Throughout the pandemic, I have held the belief that Covid has not so much created new trends as it has accelerated what was already taking place.  Like with all changes, there is both opportunity and risk.  The following is a list of seven trends I am watching closely in 2022.

1. Worship attendance will not recover to pre-pandemic levels for most churches, but those who execute compelling ministry plans should experience solid growth.

In a recent Horizons study of changes in worship attendance and giving, 65% of churches reported that worship attendance declined during the first nine months of 2021 from the already pandemic-impacted 2020 levels.

The news is not all bad. Seventeen percent reported growth in worship participation and about that same number saw worship participation holding steady. My expectation is that churches that can execute a compelling ministry plan in 2022 can reasonably expect to see year-over-year worship growth in 2022. 

2. Engagement, not worship attendance, is now the best measurement of vitality. 

The most common question I am asked is: What do we need to do to increase ministry funding?  The simplest answer is to live into your church’s mission, which is usually some form of making disciples of Jesus Christ and changing the world.  Here is an example of the connection. A large-church and Horizons client used a data scientist to measure the relationship between giving and engagement in their discipleship pathway. This is what they discovered:

  • Households that attend worship at least once, but less than twice per month give about 1% of their income.  
  • Households that attend worship more than twice per month give about 2% of their income. 
  • Households that also actively participate in a life-giving, discipleship group (Sunday School, small group, etc.) and/or a hands-on ministry give between 3-4% of their income.

Most churches commit the majority of their ministry budget to worship, while frequently underfunding the other steps along their discipleship pathway (spiritual growth, serving, and being financially generous). They do so under the assumption that worship attendance is the key driver to vitality and growth.  Yet, widely available evidence suggests that the real vitality engine in a church is effectively growing disciples and cultivating hands-on engagement in life-changing ministry. When you do those two steps well, you will make cultivating a culture of joyful generosity much easier.

3. Multi-access to worship (on-campus, online, and on-demand) is here to stay and there will be a lot of church shuffling as a result.

Having been exposed to online and on-demand worship during the pandemic, a significant number of worshipers either prefer online/on-demand worship or find it a great way to worship when they cannot be on-campus. My prediction is that worshipers who prefer to worship primarily online or on-demand will increasingly migrate to churches that have tailored the online experience to the online audience. It only takes a few keystrokes to visit another church.

Think back to when contemporary worship was first making a splash.  Most churches fell into one of three groups: 

  • The first group resisted contemporary worship.  With a few notable exceptions, this group has struggled to attract younger generations and found itself in a slow decline over the last 20-25 years.
  • The second group, at some point, determined they needed contemporary worship but failed to make the necessary investment to provide the quality experience their mission field was seeking. For this group, their hopes for the investment in contemporary worship have never fully materialized. 
  • The third group made the investment to create a high-quality contemporary worship experience and has successfully attracted younger generations.

I am already seeing these same three groups form around multi-access worship.  Those who reject the idea of online worship as nothing more than a poor substitute for on-campus worship, so if they provide it at all, view it primarily as an option for those who are sick or out of town.  The second group will be more optimistic about multi-access worship, but their online experience will largely continue to be a “peer-in experience” where little is done to engage online viewers directly.  I fear this group’s anemic investment will return the same results as those who launched contemporary worship but failed to create the quality experience desired by those who preferred this form of worship.  Like in most areas of ministry, modest resource investments yield modest results.

The third group is already embracing multi-access and are fully resourcing a tailored online worship.

What is the difference between peer-in and a targeted online worship investment?  Here is an easy to create example.

  • As online worshipers sign on, they are welcomed by a volunteer host or online campus pastor who curates and encourages the use of the chatbox that runs live through the service.
  • Worship begins with a pre-recorded welcome and announcements specifically speaking to online worshipers, during which they are encouraged to sign in using a QR code or a sign-in link. 
  • Online services are generally best when they are limited to 35-45 minutes, so this service begins 10 minutes later than the on-campus service. After the pre-recorded welcome and announcements, online worshipers join on-campus worshipers for a single song before the sermon begins. 
  • After the sermon prayer, online worshipers view a pre-recorded online-specific offering talk emphasizing electronic giving options and a call to action to sign up for an upcoming service opportunity, an online small group bible study, and a Zoom coffee with the pastor. Again, QR codes or other online links can shorten the time needed to make an online gift or respond to other calls for action.

