Recently, I presented a webinar on general trends in attendance and generosity across the United States and Canada for clergy and vestry / lay leadership. The webinar was part of the ongoing training related to the The Evergreen Project and our Fall Program – The Joy of Giving Up.

Rooted in a vision of flourishing from Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17, this was a key reminder that we aren’t merely engaging in fundraising. Generosity is a key part of Christian discipleship.

Similarly, giving and attendance are not ends in themselves. Indeed, we cannot imagine the early Christian leaders taking attendance; but we know that they strongly encouraged (even commanded) that people should not stop meeting together (Heb. 10:25).

Giving and attendance are very reliable indicators of health. That is why we want to see them increase as evidence of a deepening response to God’s great generosity towards us among His people and as the fruit of growing congregations.

Remember, The Evergreen Project is committed helping congregations deepen their roots through collecting, creating, and curating resources, so that we can cultivate strong congregations that can flourish in times of plenty and endure times of drought.

Trends in Giving

Most of the webinar focused on an overview of the state of giving in North America. Specifically, I sought to summarize key information for clergy and lay leaders drawn from extensive research done by The Giving Institute.

This is from a robust report with an almost overwhelming amount of data. My goal was to zero in on key things we should all be aware of from a big picture standpoint. Of course, we also realize that each congregation will take steps to investigate giving trends in their own churches and unique stage of congregational life and development.

Quite honestly, my other goal was is not so subtle. I wanted to speak to the vestries and leadership of our congregations and help them see the inevitable challenge that every church will be facing in the near future.

Giving and attendance are going to be major problems for the church in the next few decades. Unless the vestry and leadership become aware of these two issues and respond with faithful and biblical efforts, churches will be in inevitable decline.

Can we all agree with this basic premise: giving and attendance are not the first or second or even third reason for churches to exist? I am sure we can!

But let’s not let our thinking on this lull us into missing the massive shifts in the way people give and the way they do NOT attend.

Here is how one young pastor and founding Rector summarized the first part of the webinar.

We should not operate with a “scarcity” mentality.

Sometimes we worry that there is not enough money to do the work that God has given us to do. Sometimes we worry that people don’t have money and aren’t giving as they did in past days. While there is some anecdotal evidence for this, it isn’t born out in the research to the degree that many of us assume.

For example, there are plenty of resources. In 2018, almost $4.3 billion was given to various churches and charities. The highest sub-category of charitable giving was to religious causes. Furthermore, amount of disposable income given to charitable causes remains steady over many decades at ~ 2%.

There is a slight pull-back and hesitancy to giving to religious causes noted by the Giving Institute, but overall giving trends remain steady and even proved able to largely maintain during the Great Recession in the 2000’s.

We should not operate with a “big fish” mentality.

In many churches, there are a cluster of key benefactors. In church plants, there are often foundations that step in and provide support. Many of our church planters and clergy place their hopes on these deep pockets of generosity, but the data shows that this is not a realistic or sustainable plan for congregational stewardship and growth.

Sometimes the Lord raises up a key benefactor or organization with the specific gift of generosity, like we have seen in the ACNA with the Matthew 25 Initiative, but the report from the Giving Institute shows that we should view giving through a Kingdom lens.

Give thanks for generous people of immense resources but realize that the most common paradigm is “the Widow’s Mite” from Mark 12:41-44. In that brief passage, we see someone who gives joyfully, sacrificially, and fully. Her gift is not from their great surplus, but out of everything that she had.

According to the giving report, 8% of self-professed religious households making less than $20,000 per year tithe, while only 1% of households making more than $75,000 per year tithe.

As a young rector in a college town, there was a clear reminder to prayerfully disciple all of our congregation in generosity, rather than just praying for a few big donors to join our fellowship. We must steward what we have, rather than being paralyzed waiting for that “big fish.” Furthermore, we must have clear, varied pathways for people to exercise generosity – especially digitally.

