What We Can Learn from 2021

As we continue to work through COVID and culture changes, the church is forced to re-examine what it is doing and why. In today’s blog I’m sharing Karl Vaters list of trends he observed in smaller churches.  As I read them over, I think they apply to larger churches as well.


These trends can either discourage us or motivate us to learn and grow. Here are some trends and lessons that Karl noticed from working with churches and pastors. Some are positive, some are negative. Let’s look at the bad news first.

  • Continued Decline In In-Person Attendance

    By the time the dust eventually settles on this era, 2020-2021 will probably have the biggest drop-off of in-person church attendance ever – at least for the U.S. and probably for many other countries as well.
  • Drop-Off In Virtual Attendance

    In 2020, almost every church went online – including many churches that had previously believed that online church “isn’t real church.” For a while, the move to online actually looked very positive. Many congregations reported much higher numbers of online attenders than they had ever seen in their pews – often doubling or tripling their in-person numbers.

    But the excitement for online worship didn’t last. 2021 showed us that the spike in online church numbers were just that – a temporary spike. In most churches, not only did the online numbers go static after in-person church resumed, they dropped off substantially.
  • Too Much Looking Backwards

    Bad news alert! I hate to be the one to break this to you, but someone has to do it.

    Nothing is ever going to be like it used to be. Longing for the “good old days” of 2019-ish (our window for nostalgia has gotten small, hasn’t it?) is wasted emotion. And wanting to go back to the way things were before the pandemic is a hugely-wasted opportunity.

    There’s a reason our cars’ rear-view mirror is eight inches wide, while the windshield is six feet wide – because that’s about the difference of time we should spend glancing back, compared to looking ahead.

    Many pastors are spending too much time and energy trying to get back to the way things used to be. Even in normal times, this is a bad strategy with zero possibility of success. Today, it’s likely to be fatal.

    The church has never survived, let alone thrived, by looking backwards. Not now, not ever.
  • Too Much Looking Inwards

    You know those people who stopped attending church in mid-2020 who you haven’t seen since? They’re not coming back.

    This is a point I’ve struggled to write because I want to say it clearly, but with love and hope. Except for those who are significantly immuno-compromised or who have other physical/medical restrictions, if church members haven’t chosen to come back yet, they’ve made a permanent decision to stay away. They may not even know it yet themselves, but that’s the reality.

    We should never give up on anyone – Jesus certainly hasn’t. But, while we should keep praying and being available for them, it’s not wise to spend too much of our finite time and energy trying to rebuild what we used to have. We’re more likely to get a positive response by reaching people who’ve never been to church (focusing outward) than trying to reignite people who stopped attending (focusing inward).

    Newton’s first law of motion tells us that an object in motion will stay in motion, and an object at rest will stay at rest, until they are acted upon by an outside force.

    For a lot of people, church attendance was a habitual motion that was stopped by the outside force of the pandemic lockdowns. Now they are objects at rest, and they’re not going to get back into church-going motion until they’re acted on by an even stronger force.

    What does this have to with looking inwards? Similar to looking backwards, it puts the focus in the wrong place.

    When we look inwards (to our current and previous members who may never come back) instead of outward (to people who’ve never attended the church, but who are looking for answers to the trauma we’re all facing) we put ourselves on a path to greater irrelevance and a lack of Great Commission awareness.
  • Living And Dealing With Collective Trauma
    This pandemic is unique. For the first time since World War 2, the entire planet is going through a trauma together. This is a significant moment that will affect how we live, think, work, worship and relate to each other for generations to come.

    Thankfully, God designed us to deal with traumatic events in healthy, life-giving ways. For some help on dealing with it, some of the work I’ve done to help deal with trauma is linked below.
  • Finances Stayed Stronger Than Expected

    This was a surprise. Even as fewer people were in attendance, most of the churches I’ve talked to have told me that their giving is remaining steady, and even rising.

    But don’t get too comfortable with this. I advise putting this money aside in a contingency fund. Giving is likely to drop as short-term non-attenders start becoming permanent non-attenders.
  • More Online Options

    From live-streaming our services, to text-to-give, to YouTube Bible studies and more, if 2020 was the watershed moment when we put more church events online, 2021 was the year that many churches got a lot better at creative online ministry.
  • Volunteerism Bumped Up

    This is a mixed bag. While some churches had a drop in volunteers, a surprisingly high number of pastors have told me that their volunteers stepped it up more than usual in 2021.
  • Greater Missional Clarity

    Most churches were forced to take a hard look at who they really are and what they are really called to do this year. This brought greater clarity and focus than many churches had experienced in decades. In 2022, we need to put the mission into action more than ever before.

Posted by Karl Vaters https://karlvaters.com/small-church-trends-2021/


What other trends did you notice among churches in 2021? Let us know in the comments.

More teaching from Karl:

Can This Work In A Small Church? Podcast Episodes

Other Resources

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s