing best practices. It will not soon yield statistics that are comparable across churches or dioceses.

Platform-specific differences are only the start of the obstacles to measuring online worship participation.

Let’s say two parents and three kids gather in front of the computer screen with printouts of the bulletin. They sing the hymns, listen to the readings and the sermon, recite the creed, bow their heads in prayer. Thus, five people have had a meaningful experience of family worship — but they’re going to show up as one livestream feed in the statistics.

Let’s say I play solitaire during the hymns and bail out after the sermon and announcements. (Hypothetically.) Should my participation count as much as that family of five? No — but it probably will.

How about the people who are at work Sunday morning, but watch the whole service later: should they be counted? Sure — but they won’t be.

“All of us could tell different stories about how to measure,” said the Rev. Paul Canaday, rector of Christ Church in New Bern, North Carolina. He chairs the Task Force on the State of Membership in the Episcopal Church, authorized at the 2022 General Convention by Resolution A156.

Online participation is one of the topics the task force will consider, but it faces calendar challenges because of the delayed General Convention. Canaday was named chair of the task force in January 2023. It has not yet met as of this writing, and its Blue Book report to the 2024 General Convention is due December 1.

There’s also a longer-term, well-funded, ecumenical effort in progress, under the name Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC). It’s a five-year project funded by the Lilly Foundation, and led by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. EPIC’s interest is far broader than attendance statistics, but that’s one of the things it examines.

“Churches reported a median attendance for in-person worship at 45 with a median attendance for online worship at 20 for a total median attendance of 65,” according to the group’s first report. The finding was based on a survey of more than 2,000 congregations in 38 Christian denominations.

It all sounds simple and authoritative — but how many different methods did those congregations use to count online attendance? Oh, and the survey was conducted in the summer of 2021, at a very different stage of the pandemic, so the numbers do not necessarily resemble current reality, if they ever did.

The lesson here is that you should be highly skeptical of any data about online worship. And that may never change — the difficulties are inherent in the nature of online participation. It cannot ever become as straightforward as counting people in the pews.

Maybe that’s OK. Maybe the focus should remain on in-person attendance. While priests will welcome you online, they would much rather have you sitting in a pew. “You can’t do Communion on Zoom,” James noted.

You also can’t share the peace, or have fellowship before or after the service. The music is more inspiring coming out of the organ than out of your laptop or smartphone. If you’re surrounded by worshipers, it’s much harder to play solitaire without getting caught.

Still, although in-person, corporate worship should be the standard, online worship is much better than nothing. “I think there can be tremendous spiritual value in it, especially if it’s a way to stay connected to a faith community that you couldn’t otherwise be connected with,” James said.


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