I am glad that he watched the webinar and gave us his best thinking about the trends that I pointed out. The first fifteen minutes of the webinar summarize the trends that he lists. You can watch the webinar video here.

Trends in Attendance

After the deep dive on the report from the Giving Institute, I spent some time in the webinar looking at overall attendance trends. (By the way, for more information, check out some of the great information available from the Barna Group and Pew Research Center.)

While these are all overall trends, you can also get more customized, specific information about your own ministry context through services such as the Percept Group where you can get demographic and psychographic information by specific zip codes.

Honestly, the overall trends in attendance are less encouraging. While giving has remained relatively steady, there is a clear decline in attendance. Fewer people are attending church and those that are attend on a less frequent basis.

Many of our ACNA congregations are still in a “Bible Belt Bubble,” and may be surprised to see the hard evidence of what they are just now beginning to see around them. Other congregations in the ACNA are in more post-Christian contexts and may be surprised that the data isn’t even more discouraging.

However, this presents a leadership opportunity. Just like the “scarcity mentality” with generosity, leaders can either focus on the negative or the early positive signs.

For example, 65% of churches are in decline. That is the headline, but to me that also means that 35% are growing. These growing congregations are engaging these new times with creativity, positivity, and honesty.

I want to emphasize several things from this section of the webinar.

Reasons for the downward trend in attendance—especially among those under the age of 40—are worth taking note of for our churches. We need to be praying about these issues and meeting them with a combination of grace and truth.

For example, the prevalence of divorce and challenges of blended families plays into church attendance in significant ways. How does a youth minister engage students who are there sometimes and then spend weekends with their other parent in another congregation (or no congregation)? This impacts attendance but it surely needs a pastoral approach.

How do we relate to the rise of weekend sports, hobbies, and travel? Much of this comes down to our increased isolation, fractured communities, and desire for personal autonomy. Many want church on their own terms and approach it from a consumeristic posture. On top of that, there is no longer any social gravity or pressure suggesting that people should go to church.

These are massive cultural realities that are ever-present in our North American culture.

Each of these realities have huge implications, but there is one clear take-away for The Evergreen Project: it takes a long time to communicate within a congregation.

With smaller and smaller segments of people attending week by week AND with more and more distractions and noise in the culture, a parish leader has to make plans to move, direct, teach, or announce any program in the church. And, whatever communication is made in one channel, must be followed by many more times and forms of communication.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: In a sermon, be clear. In mass communication, be redundant.

Bottom line: It probably takes 8+ weeks to disperse any new idea or initiative throughout a congregation.

Demographic Differences

In the final segment of the webinar, I highlighted an area of complexity when analyzing local giving and attendance.

Do you realize there are 4 distinct adult demographics in most churches today?

And did you know that these four different demographic segments are in addition to those now being dubbed the iGens or Generation Z (born between 1995–2012)? And make way for yet another demographic cohort of people born after 2012. This makes communication and leadership all the more challenging.

Bottom Line: Prioritize Engagement

Bottom line is this: As I researched how attendance and giving are changing, I came to one clear conclusion. Church leaders should care more about ENGAGEMENT than ATTENDANCE.

  • Engagement is about inviting people to personally grasp the Gospel message and live out its implications in the life and practices of the congregation.
  • Attendance is just about coming to church.

The trends in attendance and giving are reshaping the North American Church. And, while trends one way or another should not change the Gospel that we preach, we must always be aware of our context and the condition of the hearts, heads, and ears of those in the congregation.

Every leader and every vestry member owes it to their church and its future viability to meet each of these trends with imagination, courage, and creative faithfulness.

PS: The webinar is part of the Fall Campaign called “The Joy of Giving Up.” You can sign up your congregation for the Joy of Giving Up Fall Campaign today. We will have more to say about this fascinating subject in the months to come. If you are interested in the “styles” of each of these demographic cohorts, read the last few chapters of my book, Giving Up.