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5 reasons digital church attendance numbers are getting confusing

Online church
A woman watches online church service on a digital tablet. |

I absolutely love the opportunities for streaming worship services and for people to be present digitally. It is both a ministry and mission opportunity. I hope all churches are moving toward making these services available. There are really no cost barriers.

The challenge we are seeing is the confusing nature of digital attendance. Perhaps it is because we are still relatively early in the introduction of digital worship in most churches. Perhaps we will see some common practices that will bring clarity to both the counting and purpose of digital attendance. For now, here are five reasons digital attendance is confusing:

1. There are myriads of ways to count digital attendance. One church counts anyone who happens to click on the service, even if it’s for a second or two. Another church counts those who stay at least five minutes. One church counts a visit or click as one person. Another church counts the same click as two people, assuming that is the average number of persons viewing from a particular screen. I bet most church members don’t know how the church counts digital attendance.

2. There is no consistency in how digital attendance is counted in total attendance in different churches. I am looking at the data from one church right now, where the digital attendance and in-person attendance are added together without visibility to the two distinctly different pieces of data. I looked at the data from another church yesterday that keeps the two metrics separate at all times.

3. Most churches can’t answer their “why” question of counting digital attendance. When I ask church leaders why they count digital attendance, I often don’t get a clear response. In contrast, counting in-person attendance helps the church know building usage data, whether to add or combine worship services, and basic issues like how many people will be served communion or the Lord’s Supper.

4. Most churches don’t have a plan for their digital services. Is it primarily for those who are physically unable to attend? Is it a mission opportunity that requires a plan to reach those digital attendees? Is it just like the in-person service in purpose and scope? Because most leaders don’t have a plan for digital services, the counting of the attendees has little purpose.

5. Some churches are counting digital attendance to compensate for the in-person losses during the pandemic. A few pastors have shared with me that they count digital attendance to keep their congregation from getting discouraged. Many of them lost 20% to 50% of in-person attendance. Counting digital attendees allows the congregants know they are still connecting with people outside the traditional approaches.

I get it. There has been a huge increase in the number of new digital worship services created as a response to the quarantine and pandemic. It might just take time before we see consistency and get clarity.

Let me know what you are doing about digital worship services and how you are counting attendees. I still have a lot to learn.


Originally published at Church Answers.

Thom S. Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers, an online community and resource for church leaders. Prior to founding Church Answers, Rainer served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Rainer has written over 30 books, including three that reached number one bestseller: I Am a Church Member, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, and Simple Church. His new book, The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation, is available now.

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