Online And In-Person Church: How Should We Track Attendance Now? (A Suggestion)

We've always kept church attendance like a golf score, with one number. Online viewing changes that. I suggest tracking church attendance like tennis scores. Without the competitive comparisons, of course.

It used to be easy to take attendance.

Count how many people show up on Sunday morning, then use the weekly average for your annual report.


But now, because of adaptations for the COVID lockdowns, most churches offer a live stream option.

That changes things.

Who Do We Count?

Now that we’re live streaming our services there might be more people watching online than in the room.

So how do we take attendance for that?

  • Add the online watchers to the total?
  • If so, do we just add those watching live?
  • Or should we add the total numbers of viewers during the broadcast?
  • Or the highest number watching at any one time?
  • Or wait a while and add the people who watch it later?
  • If so, how much later?

Here’s a suggestion I’d love to see churches and denominations consider:

Keep Three Numbers Separately

People don’t watch online the same way they engage in person, so adding online viewers to the in-person total doesn’t feel . . . honest.

Yet they do count, so they should be counted.

But how?

We’re familiar with keeping attendance like a golf score, with one number (78). But tennis shows multiple numbers for games, sets and matches (5/7, 6/4, 6/3, 6/7).

In this hybrid online/in-person church world, I propose we track church attendance the way we keep tennis scores, with multiple numbers instead of just one. Without the competitive comparisons, of course.

Here’s a possible way to do that.

First Number: In-Person Attendance

How many people were actually in the building for weekend services? This is our most important number and should always be considered differently than other figures.

It can be broken out by services times and venues, but it needs to be kept separate from online viewers.

Second Number: “Live” Online Watchers

These are the people watching your live stream or premiere as it happens.

This might even be kept as two subsets of numbers. One for the highest number watching at one time. Another for the total number of viewers who came and went during the service.

Third Number: Later Viewers

In some cases, more people will watch a service after it’s premiered than while it’s happening.

But, since an online video can be watched by someone at any time, even years after it happens, how long should this total include? I suggest a seven-day total. Until the next weekly service time.

How To “Weigh” Them?

One question that might come up in this type of attendance breakdown is “what weight should we give online viewers? Half the weight of an in-person attender? Or, since a single “viewer” could be a group of people watching the same screen, should we give it more weight?

We’ll never know how many people are watching each screen or how engaged or distracted they are, so we can’t give online viewers a comparative weight to in-person attendees.

That’s why we need to get used to several sets of numbers.

Learning As We Go

So why am I bothering to write about this?

As the “small church guy” I know attendance numbers are not the best way to gauge the health of a church. In fact, I regularly push back against our tendency to elevate attendance as though it’s the only thing that matters (see here and here for starters).

So I don’t want to inflate the importance of attendance figures. But accurate records do matter, and attendance figures are an aspect of that, so a standard for measurement can be helpful.

Online church is a great alternative for those who can’t attend in person, or who are curious about the church.

In the coming years we’ll do this better. But for now, this is my hopeful contribution.

(Photo by Careine06 | Flickr)

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