Lifeway Research reports that church attendance across Christian denominations in 2022 returned to 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels. But Anglican Watch’s review of data suggests that Average Sunday Attendance, or ASA, in the Episcopal Church remains much lower, probably about 70 percent churchwide versus pre-pandemic numbers.
Per reports from the Office of General Convention, ASA declined from 547,107 in 2019 to 483,098 in 2020, an 11.7% decrease. From 2020 to 2021, ASA further fell to 312,691, another 35.3% decline.
Understanding these numbers requires that we look at previous years for context. In a nutshell, the church has not grown since 2001. Since then, membership has declined every single year.
More telling is ASA, which held steady from 1991 through 2002. However, from 2002 to the present, ASA declined steadily, except for 2011, when there was a slight upward blip.
Even worse, the rate of decline has accelerated in recent years.
Specifically, in the early 2000s, annual declines in ASA averaged a little over 2 percent. But over the past ten years, the rate of decline has slowly increased and averaged 2.4 percent annually coming into the pandemic. Thus, the losses of the pandemic hit amidst a period of accelerating decline for the denomination.
Additionally, studies suggest that certain groups left organized religion and did not return. These groups include young adults, single persons, and liberals — all critical constituencies for the church.
Having examined these data, Anglican Watch concluded that ASA remains much lower than pre-pandemic numbers across the denomination. Indeed, we estimate the average decline in ASA is about 30 percent. But we wanted to confirm this conclusion.
So, Anglican Watch has spent several months watching streaming services across the denomination. We checked urban areas, rural areas, and suburbia in every province except nine, where there are not enough virtual services to draw any conclusions. Our total sample included 153 parishes.
In every instance, our count of attendees was far short of the numbers the churches reported pre-pandemic. No churches reflected an increase in attendance. A few had no attendees beyond the altar party; on average, attendance was down 35 percent.
Even in small churches, where ASA has been 20 or less for some time, counts were down by 3-4 people.
Is this a statistically reliable methodology? It is not. That is particularly the case when dealing with small parishes since many have no live-streamed services.
We also took into account comments submitted with the recent parochial reports. The single biggest concern was money, with many reporting that reduced revenue and deferred maintenance resulted in significant financial pressure. Thus, with many Episcopal parishes already struggling before the pandemic, it appears that the pandemic accelerated existing trends.
And while many parishes reported that they are seeking ways to reconnect with members, we see little evidence that churches have abandoned their approach of “build it, and they will come.” Indeed, we found no instances of churches calling inactive members unless it was in the context of pledging. Thus, while churches appear serious about wanting to recover, we see few signs that they understand how to do so.
Our best estimate is that church-wide ASA remains below pre-pandemic numbers, most likely at around 350,000. And giving has taken a hit as well; we forecast that giving has not kept up with inflation, but lack sufficient data to draw conclusions beyond that.
So when do we know for sure? Unfortunately, the answer won’t be available until this fall when the national church releases numbers for 2022. But things are not looking good.