While the online worship experience can be enhanced with improved lighting, sound, and cameras, what is most important is that online worshipers feel seen, valued, and connected.  To create that experience requires some intentionality, but not a lot of money.

It is also helpful to remember that in today’s world, visitors are far more likely to worship with you several times online before ever considering an on-campus visit. 

4. Community impact will continue to be increasingly important. 

Don’t miss this opportunity! I have now been helping churches grow disciples and fund ministry for over 20 years.  At no time have I seen a greater interest among Christians to impact the community within a 1 to 5-mile radius of their church.  Pastors are regularly telling me the more they invest in and tell the stories of impacting neighbors and local schools, the more volunteers and financial resources become available. Serving your neighbors is especially effective in engaging Gen-Z, Millennials, and Gen-X generations.

The savviest churches will continue the trend of partnering with like-minded churches and community organizations to multiply their impact while keeping their long-term investment low.  Doing so reduces ministry start-up time and expense and provides future flexibility because there is less, or possibly zero, long-term overhead commitment (staff, buildings, etc.).

5. Less will continue to give more, but you can do something about it in your church.

As wealth continues to concentrate the hands of smaller segments of the population (there has been a 17% shift in wealth from the bottom 90% to the upper 10% since 1987), giving in the church continues to mirror this secular trend. The number of households that give anything to any charitable organization fell 17% from 2017-2020 for households making under $40,000, 12% for households making $40,000 to $99,000, but only 5% from households making more.  Most churches can easily track this change in their own giving patterns by employing basic donor analysis.  What they probably cannot see without using an outside source, is their most capable donors are increasing their giving to other nonprofits while slowing giving to the church.

In the last 40 years, total giving to religion has declined from 60% to 29%. This dramatic decline, combined with the concentration of wealth into fewer hands, makes it that much more vital for churches to create a culture of joyful generosity as part of discipleship.

While the church giving trends are disturbing, it simply does not have the be the case for your church.  27% of churches reported growing giving in 2021.  Americans are still giving the same amount of their income as they have since the second world war.  The problem is that the percentage going to the church has fallen sharply, in part because we have not learned to effectively tell our stories of ministry impact.  Like a tailored online worship experience, growing generosity takes intentionality, but not a lot of money.

6. Debt is going to get more expensive, and the wise will take action.  

The cost of servicing debt in 2022 will get more expensive and will force churches with debt to choose one of three options:

The Federal Reserve Bank has indicated to expect several interest rate increases in 2022 and 2023.  As a result, church debt service will increase as loans reprice. This is especially problematic for the 44% of churches who saw giving go down in 2021 as they face the double squeeze of falling giving and a rising cost of debt service.  Fortunately, throughout the pandemic, Horizons’ experience is donors currently have a strong appetite for debt elimination and campaigns for this purpose have generally gone exceedingly well.  It may seem counterintuitive, but this season offers a ripe opportunity to eliminate debt.

7. God continues to be faithful through the church.

To be sure, there are many challenges facing churches in 2022. Too many churches will let fear and paralysis eclipse God’s call to impact their mission fields. You do not have to be one of them. The 27% of churches who saw 2021 giving grow and the 17% whose worship increased, experienced these blessings primarily because they embraced courageous and faithful actions over the last 18 months. This season is not the time to adopt a posture of waiting for the storm to blow over or to shrink ministry investments out of fear. It is a time to lean boldly into God’s call, to embrace new forms of ministry, to engage your community, and to experiment with new ways to grow disciples and love your neighbors.  

Help Yourself: Horizons’ is a free resource library full of resources to help you grow a culture of generosity.